The number on the bedside clock read 3:48 a.m. and I had spent an exhausting day driving from North Carolina to central Pennsylvania, but I just couldn't sleep. My mother's words kept running through my mind.
First, on the phone: "They're taking her off the respirator today. It won't be long after that."
"It's horrible. They're watching the monitors, waiting to see if she's letting go."
My nieces' mother died of lung cancer last weekend. She was 43. Her girls stayed with her as life drained away. Whispered in her ear. Stroked her hair. Polished her nails. The images in my mind are excruciating but I can't banish them. Just two years ago she'd gone to Colorado to visit her sister and felt a tugging in her chest. "Just the high altitude," everyone said. But the shortness of breath persisted after she returned home. A few weeks later the diagnosis was in: cancer. Stage IV.
Chemotherapy weakened her and she and the girls moved in with her mother. Her hair fell out. She couldn't eat. And yet she didn't stop smoking. And neither did her mother.
My thoughts turn to my father. I remember him blowing foul-smelling smoke rings when I was a girl. Waving my hand in front of my face in displeasure was replaced by disgust when I was a teenager ("I hate it when my hair smells like smoke!") and then, as I entered college, concern. "Dad, those things'll kill you."
"I love smoking. I'm not going to quit."
And he didn't. Until he couldn't breathe anymore. He's on oxygen 24 hours a day now. He can't walk a city block without stopping to rest. A cold knocks him out for two weeks. If he catches pneumonia he'll probably never recover. My mother looks over worriedly as he tries to catch his breath.
Even though he hasn't had a cigarette in years, those things are going to kill him.
We've had to explain to each of his nine grandchildren why he has a tube in his nose all the time. Why he sleeps so much. Why he often doesn't come out with us. Grandpa wants to play. But he can't.
As I sat watching my nieces' tears fall into their mother's casket I thought again of those smoke rings floating by and dissolving into the air around me. What had I pulled into my young lungs? The image before me transformed into my own children standing over me. Could those things steal another life, years later?
I've never smoked so I don't understand how hard it is to quit. But it can't be any harder than saying "no" to your granddaughter's invitation to take a walk around the block. Being bested by one flight of stairs. Wasting away as your children look on. You can't take care of anyone else if you don't take care of yourself. I am angry that smoking has stolen so much from my life and the lives of those I care about.
Lisa Hoffmann is a copywriter by trade and mom and foodie by heart. She blogs about marketing, PR and social media at http://newmedialisa.com. She occasionally goes off topic.
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