Dear Lily June,
Someday, you’re going to learn in school about just how bad smoking is for you. Why would anyone do such a thing, you will wonder, as you learn about various kinds of cancers and mounting physiological problems that cost the average female smoker 25,000 extra dollars of healthcare in her lifetime. And that’s not including the cost of the cigarettes, either!
For the time when you come to wonder how your mom could engage in such a stupid, horrific, absolutely verboten-for-you (do as I say, not as I do, Lily) hobby, I owe you something of an explanation. As painful as it is to admit, there are times in a person’s life which can stack like dominoes that, when tipped, send you spiraling in cause-and-effect directions leading you to be and do you barely know what or who.
1. …when you learn as a child that family is a word to be feared, too. Your mother’s broken jawbone swings on its hinge, hidden by the door to her bedroom. Your father’s apologies hover in the air like warm breath hitting cold wind.
2. …when your fear of the family translates into fear of everybody, and you step down from the childhood stage you loved singing on to whisper to the ugly awkward shadow puppets of puberty and put on plays where your dolls are the only audience and seem, even still, in their patience with you to be the better actors.
3. …when you hit high school and the ones who seem least afraid, most sure of themselves, are the ones who’ve taken the helm of their own destruction. All the girls are Eros pairing off with Thanatos, Love french-kissing Death behind bleachers like he’s got something to teach her and her and her and her.
4. …when you go off to college and you can’t afford to live there so you go home each night to the high school sweetheart who, like Peter Pan, never wants to grow up and marry you. He isn’t one for promises.You read books like each page is a conversation with a friend and you are hungry to hear how they’ve been and how they’ve been.
5. …when you do so well, you’re your department’s graduation speaker though nobody else seems to even know they went to school with you. You stand and tell a story about how you had to deliver a speech in kindergarten and botched it. They love it. They love laughing at and with you.
6. …when you do so well, you’re given a stipend to grad school to write for four years in a part of the South that you wouldn’t have to go to if you’d gotten into Iowa, but there’s Heaven and then there’s Iowa, and you’re not sure you could ever crack the threshold of either.
7. …when “Going down South,” your teacher tells you, “means you’ll have to love potato salad and tobacco.” And you can’t stand potato salad.
8. …when a friend you made in elementary school before you were so afraid of people comes to see you and she has given the reins over to Nicotine whose breath smells horrible and whose fingers are never clean but who, for relatively cheap down there, is always around when you come-a-courtin’ (as long as you always have at least five dollars in your pocket). She leaves an ash tray with you, and it haunts you with its uselessness in your apartment.
9. …when you are too afraid to ask your peers for rides and so you fearlessly brave 95 degree heat in September to make the mile walk to campus, your fingers hovering near your mouth with nothing to do and looking lonely and looking purposeless.
10. …when you stop at a gas station one day on the walk home and think, My mother smoked. My father, too. I never understood. What’s all the fuss? But then the other side of your brain shrieks excitedly, Just one won’t kill you!
11. …when things start falling apart between you and the sweetheart you left hundreds of miles up north, and the walk home becomes more bitter, and instead of one on the way home, you light two. And then instead of two, it’s three. And then instead of three, it’s twenty.
12. …and people start talking to you because they have something to ask for and ask they do and you share because they say they’ve quit (which means, in Tuscaloosa, they’ve just quit buying; they’ve not quit smoking) and you’re surrounded by, pardon the Fight Club reference, “single-serving friends.” And it feels good to talk to someone other than your shrinking reflection huddled frightened in the corner of a mirror.
13. …when you meet your future husband who tells you despite the fact that he’s been a smoker for years, there’s nothing wrong with his lungs; the cancer the doctors says he has is in his skin. The irony is killing him. You both sit on a porch and quietly smoke like mourning chimneys.
14. …and when it turns out your future husband is fine and he whisks you to New Orleans for a vacation and you dwell in a hotel that looks like a mansion sunk into beautiful decay and the two of you place bets with your mouth on how to say Tchoupitoulas, but because it does not take up enough space on your tongue, there’s room for the cigarettes he keeps lit and keeps handing you, as if it is a bouquet of smoky stars.
15. …when he’s ready to quit and you aren’t and when you’re ready to quit and he isn’t and when he’s ready to quit and you aren’t and when you’re ready to quit and he isn’t and when you break out into fights the parts of which, these evenings, won’t be played by you and he but by Mr. and Mrs. Addiction.
16. …and then, when you get pregnant and it seems so easy to put them down and the two of you can breathe for as long as a Lily sprouts inside of you, and you do not smoke and you do not smoke and you do not smoke and you barely even think about it.
17. …and when your Lily is outside of your body blooming her own beauty without the aid of your body’s chemistry and your body begins to fail you from the C-section and you get an infection and you get postpartum depression and you have to abandon breastfeeding for all the medications the doctors are making you take and you feel like you’re suckling at the teat of pain everyday and its milk is pouring into you with such force, you’re already sputtering. It’s already choking you.
18. …and if you can’t breathe anyway from all the anxiety and the good hormones have abandoned you and your daughter’s okay where you can see her from the balcony that without the nicotine you feel like jumping off and besides, the balcony glass keeps the smoke away from her and she can’t imitate this part of you yet, then why not, your brain prattles on and on, Why. Not. Just one won’t kill you.
19. …when Just One becomes five and five becomes eight and eight becomes twelve and then you’re back to twenty, where your husband is back, too, and you feel so guilty because this time, you are the one who brought the bones home and this time, you tried to lie for a minute like you didn’t even have them and this time, when you admitted you did, he wanted them, too.
20. …and when the guilt and shame of what you’re doing to your family–though no one can afford it financially or physically or spiritually–nor can they afford to fix it for you, and you try to convince yourself the when of #1 isn’t then, it’s now, and family is a thing to be feared again, only the one they should fear most is you, that’s when it really gets to you.
My dearest Lily June, those twenty cigarettes add up faster than it takes to read the reasons why I’ve smoked them, and I promise you, kiddo, this Sunday I’ve set my quit date, and I will give them up.
I will give them up for you, and for me and for your daddy because I love us three and I don’t want you to ever try that one, just one, that sets the dominoes going on the Goldberg machine that might kill you. Picture Credits:
- “Van Gogh – Skull with a burning cigarette” by Vincent van Gogh – Scanned from Smoke: a global history of smoking (2004) ISBN 1-86189-200-4. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Skull_with_a_burning_cigarette.jpg#/media/File:Van_Gogh_-_Skull_with_a_burning_cigarette.jpg
- “My Lady Nicotine”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:My_Lady_Nicotine.jpg#/media/File:My_Lady_Nicotine.jpg
- “Cigarette” by Geierunited at the German language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cigarette.jpg#/media/File:Cigarette.jpg
- “Domino effect” by Louise – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Domino_effect.jpg#/media/File:Domino_effect.jpg