November 2013

A toxic legacy

By Gail Binkly

I have countless fond memories of my childhood, but our car trips are not among them. Every time the four of us set out in one of our Chevies, a pall hung over the experience – literally. It was cigarette smoke.

My parents were inveterate smokers. My dad took up the habit in the foxholes of Italy; my mother began in college because the other girls were doing it.

When we were little, Rhonda and I, choking in the back seat, used to amuse ourselves by rewriting song lyrics to reflect our disgust. Christmas carols were our favorites, e.g.:

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky How parents can smoke cigarettes and not die.”

As we grew, we abandoned such childish behavior, partly because Rhonda herself began smoking at 13. She was caught once in the girls’ bathroom at Elbert, which caused a great scandal, as Mother was a teacher there. Rhonda was grounded for a while, but she kept on smoking.

I was the outsider, the one who never took up the foul habit. This was not due to any great moral fortitude or wisdom on my part, but because I was such a bookwormish oddball that the “bad girls” never invited me to join them in their illicit lunchtime practice.

In 1964 the Surgeon General had released a report about the hazards of cigarettes, stating that smokers were at much greater risk for coronary heart disease, lung cancer, and premature death. This prompted my parents to make periodic attempts to quit. Their efforts always ended in failure; one would cave, and the other would follow. It was like the proverbial lobsters in the bucket, pulling down the one that tries to claw its way out.

They were far from alone. The ubiquity of cigarettes then is difficult to remember today. Almost all my college professors smoked; one used to chain-smoke through his lectures, lighting each new cigarette with the dying ember of the last. The newsroom where I first worked was full of ash trays. Smoking was part of the image of the hardboiled, hard-drinking, highly stressed reporter. Everyone used to mouth the same clichés: We’re all going to die anyway. Might as well enjoy myself. I could get killed walking across the street.

Yet, slowly, things changed. People decided maybe they didn’t want to take a chance on dying early. More and more studies confirmed the hazards of cigarettes and secondhand smoke, and public smoking began to be restricted.

I didn’t really need the studies, for I could witness the effects myself. The thing about smoking that we sometimes forget is even if it doesn’t kill you directly, it affects your health and quality of life. My dad, a thin man who walked every day on his postal route, developed angina at 48. It was a huge blow. He gave up sugar and fatty foods, but he couldn’t give up nicotine. He became afraid to do anything that would stress his heart and started staying indoors in front of the TV, sliding into a depression from which he never really recovered.

Mother tried faithfully to stay in shape, swimming and working out nightly at an exercise club. But she could not shake her addiction, either.

Once, following some other health problems, she developed antibiotic-resistant pneumonia and spent six weeks in the hospital, barely clinging to life. When she recovered, she was free of cigarettes at last. We were thrilled and relieved as she grew steadily stronger.

Yet one night I had a grim, eerie dream that she was smoking again. A few weeks later, she and Dad came to visit us in Cortez. He was smoking; she wasn’t. Or so we thought. But then I came downstairs unexpectedly and found them on the couch, Mother puffing from Dad’s cigarette. Before long she was doing it openly.

(I seem to have a weird ESP about smoking. My husband quit not long after we met. However, when he was working at a temporary job in Crested Butte in 2000, I dreamed of him puffing away. When we talked on the phone the next night, I mentioned this. He exclaimed, “A friend gave me a cigarette yesterday and I smoked it!” Perhaps out of fear of my paranormal abilities, he never tried that again.)

Dad died of prostate cancer at 77 after years of declining health. Mother’s health was also deteriorating. Although checkups found her lungs clear, her circulation was so poor that her feet were bluish. When we spoke by phone, her words were punctuated by deep drags from her cigarettes. She died of cardiac arrest at 79.

Of course, both my parents lived into their late 70s, so you could say their lives really were not shortened by smoking. But consider this: All my grandparents, none of whom smoked, lived longer than their children. My mother’s parents lived to be 85 and 98 (an active, fully aware 98). My dad’s parents made it to 78 and 92 (again, an active, fully aware 92).

Mother’s sister, who smoked, died even younger than she did. (Her brother, who didn’t, is robust and vigorous in his mid- 80s.) Dad’s two brothers, who smoked, died before he did.

It’s all anecdotal, of course.

My chain-smoking prof finally broke free of the habit. However, he later developed bladder cancer – a disease few people realize is often linked to cigarettes. He survived, but only by undergoing numerous painful surgeries and treatments.

People who smoke sometimes say, “It’s my life.” Well, yes and no. Are there people who love you and depend on you? Then your life isn’t entirely your own.

Rhonda and I naively imagined we’d have our parents with us for at least another decade, considering how long their parents had lived. We certainly would have enjoyed those extra years.

But here’s the good news. After Mother died, Rhonda read a book on how to quit smoking – and did it. Cold turkey. After 37 years. She’s been clean for four years now and finds the smell of smoke disgusting. “I don’t know how you stood it,” she tells me.

There are no certainties in life. A nonsmoker can indeed be hit by a car or die of food poisoning or be shot in a shopping mall.

But your odds of a longer, healthier, more vigorous span on this earth are greatly improved by not smoking.

Nov. 21 is the annual Great American Smokeout, when people are encouraged to try quitting for just one day. (And incidentally, the day my husband quit 22 years ago.)

Think about it.

Gail Binkly is the editor of the Four Corners Free Press.