As my dad died, I had violent fantasies about severely beating the next person I saw with a cigarette hanging out of his or her mouth. I told my husband I was going to kick them in the throat. He thought that was an uncharacteristically mean thing for me to contemplate. I couldn’t help it, though. My dream of pummeling smoking strangers was most likely a way I dealt with my anger toward my father and his precious cigarettes, which were responsible for his Stage IV lung cancer.
I couldn’t kick my dad so hard in the rear that you could see my Essie Trophy Wife toes in his mouth. It agonized me to see him suffer. It was agonizing for him, too. After I calmed down, my violent wishes turned to simply wanting to show and tell. I’d trot a smoker into my parents’ family room where a hospital bed was set up. I’d show them my sedated, moaning dad who could no longer walk, used big blue diapers, and couldn’t speak clearly. His skin was yellow and grey and bones threatened to pop out of this thin, cold casing. We had to administer his medications through droppers, like one does with infants. When he lost the ability to eat and drink (and then the desire to eat and drink) my mom dipped a green sponge swab into cool water and swirled it around his swollen tongue.
This is your future, I’d whisper. Surely, that would be enough to make the happy smoker stomp the pack of Pall Malls into powder.
The doctor who released him from the hospital into hospice at home told us if he wanted to smoke, let him. It wasn’t going to hurt him any more. We all nodded, eager to allow anything that might make his last days as close to the previous 10,000 days.
When he first arrived home, he didn’t mention smoking. Other family members would bring it up, asking if he’d like to smoke. This annoyed me. It was supposed to be his idea and his initiative. I found their prompting to smoke odd and even offensive, but understood they weren’t trying to hurt him. They wanted him to be happy. I also suspect they needed to see him smoke. It meant things were normal. If he could sit on his patio and puff away, life would look like it was supposed to look.
Most of the time, he was content if a pack of cigarettes and lighter rested in his shirt pocket. That’s where he always kept them. He probably felt the corners of the box against his chest and felt strange if there wasn’t something there. Several hours into being home, he decided to smoke. The biggest hurdle was convincing him to go outside. He had to be helped. Someone held his gait belt as he shuffled outside. Another person had to ready a chair and guide him as he sat.
His hands trembled as he took the box out of his pocket. He retrieved the lighter. He put the lighter in his mouth and tried to strike a cigarette.
Someone gently switched them. Then, he dropped the lighter. In a surprise move, he used an invisible lighter to light the cigarette, then went through all the motions of smoking. He removed the cigarette to exhale invisible smoke. He continued pretending to smoke until he was satisfied.
Later, he sat on the couch and began to fiddle with the box in his pocket, ignoring the questions from family members about going outside. Rather, he took each cigarette out one by one and dropped them down the front of his shirt. My sister collected them back into the box and put them away on top of the refrigerator.
He enjoyed playing with his cigarettes, often breaking them into pieces. He tried putting them back into the box, but his motor skills were quickly disappearing along with his mind.
Occasionally, my dad would indicate he wanted to go outside. Each time, it took more people to accomplish this and it was hoped he wouldn’t change his mind three minutes later. Once settled, he fumbled to grab a filterless nub of a cigarette. The most alarming smoking attempt was when he managed to light a short nub dangerously close to his face. Everyone agreed it was a bad mix, so it was taken from him.
Other times, he had three cigarettes and he went through the motions of smoking all at once.
Then, he had no cigarette or lighter at all, but he kept smoking, kept exhaling, kept watching nothing rise up and away. Muscle memory, people would say while nodding gravely.
Sometimes, it was funny. An outsider might think that was a rotten thing to think or say, but it was. He put all kinds of things in his mouth. He tried striking a spoon into a flame. Multiple unlit cigarettes bobbed in his mouth, some backward. We stared at him, stared at each other, shrugged. He’s happy, we’d say.
One of those times became the last time he tried to smoke. It wasn’t obvious it was the last, or maybe I would have noted it more. He rapidly lost every ability to physically or verbally indicate a desire to light a paper stick stuffed with dried tobacco on fire, place it in his mouth, and suck the resulting smoke deep into his lungs. What a ludicrous thing to do in the first place, but that’s humanity for you.
I used to smoke. I get addiction. I quit long before I witnessed my dad’s last breath and entrance into eternity. There are no cigarettes in blessed eternity because there is no addiction or desire to escape. There is no drive to relax. There is no muscle memory propelling a frail body to mimic motion seemingly sewn into a person’s being. Everything a person desires to experience through addiction—joy, rest, contentment, peace, and freedom from pain—are inherently present in Love, perfected.
My dad has been delivered in every way, freed in every way. People will stubbornly drag their addictions, shame, sins, habits to the edge of the finish line; where flakes of chalk bleed onto life’s road imperceptibly, as invisible as a man’s last cigarette, as invisible as his last breath.
Why not lay it down now?