In each of my childhood memories, smoke plumes across the scene. My parents smoked in the car, tipped ashes out of the triangular window, smashed butts into the metal ashtray. They smoked as they cooked, cleaned, weeded the garden. When money ran low, the shopping list looked like this: milk, eggs, bread, case of Marlboro Reds. Sometimes my parents waved at the smoke round their heads, as if it were a pesky fly. But mostly, they loved it. In their marriage, smoking was glue, one thing they shared. When they passed a lit cigarette back-and-forth, taking long, slow drags from the common square, it was an act of intimacy. Even when they could hardly tolerate each other, they smoked well together. This gave us hope.
My father smoked as he wrote articles for the newspaper, wire-rimmed spectacles down on nose, cigarette dangling from lips. For him, smoking and writing were entwined – the DNA of one wound into the other. He always acknowledged that smoking was, what he called, a nasty habit. But he was unable to stop. Or unwilling.
When the lung cancer diagnosis came, my father continued to smoke a pack a day. And as he lay dying in a hospice bed, he held an invisible cigarette between two upright fingers, moving it to and from his lips. In its final push, the cancer metastasized to his brain and he began to vanish in earnest. The last time I saw him, he looked at me, took a puff off of the phantom cigarette and said, do you know, I have a little girl who looks just like you?
I was twenty-six and he was gone.
Habits are just the things we do over and over. We all have them. Some habits will devour everything we love and do. Others bind us to the life we want to live.