I was eight years old the first time I dragged on a cigarette. Two houses down from my family lived the Cooper kids—six of them living in one of the tiniest houses on the block. Their mother was a constant, working presence, the dad an intermittent frightening shadow. The three oldest boys were long-haired and wore ragged t-shirts and wildly flared jeans. The family had less money than mine, and mine didn’t have much, but the look of those older boys came more from the posters of rock bands plastering their bedroom walls than the money they didn’t have.
One afternoon we gathered in the Coopers’ tiny living room. The second oldest, who couldn’t have been much more than sixteen, offered me a puff on his cigarette. Dr. Hook was loud on the portable turntable, and their mother was definitely not home. I knew about smoking from watching my dad, but wetly sucking on the filter until I gagged and spluttered, I obviously still didn’t know what to do. My eyes were streaming, but I could see my taunter laughing as I handed back the butt. Afterward, I knew I had done something that I shouldn’t—something reserved for adults—and my well-developed sense of eight-year-old guilt ate at my conscience.
In the 70s, everyone seemed to smoke. Not only was it cool, it was a rite of passage into a wider world. But those days are long over.
Fact the first: Smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease.
Fact the second: It’s less socially acceptable, banned from many public places, and constitutes a shocking form of littering.
Fact the third: It’s both addictive and expensive.
Fact the fourth: Smoking is one of the worst things you can do to yourself, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to let go.
I’m a moderate smoker. I smoke first thing in the morning, but not before my second cup of coffee. My first cup of coffee, stolen from the still dripping pot, has been the start to my day for thirty years. If I think about it, I can divide my smoking story into two parts: when I smoked as a teenager, until I quit with the onset of anxiety attacks at the age of twenty; and when my life fell apart as my twenties were running out, at which point I began hand-rolling my cigarettes. Smoking, for me, is as much a habit as it is a history. It’s a connection to my past, a tie to both my boyhood and my dad, which makes it hard for me to let go in the present.
Some of my most vivid memories of my father are wreathed in smoke. He would sit in his armchair after dinner with his pipe, the newspaper open in his lap and a cup of coffee on his end-table. He smoked both a pipe and cigarettes in those days. He bought cans of tobacco, but if he ran short, he would sometimes send me to the corner store with a two dollar bill to buy a pouch of Sail tobacco. Those errands to the store always made me feel important. The thought of my eight-year-old-self looking up at the salesclerk and asking for tobacco seems incongruous now, but at the time I was only conscious of my mission and the longing for the penny candy the change from that two dollar bill would get me.
After supper, I would watch him fill his pipe and tamp down the tobacco with his thumb. He would puff his pipe into life, and I would stand behind his chair and breathe in the rich smell of the smoke as it rose in clouds above his chair. He also rolled cigarettes in those days. He would sit at the end of the living room table on a Saturday afternoon, the television tuned to the football game or The Wide World of Sports, and he would make cigarettes on his rolling machine. It was an odd-looking contraption. He packed the tobacco into the long sleeve of the machine, creating a cigarette nearly a foot long. Setting it into the wooden cutting tray that ran along the edge of the machine, he took a razor, trimmed the ends of the long cigarette, and cut it into smokable sections. He then filled the small, plastic pouch that he always carried in his shirt pocket with the neatly cut cigarettes.
My dad wasn’t the only smoker in my life. At holiday dinners, people always smoked. At my aunt’s, relatives would gather in the living-room or the basement, waiting for the dinner to begin. At the bigger parties, the men would set up a poker table in the basement. The table would be covered in poker chips, drinks, and ashtrays. My dad, who was lousy at poker, would always sit and drink and smoke with the rest. He could never handle his hard liquor, and once I watched him leave the game early to go and pass out in one of the basement bedrooms. Strange and upsetting to me were the ways of adults.
After dinner, everyone would gather upstairs, playing other card or dice games. The ashtrays would always be in abundance, and the smoke hung and curled over the table while everyone talked and laughed, until my aunt brought out a lunch at eleven o’clock.
The summer of 1974, I lost my sight in a car accident. I was in the hospital until nearly Christmas, and nothing was the same again upon my coming home. I had to remake my life as a blind kid, and my family had to adjust.
Somewhere in there, my dad began to smoke his pipe less and less, and he took to buying tailor-mades. As I got into my teens, I tried smoking. I had made a friend in the class I attended for visually impaired kids the year after I lost my sight. In grade eight, we smoked menthols, but slowly graduated to DuMoria Lights or Number 7 Lights. The summer we started high school, he insisted we switch to Export A. My dad smoked Peter Jacksons. I would sometimes steal cigarettes from his pack, but I had to be careful because he counted. I’m sure he always knew when I stole a smoke, but it was easy for me to believe in my own cleverness.
I was twenty when I quit smoking the first time. Anxiety and shortness of breath caused me to see a doctor and take time off work. I learned years later that I was suffering panic disorder, but nobody had a name for it at the time. I’m sure I was healthier for the ten years I didn’t smoke. I got married, had two kids, tried to run every day. Then I hit my late twenties. My wife and I separated, and meningitis put me in the hospital. That was followed by neurosurgery to repair a crack in my skull—a leftover from the accident when I was a kid. Then I quit drinking, and I started smoking again—tailor-mades at first, but soon I was hand-rolling my cigarettes.
In the years since then, smoking has become habitual, but it’s also become a way for me to stay attached to my dad. A promise to my kids meant I never smoked indoors, so my dad and I would stand in his backyard or on my deck, talking about kids and family. As often as not he would just complain about politics or the state of his house.
I quit drinking for a second time in 2007, two years after my dad’s death from an aortic aneurysm. The pacing, the panic, the inability to sleep in those first days of not drinking were offset by sitting at my desk, rolling another cigarette, and standing on the back steps to smoke, to listen to the rain, and to think about my dad while my brain and body wanted to implode from withdrawal and guilt. He hadn’t been able to drink either, and I remembered all the things he said or did when drinking as I relived my own version of stupid. It was August—cold and rainy—and I smoked one cigarette after another as I paced up and down the sidewalk in the backyard. I talked to my dad in my head, as he seemed the only person I hadn’t upset or alienated:
Why did you stop caring at the end?
Why were you a better grandfather than you ever were a father?
Why did you make it so fucking hard sometimes?
And on, and on.
My dad said goodbye to me in a dream. He was getting on a train. He loved trains. He wasn’t sad to leave, and I saw him in that dream as I had seen him when he was younger—his face more open, more hopeful, and his eyes alive with the anticipation of things to come. I had to see him on his way, and I didn’t understand why he had to go.
I woke from that dream with a cry. It was after midnight, and I had fallen asleep on the couch. My kids were at their mom’s that weekend. My guilt, my anxiety, and my careful management of each day of not drinking had kept this grief from me for over two years, and now it found me. I curled around it in the wrenching newness of discovery, cradling it as I had my children when they were little, and feeling the loss as though I were eight years old all over again.
Smoking has helped me through more grief and misery than I care to remember. It has kept me sane and kept me connected. It has tied me to my dad and to my childhood in a particular way. I would never suggest that it isn’t harmful, and I would never think that it’s something I could do indefinitely. When I do quit, I will be saying goodbye to something that has kept me together and has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. And when I do remember, I will be thinking of my dad, his roughened, tobacco-stained hands, and the smell and drift of pipe-smoke on the air.