Today is the 30th anniversary of my quitting smoking. It kind of crept up on me. And I had quit what some might view as the hard way–cold turkey. I was visiting family for the holidays and decided that it was now or never. I was going to see if I could do it for my 1986 New Year’s resolution. So on December 29th, 1985 I threw away my cigarettes. And I have never looked back.
They say people quit when they are ready to. And I was. I had moved to a Northern climate– and whether it was elevation or the coldness of the air, I had realized that I wasn’t breathing all that well. And this was 29.5 years before I was diagnosed with asthma. So I already had a good reason to quit–I wanted to breathe.
But I really should have quit smoking 6 years earlier, not long after I had started–when my mother was diagnosed lung cancer after smoking for 35 years. For her generation growing up during the depression and WWII, smoking was glamorous–and the deleterious health effects where not widely known then.
I remember being in my early high school years and seeing a tv documentary at home by myself one Saturday, about how smoking caused lung cancer and killed people. I was frightened for my mother. I didn’t want her to get sick and die. So I went to the lower kitchen cabinet where she stored her cigarettes by the box, and I moved them to a different spot–so she couldn’t find them.
I fessed up when Mom got home and she couldn’t find her cigarettes. I pleaded with her to stop smoking. I was very worried for her. But she calmed me down. And she assured me that getting lung cancer wouldn’t happen to her. I believed her because I wanted to believe her. I needed to believe her. But she was wrong.
And at the age I am now–56–my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had a lung removed and she eventually recovered well enough to live a normal life for a time–even to drive again and carpool us to school. But five months after her lung surgery, she drove the car into the center post of the garage because her brain wasn’t working right. They diagnosed her with a brain tumor. That was removed, too. But she never fully recovered after that and remained mostly bedridden–in and out of the hospital for the next year.
I will never know which came first–her lung cancer, or her brain cancer. My logical side says that after the lung cancer operation the doctors should have been looking for metastases–and/or given my Mom radiation or chemo then. But the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s were still in the early years of medical treatments for cancer. They put her on radiation after the brain tumor was removed–too little, too late.
My mother died 2 years after being initially diagnosed. She had been in the hospital for two months then. Yet somehow we still had hope that she would recover. You see, my parents never told us what her doctors where saying about her prognosis. And when you have a sick family member, their health needs and lack of a normal life become your new normal. You hold on to every precious scrap of time that you have with them.
And I treasure my memories with my mother. Because even when she was sick, she was still my mother. I still went to her for guidance, even though our roles had become reversed and I then physically took care of her. Yet she could still care for me and love me as a mother does. I remember her calling the rent a car place a friend owned to get me a cheap loaner car so I could finish my last week of student teaching that I had to commute to 30 miles out of town that Spring. I remember Mom sitting propped up in bed at home putting the telephone back in its cradle with a smile of accomplishment on her face for helping me.
But she went downhill quickly over the Summer and she had to go back into the hospital–where she died two months later, two days after her birthday. The cancer had beaten her–it had beaten us as a family. My mother was a gift to us and to everyone she met. And we had lost her too soon. I miss her every day.
Of course, being the eldest, I had to be the strong one in our family. But at one month shy of my 21st birthday, that was tough for me. And I broke down in tears often. And my body physically reacted to the stress I was under by giving me a large painful cyst that surfaced the week after my Mother died. I was worried it was cancer, a tumor. Thank god, it wasn’t. But the pain was excruciating–on top of my already broken heart.
Yet, I soldiered on. I had to. People depended on me. Thankfully, I had a great support system of friends and mentors–who I depended on. And somehow I got through it. We got through it. Bereft, scarred, and feeling orphaned without my Mother who was my guidepost through life, I somehow carried on.
I focused on my Mother’s example of being a good and loving person. And I remembered the lessons that she taught me of respecting others, being kind, giving back to your community, and being stoic through personal disappointments–and so many more lessons. I honor my Mother every day of my life–and I wish that I had had her with me longer. I wish that she was with me now.
And stupidly, it took me four more years after my mother died for me to quit smoking myself–until December 29th, 1985. That was 30 years ago. Though I didn’t smoke as long as my mother did, my now reaching the age that she was when she was diagnosed with cancer is scary. I don’t feel old yet. I feel young–and that I have so much yet to do with my life. I can’t imagine what I would feel like if I only had two more years to live–as was my mother’s situation. It is inconceivable.
Yet, I have two friends facing cancer diagnoses right now. And my thoughts and prayers and love and hugs are with them daily as they begin their treatments. Thank god for them that medicine and cancer treatments have advanced in 34 years. And I fervently pray that they live long and happy lives. I don’t know what kind of cancer they have, but I dedicate this essay post to my friends.
And with regard to smoking? I made the decision 30 years ago, to choose life. And I’m going to live it fully–and for a very long time. I’m ornery as heck sometimes. And on this point–living longer–I’m not budging. I’ll be going for the bionic knees and dual direction swivel hips with Intel octa core chips at age 90. Hey, if I’m going to live that long, I’ve gotta dance. Right?
So if you’re a smoker, especially, if you’re a young smoker—and I am referring to your using anything that is a tobacco product–do yourself and your loved ones a favor. Quit smoking now! Make that resolution to quit for 2016. Start by quitting today, as I did 30 years ago–and just keep going.
Be alive for your children and your grandchildren and your nieces and your nephews and your friends and your loved ones– whom you don’t yet have. They will need you. The world will need you. You will need you. Choose life.
For more about quitting smoking, you can get some help by visiting the American Cancer Society website:
P.S. And about that dance of living life fully? Here are some words of wisdom that my Mother might have also shared:
“I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack