Smoking: The hook, the habit, the hope

What was all the fuss about? Smoking was definitely the thing to do if you grew up in the ’50s. My parents smoked. The movie stars wielded their cigarettes like weapons, providing an effect that was as glamorous as it was powerful.

I was 9 when my father gave me the responsibility of buying his cigarettes. After carefully explaining how to retrieve them from the machine, he entrusted me with a quarter, saying I could keep the change! They were 22 cents a pack and held three pennies inside the cellophane — my reward for a job well done.

I didn’t know then that my father’s smoking was a habit that would escalate to three packs a day. I didn’t know then that at 16 he would tell me smoking was bad and beg me not to start. I didn’t know then that my heart would sink because it was already too late.

It was inevitable by junior high that I would be sneaking cigarettes and perfecting the art of smoking. It was also inevitable that I would find out what the fuss was all about.

The habit took hold and went unnoticed by me. The year was 1969 and I was again bringing my mother to Albany Medical Center. Once inside, our eyes adjusted to the surreal glare of the blue-white lighting as they scanned the rows of cobalt radiation equipment that we hoped would cure her cancer.

I carefully maneuvered my pregnant body into a chair and relaxed with a cigarette. As I inhaled, I surveyed the row of men seated across from me, their bodies stripped to the waist, their chests resembling a road map targeting the route the technician would take.

My mother was called for her treatment, and I silently said a prayer as I lit another cigarette.

I looked up, startled, as I gazed into the vacant eyes of the man seated across from me. He was struggling as he pointed to the marked areas of his chest and, in a raspy whisper, quietly pleaded with me to not smoke. His gaunt face displayed great effort as he told what smoking had done to him. His name was called and I sadly watched him shuffle away. I silently knew I would not forget this encounter, and as I lit another cigarette, I found myself saying another prayer.

I wish I could say that watching my mother die was the catalyst that caused me to quit smoking. I wish I could say that I quit for my children. I wish I could say it was for my health, or at the very least, to save money.

It was none of those reasons. I quit smoking because I was ashamed!

It was April 15, 1971. I belonged to a women’s club, and that night, we were seeing a spring fashion show. As I excitedly joined the others at the large table, I lit a cigarette, unaware of the persistent cough that usually accompanied my chronic bronchitis. The lights dimmed and the fashion parade began. As I relaxed with a cigarette, I exchanged eye contact with some women nearby — and suddenly began to feel ill at ease. I continued to see glances my way. With pursed lips and furrowed brows, the looks increased, occurring with each cough, and amplified as the glow of my match signaled yet another cigarette.

Was I imagining this? My heart pounded and I took a closer look. At a table of 14, I was the only smoker. I inhaled and coughed and realized that my coarse, hollow cough was annoying those around me. I sat shrouded in a blanket of shame that assaulted both my ego and my self-worth. I knew I would never be the same again — and I never was.

I am ashamed to admit these events that finally caused me to quit, but it’s a shame I can live with.


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