09 January 2002

"To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be."
   - Miguel De Unamuno

This is the start of a new year. We face a fresh beginning, with the whole of the calendar unblemished ahead of us. We aspire to health, happiness, prosperity, and some of us, a little more. Many of us begin a new year with lists of things we want to accomplish. We select things we want to learn, acquire, or do by the time the final bell rings out in the coming December 31st. The lists are lengthy, and speak of our desires. I want to learn Latin. I want to earn straight A's. I want to publish my novel. I want to go to Paris. I want to bungee-jump off the Space Needle. I want, I want.

Occasionally, endings creep into the resolution lists, too. When people resolve, "This year I will lose 20 pounds," or "This year I will pay all my bills on time," or even, "I resolve to be nicer to my wife/husband/sister/brother/son/whatever," what they are doing is preparing themselves for the shutting down of bad old habits, in the hope good new habits will take root. These are the resolutions I'm always interested in, because these are the ones that show me struggles, weaknesses, and humanity. My father used to marvel that otherwise sane, intelligent men and women would write out definitions of what they didn't want in their lives, and then spend time dancing around self-imposed borders and boundaries, rather than simply stating a positive, affirming direction for themselves and heading for it.

My father died at the age of seventy of COPD, which is "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," a kind of nasty grab-bag designation for ailments of the lungs. In my father's case, the death certificate identified COPD, with complications from emphysema as the contributing cause. However, no matter what the physician inscribed on the certificate, the real contributing cause was smoking. The poisons he inhaled from the cigarettes killed him, and a slow, painful, lingering death it was.

I remember an anti-smoking campaign put out by the American Lung Association. In it, readers were informed that every cigarette effectively reduced a smoker's life span by seven minutes. Seven unrecoverable minutes. That statistic was meaningful to me, even though I was only ten years old. In seven minutes, I could take a hot shower. I could eat an ice cream cone, or a chocolate bar. I could run around the block. I could swim ten laps in the pool. I could read five pages of a good book. Every cigarette meant one less shower, candy, playtime, or book. It was too great a trade-off.

I never took up tobacco, even casually, although my father and mother were both smokers. I used to nag them, in fact, reminding them periodically that they were going to "die young" if they didn't listen to me and stop. Later, when scientific studies began appearing that showed the awful effects of smoking on the organs and body functions, I stopped nagging. I reasoned that my parents were smart enough to take control and do the right thing without interference from me. I was wrong.

My mother smoked a pack of cigarettes daily, until at the age of sixty-two, she suffered a mild heart attack while out shoveling the driveway. The heart attack was a surprise to everyone, because there was no history of heart disease in our family. She put out the cigarette she was smoking when the ambulance arrived to transport her to the hospital. It was the last she ever had. While in the hospital, she decided her desire to live was stronger than her desire to smoke, and that was that. She came home, and threw out her cigarette case, lighter, and ashtray, and she hasn't touched tobacco since.
My father smoked until the hour before his death. The COPD gained control of his life three years before he died, reducing his range. He couldn't walk half a city block. He couldn't climb more than three steps without resting a minute. He couldn't talk for more than ten minutes, without dissolving into a hacking, wracking cough. He was often tired, because he had to sleep semi-reclined, so his lungs would stay clear. He continued smoking, over his doctors' and his wife's objections. He told them time and again, "I don't want to stop."

By the time he was in the final stages of the disease, he'd been taken delusional and cyanotic to the hospital more than once, because his lungs couldn't take in enough oxygen to support his brain. He couldn't get in and out of his bed without assistance. He couldn't take care of keeping himself clean. He was literally a thin shadow of the man he'd once been.

He was also too weak to light or inhale the cigarettes he insisted on smoking. My mother had the terrible task of turning off the oxygen inhaler, airing the room so there wouldn't be an explosion, and then actually lighting the cigarette for him. She told me his hands trembled, and he barely had the strength to do more than place the cigarette at his lips. She argued with him, but to no avail. He wanted to smoke, and if she wouldn't help him, then he'd find someone who would.

My mother crushed out the final cigarette before turning off the light beside my father's bed. She was exasperated after a particularly bad day, and as she adjusted his oxygen, asked him, "Are these cigarettes really worth all this?" She says he shrugged, then whispered, "Maybe not." She kissed his forehead, and left the room. He died quietly before the next dawn.

He left us wondering what it was about those cigarettes that made him love them more than he loved life, or us. I wish he'd followed his own good advice, and defined what he wanted for himself in positive terms -- maybe then he'd have stopped.

For those who read this and have "I'll stop smoking" on your New Year's resolution list, I have a suggestion. Erase the resolution, and write, "I want healthy lungs."

Excuse me. I'm off to lay some flowers on Dad's grave.


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