It’s been said that I’ve quit smoking. It’s been said by me. I put it in print back in January, in this very venue, in fact. I meant it then. And yet I continued to smoke. This is what addiction is like. You mean something with all your heart. But still, you find a reason to do the opposite.
I did quit in January, by the way. It’s just that I started again. And then in February, I quit for real, for real, which was a tremendous relief. Until I started again. Then in March, I was through messing around. I mean seriously. C’mon. But then…
You know, my mother, she died. In my arms. Literally. Three and a half years ago. From lung cancer. I carried her body from my home on a Sunday night, wracked from illness, bald from chemo. Placed her in a white van. Got an earnest handshake from a professionally sympathetic funeral home employee named George. Then the van pulled away and I was alone. You’d think I would have called a best friend. Or asked my wife to come back early from the dinner she was at to sit with me. But no. I just assumed I it made sense to be alone. The hospice sent over a grief counselor, but I felt bad for putting him in an awkward situation, what with him having to be in some guy’s home hours after his mother’s death and all, so I demonstrated what I felt was the necessary shock and grief and sent him on his way.
I’ve always been funny like that.
Before that, I took care of her for a year or so. Not well, really, but as well as I could. Well enough I suppose, to…to…well. I don’t really know to what.
Just well enough I suppose.
The point is that I saw lung cancer from the inside out. I will spare you the same view. Just know that I saw.
So you’d think I’d quit smoking with ease, right? I love my kids. I have no conscious desire to put them through what I went through during that interminable year.
I was going to quit smoking right after this one pack. I had started again because some crazy stuff happened at work. No, really. It was some crazy stuff. It was so crazy that I had to keep telling people about it, which I found frustrating because I could never fully recapture how crazy the stuff at work really was. It just sounded like I was complaining about my job. And everyone does that. That’s not really special enough to justify, you know, intentional suicide. But trust me, it was some crazy stuff.
And so I was going to quit right after this pack. For sure. And I’m serious, now. I’ve had enough . I know that I’ve been saying that since about 1999, but I think this time, all the forces have come together.
Right after this pack.
When there was one cigarette left, I couldn’t wait to smoke it. And then to be done smoking it. I was going to enjoy this Last Cigarette Soon, I would be free. I would finally have the cliche off my back. It was a Friday. A perfect day to quit. The rains of the week had finally relented, and the sun had shown itself as if only to remind us that it had been there all along.
I left my desk. Turned off my computer. Muddled through some small talk with my co-workers. Hurry up. Any plans for the weekend? Hurry up. Nope just gonna enjoy the sunshine. Hurry up, hurry up. Supposed to rain again. Blah. Blah. OK. See ya. Bye. Good riddance. Once I was alone and free to walk in the other direction, away from their prying, judgmental, non-smoking gazes, It was safe to light up and burn it down. The Last Cigarette. There had been other Last Cigarettes, but this was the for real, for real Last Cigarette.
I was barely twenty steps away when I dug the pack out of my pocket.
And it was empty.
Somehow, some way, I had already smoked the last one without knowing it.
My first thought: Nevermind. No biggie. I wanted to hide my disappointment. From myself. After all, I was going to quit anyway, so…you know…that’s fine. I was ready. I’m cool.
In fact, I thought what I always think when I forget my cigarettes, or can’t find a lighter, or get a work phone call just when I’m thinking about stepping out for a smoke. I thought “Maybe this is God’s way of telling me something.” Because God really needs to play practical jokes on me in order for me to know that smoking is bad. My mother degenerating in a pool of her own bodily fluids wasn’t God’s way of telling me. But hiding my lighter in the pocket of my other jacket, Hah, ha. Now that’s how God sends a message.
My second thought. Five minutes later, I walked into a convenience store.
I mean right? It couldn’t be the Last Cigarette if I didn’t know it was. We have to have a do-over. I’ll have to smoke another pack of cigarettes, this time making sure to pay attention to when the last one came. So I could, you know, savor it. Really make it count. And in the meantime, I’d get to smoke some more cigarettes. So, really, it was a win-win.
In line for the smokes, I was behind a fat, sloppy dude buying a fifth of brandy. In front of him, a sad eyed pale twenty something buying a bottle of Jack Daniels and a pack of Newports.
“TGIF, eh?” said the clerk without a trace of irony.
And, for some reason, I thought about it.
And for some reason I couldn’t do it. I’ve been buying the last pack for years. Years and years. But on this day, in this convenience store, it occurred to me that I can predict the future with frightening accuracy. It goes like this: I buy the pack. I smoke the pack. I buy another pack. It’s really that simple. No matter how many ways I try to make it more complicated. It’s really that simple.
And so I didn’t know The Last One was The Last One.
Life has always been funny like that.
You know something else I’ve been thinking about? My friend’s mother was killed by a drunk driver. A few days earlier she had sent an email to my friend, asking how she was. My friend never got around to responding.
She didn’t know it would be the last.
Today I took my kids and my dog to the beach, did laundry, played basketball with my son and taught my daughter how to dribble. I made empanadas for the first time, but the dough was too thick and took too long to cook. I bought three used polo shirts and I got my car washed. And I cleaned the kitchen three times, and worked for an hour. And now I’m writing and thinking about sleeping. The day was OK. I got stuff done, but I struggled with my kids and my patience. That is to say I struggled with myself. As we always do. It was not as good as I wanted. But it will have to be good enough.
Because you never know which one will be your last.
-April 22, 2012