To my friend S. This one is for you.
Back in 1999, I was working a booth at a kitchen and bath show in South Jersey. Uncomfortable concrete floors with no chairs to rest my weary feet, I stand exhausted, greeting and shaking hands of visitors. I am so hungry I resort to hiding food behind a box of brochures, grabbing bites between onlookers. For two hours I struggle to hear my prospective clients as the “loud speaker” relentlessly calls out winning names for door prizes. By eight o’clock, my only salvation (a cup of coffee) gets toppled by a contractor trying to reach for brochures. Believe it or not, I am enjoying the fervor for my product, and it would have been a successful night except for one very disturbing aspect; I am gasping for air and struggling to breathe because I am surrounded by smokers!
At this point, New Jersey had not incorporated "No-Public-Smoking" laws into their Governor’s new campaign. Frustrated, I tried to maintain my composure and prevent my left hand from grabbing the lit sticks out of the mouths of my prospective customers. At every opportunity I want to tell them that they smell bad, they look ridiculous and they are polluting my air! I also want to ask them, ‘why are you poisoning yourself?’
I become especially annoyed at those more “considerate smokers” who ask first, do you mind if I smoke?” I go eye to eye with a deep look of consternation, as if there is a decision to be made here. “Hmmm, do I maintain the fragrance of scented shampoo, $50- perfume and deodorant, or do I go for the more pronounced aroma of a wet ashtray? Tough decision! I think I’ll go for choice number one.”
So by now you have probably sensed my incense on this subject. Please know that my exasperation is not out of anger for smokers, or for that matter, the tobacco companies. It is, however, targeted at me. I pose this question in my mind every time I witness another beautiful human being lifting the poison stick to their mouth, “With all the gifts that I possess, all the eloquence of speech, education and mastery of words I have gleaned throughout my life, why can’t I adequately express why YOU should not be killing yourself with this horrific habit!” It is my love for people and my desire to see everyone live the best possible life intended for them that I become so despondent and a bit unruly. And let me tell you, my occasional bravado aimed at smokers does not come without the knowledge of extreme hardship and mental anguish.
In 1991, I had the tortuous experience of watching my father die at the age of 52. Exposed at a young age to second-hand smoke and starting himself at the age of 12, he also pulled asbestos out of buildings as a young carpenter. This triple jeopardy signed his death warrant years ago, but not with any warning. He was healthy until two months before diagnosis, never having a sick day in or out of a hospital. A virile and robust man, he had everything to live for; money, stature, a beautiful wife of 30 years and a loving family of three daughters and four grandchildren. My daughter was just two weeks old when I sat in a sterile room, in the same hospital, on the same floor that we all had just experienced the tremendous joy of birth. No amount of adjectives could describe the emotions felt when the oncologist’s said the words, "Lung Cancer." They hit our family like a wrecking ball smashing into the side of a building.
His illness would devastate our family as we witnessed this once gregarious and vital man become a mere shell of a human, unable to care for himself in any manner, and suffering indescribable physical and mental pain. Imagine knowing that you are dying and leaving your wife, daughters and grandchildren behind. Imagine being so weakened and ill that you have to allow your eldest daughter to help you urinate into a plastic bottle. My graphic description may make some winch, but the actuality of events is far worse than my recounting. I watched my father die. I was the one who drove, shock-entranced, from his death bed to my grandparent’s house to tell them that their only son had just passed on. I was the one who arranged for his funeral, helping my mother pick out his casket and headstone. I was also the one who wrote, and with tear-stained eyes, read his eulogy to 100 crying mourners.
On his deathbed I made a sincere promise to my Dad. I swore to him that I would speak of his death to all smokers that I met, no matter how uncomfortable it made them or I feel. I vowed to him that his departure from this world would not be without repercussion, but as of yet, I have inadequately presented my case. I have not found the precise combination of wisdom, emotion and empathy to profoundly affect the multitudes of people that I witness endangering their lives and the mental and physical welfare of their families. I pray with each smoke-ridden breath I endure, that at some juncture, I will be inspired by a divine voice and able to utter the appropriate words that will prevent another life from being taken by this horrendous habit. In the meantime, when you are a witness, or an unfortunate participant in my occasional tirade, remember that I have paid my dues and that I am trying to prevent your loving family from having to pay theirs.