My little girl hates cigarettes.
Yes, I know that “hate” is a strong word. Most of the time, in our house, it’s treated like many of its four-letter counterparts in that I don’t allow my children to say it. We teach them about love, and that while it’s OK to dislike something, “We don’t hate, because that’s not a nice word and it’s not a nice way to feel.” That’s my prepared speech on hate.
There is one exception. When my babies lost their Meemom last spring to heart and lung disease caused by 50 years of smoking, it became OK for them to hate cigarettes.
Before someone launches into the “smoking is a personal choice,” argument, let me tell you that you can save your breath, or keystrokes, as the case may be. I am more aware of that than you can possibly imagine.
I grew up the only child of a single mom who was a heavy smoker for most of my life. Born in 1945, my mom started smoking when she was 14, because everyone did it and no one knew yet that it was bad for you — not that most teenagers care, anyway. Ah, to have that sense of invincibility again.
From the grieving daughter’s side of the “smoking is bad” discussion, I am a big believer in the idea that keeping kids from smoking in the first place is the best way to keep them from the suffering I watched my mom endure last March. So, fellow mommy: come in. Sit down. Let me get you a cup of coffee (where did I put those tissues?) and let’s talk about how to keep our babies from picking up a dangerous and addictive habit.
When my mother was a young woman, smoking was glamorous. Cigarettes were advertised on TV, and celebrity icons were routinely (professionally, on purpose) photographed enjoying a cigarette. The government took a while to catch on to the dangers of smoking — it wasn’t until 1964 that a special commission ordered by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and headed by Surgeon General Luther Terry determined that smoking was, in fact, bad for your health.
“Cigarette smoking is a health hazard of sufficient importance in the United States to warrant appropriate remedial action,” Terry’s report proclaimed.
But did it offer any solutions? No. Cigarettes, half a century later, are still a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. Back then, banning smoking would have dealt a crippling blow to the economy. Today it would probably do the same. In 1965, Congress mandated that cigarette companies put warnings on the outside of the packages. In 1970, they required that the warning be made in the name of the surgeon general.
Yes, my mom still chose to smoke. When she wanted to argue it with someone, she pointed to a family friend who developed lung cancer even though he’d never taken a puff in his life.
He didn’t. But his parents did, and they did it around him.
Decades of research that prove the hazards of secondhand smoke have prompted Virginia State Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk) to introduce and successfully argue for passage of a bill this week that bans smoking on school properties, whether outdoors or in.
Across Richmond, parents breathed a sigh of relief and crossed their fingers that the bill would pass the house. Living in the shadow of the Phillip Morris plant, we often lag behind the rest of the country on smoking legislation.
“It’s about time,” Allison Sepulveda, who recently moved from Midlothian to Chattanooga, Tennessee, said, and other local moms expressed similar feelings.
“It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Sarah Dabney-Reardon of Midlothian said. “I don’t appreciate my children being exposed to secondhand smoke at school anymore than I appreciated it outside of my obstetrician’s office.”
Indeed, Julie Hallberg, whose sons attend school in Chesterfield County, wished Virginia would adopt another law that’s popular in other parts of the country.
“Now if they’d only pass one that banned people from smoking within 100 yards of a building entrance,” she said.
Currently, Chesterfield County Public Schools comply with stipulations in the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act that prohibit smoking except in designated areas. In 2009, Northam and then-Gov. Tim Kaine passed an amendment to the act that prohibits smoking in restaurants.
I have vivd memories of childhood car trips where I rode in the back of our 2-door Oldsmobile Cutlass with my mom and my aunt(s) chain-smoking all around me. If I think about it too hard, I swear my eyes still burn. I remember kicking the back of the seat in front of me, begging someone to crack a window and then standing up (we were so safe when we rode in cars as children, weren’t we?) and trying to breathe the bit of fresh air coming into the car.
I didn’t realize that my clothes and hair always smelled like cigarettes until I was a grown woman with my own apartment, and the smell smacked me in the face when I went to visit my mom.
When she bought a new house in 2002 and moved out of the one I grew up in, we wiped thick layers of dark yellow nicotine off of the walls and furniture as we packed her things, and she was horrified.
“I can’t believe I did that to you,” she told me, tears shining in her eyes.
“I can’t believe you do it to you,” I wanted to say. But I bit my tongue, because my mother did not like to be told what to do — I’d tried so many times to get her to quit I’d lost count, even getting grounded for two weeks once for throwing out all of the cigarettes in the house.
Was she addicted to the nicotine? Absolutely. Was that all there was to it? Not even close.
Sitting here typing this today, I still wonder if there was something, anything I might have been able to do different. Do better. Something I could have said that would change this world I’ve lived in without my mom for the past year. Something that would make it so that my babies still had the grandmother they loved so much. As a mom, that’s the thing that keeps me awake at night. My babies have to grow up without their Meemom. Could I have somehow made that right for them?
My answer is always a big fat “I don’t know.” And I hate not knowing. I tried begging, I tried crying, I tried scaring her with research. I tried backing off and saying “you’re a big girl, you do what you want.”
When my oldest was born, we forbid my mother to smoke around the baby. I made insane rules about how she had to shower and put on clean clothes and not smoke at all while she was around my daughter. Yes, I was secretly hoping she’d just quit. She didn’t.
My mom enjoyed smoking. I know that, because she told me so more than once, and also because I witnessed it. Sure, nicotine is a drug. Sure, tobacco companies put it in cigarettes because it pumps up their profit margins. They’re businesses, that’s their job. But my mom moved to Richmond with us in 2006, and she lived in our house for two years. During that time, she quit smoking for more than a year.
And she started again the first time she went to visit my aunt in Texas by herself. It wasn’t my aunt’s fault, though she’s apologized to me several times for it. It was mom’s fault, precipitated largely by the fact that it was an activity she missed, and partly by the fact that she’d narrowly escaped dying of toxemia when I was a baby and did still have a bit of the teenage invincibility syndrome. Even in her sixties, and even as her health declined.
My mother died of complications from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She’d had both conditions for better than 10 years, and it wasn’t until after her death that I fully understood how stubborn she was. Not many people live outside of a nursing home with both of those diseases for more than five years. My mom, the day she went into the hospital for the last time, babysat my children.
She told me for three weeks that she was “going home in a couple of days.”
Imagine my surprise when the pulminologist called me into the hallway and said we needed to call hospice.
I stammered. I regrouped. I researched. Six months, the Internet said about hospice care — I might only have her for six more months. I cried.
Then the hospice people came. They read her chart. I asked them how long.
“Less than a week,” the doctor said, her gaze level and her eyes kind.
I very nearly collapsed in the hospital hallway.
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” I ranted at my frail mother, who I saw as frail for the first time, lying in a hospital bed struggling to breathe and writhing from the pain in her legs brought on by diabetes that was probably caused by one of the medications she took for her lungs.
“For what? So you could worry about me? You have three babies to worry about. I’m fine.”
But she wasn’t.
My little girl was her grandma’s light — from the first moment my mom picked her up out of the hospital bassinet, the sun rose and set on that child. She misses her Meemom every day, and here’s what I really hate: watching my baby sob brokenheartedly and not being able to fix it. So when my daughter says she hates cigarettes, I let that one go. She’s eight, and she wants to petition congress to make smoking illegal. While I admire her spunk, I gently try to explain grownup concepts of personal choices and government’s limitations, lobbyists and economics, and end up just telling her that it’s not that simple.
But maybe, fellow mommy, she and I and you can come up with a way to keep children from picking up this nasty habit in the first place. Business, after all, is based on the basic principle of supply and demand. So maybe if the demand drops enough, there will simply be no more cigarettes.
I think talking to your children about smoking in a negative light is an excellent place to start. I think quitting if you’re a smoker yourself is even better. Don’t put your children through what I went through last year. I wouldn’t wish it on the very most evil person I can think of.
Do I know that my mother chose to smoke? Yes. Have I done my stint of being mad at her for choosing it? I sure have. But at the end of the day, being angry with the person you miss so much that sometimes you feel like you can’t breathe? It doesn’t help.
So if I’m honest with you, fellow mommy, I have to admit that I hate cigarettes, too, and I offer Sen. Northam my applause and gratitude. I move in the world of grownup complexities and responsibilities every minute of every day — but sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning when I can’t sleep and my brain is running through all of the things I want to call my mom and tell her about (the baby said another new word, and my son did the cutest thing at lunch, and my oldest got another shining report card) the little girl in me still wants to see things in black and white and have something to blame for taking her mommy away. My daughter and I aren’t so different, in that respect.
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