The heartbreak of my mother's smoking

She's tried everything to quit, and failed. Why can I forgive addiction in my friends, but not in my mom?

Published July 17, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

My mother used to leave messages on my answering machine to announce that she was going to try, once again, to quit smoking. Starting tomorrow. She never started on the day she made the announcement. There was always some amount of lag time: a week, a day, a month, when you go to camp, when you leave for college, after I lose 15 pounds, before the wedding, after the wedding, when your brother leaves for college, when you have children, when the cow jumps over the moon. It was my habit to save the messages. That way, when she called to say she was smoking again, I could replay them as a bitter tonic for chronic hopefulness.

My mother started smoking when she was 16. It's a great story how she started. She lived in New York City, and for her 16th birthday, her mother took her to the Copacabana. There's a black-and-white picture of the party at the table: My grandmother was a professional model then and her smile is directed at the camera full force, adding a certain flair to the group. All the men are wearing tuxedos. Champagne and wine glasses sparkle on the white tablecloths, pearls gleam on silky throats. My mother is wearing an elegant dress and looks 25. The dress shows off to perfection her beautiful shoulders and narrow waist. I've looked at this photograph many times, and I still can't believe I'm related to some of these people.

But this is the night my mother would smoke her first cigarette, the night she would begin a habit that became so much a part of her that she once told me she didn't know who she would be as a nonsmoker. At some point during the evening, she and her best friend Jenny left the table together. In what must have been a very plush bathroom, Jenny, who was already a smoker, convinced my mother to try a cigarette. Or maybe she didn't have to convince her. Maybe my mother, young, beautiful and desperate to be independent from her mother, was already primed. After the first sputters and coughs, after wiping her eyes and freshening her perfume, I imagine her walking luxuriously back to the table, willfully tempering the rush of adrenaline that comes with having done something secret and sophisticated at 16. Back at the table, her smile was probably a little more subtle, her conversation a bit more reserved.


Similes my mother has used to describe smoking to her family, the non-addicted: like a cat purring in your lap, like a best friend, like a secret lover. The cat simile started just after our cat died, so how could we deny her the comfort? I once suggested that Iago might make a better best friend, and told her that if she's considering secret lovers, a vampire would be a healthier choice. Quitting she has compared to grieving and likes to say, referring to the pain of it, "I'd rather give birth to twins."

These are hard concepts for the non-addicted. If I say, "I understand," my mother says, "How could you? You've never been addicted to anything in your life." If I say, "I don't understand," my mother bellows, "Of course not! You've never been addicted to anything in your life." I have alternated between the two for many years but have noticed no pattern of success.

If someone had told me when I was little that my mother would still be smoking into her 60s, I wouldn't have believed it. For years we pushed, prodded, pleaded, begged and fought with her to stop. And she tried everything this side of a straitjacket: cold turkey, cutting down gradually, the gum, the patch. During her attempts, and these were attempts like Evel Knievel attempting to jump over 20 flaming cars without the ramp, she would lock herself in the house, exercise at midnight, and refuse to get dressed, believing that if she did she would break out of the house and run screaming to the nearest grocery store for a fix.

Her own mother was an alcoholic, and her father died slowly of emphysema, so she couldn't draw on family strength for help. We visited my grandfather in Houston near the end of his life. I was 11 and had met him only once before. Then, I was startled by his constant cough. This time, he had oxygen tubes coming out of his nose. I hoped to get to know him, but he couldn't talk for long periods of time, and I was scared by all the trappings of his illness: oxygen tanks, sterile cloths and tubes, round-the-clock nurses. A few weeks after we left, he was moved to an oxygen tent where he set himself on fire trying to light a cigarette. If anyone asked why on earth he was still smoking, his reply never varied. "I'm dying anyway, aren't I?"


Things I have tried to help my mother stop smoking: refused to buy cigarettes for her when I was old enough to do the shopping; rounded up all the cigarettes in the house and soaked them in the sink; collected her butts and kept them on display in a jar of water; crushed lit cigarettes resting in ash trays wherever I found them; shared every detail of what I was learning in school about smokers' lungs turning pitch black with tar, supplementing the lecture with pictures. In college, I sent her cards with funny, pointed messages. After college, I sent her books and articles about quitting. When she visited, I made her go outside to smoke, even in New York City, even in the middle of the night. Finally, I pulled out all the stops and threatened to deny her her grandchildren.

Nothing worked.

Once, in junior high school, I made her a fake cigarette. In near despair during her attempts to quit, she had often cried, "I just don't know what to do with my hands!" So in preparation for another attempt, she asked me to make her something that would allow her hands and mouth to have the feel of smoking. I used an index card, thinking the sturdy paper would hold up better than loose-leaf under the constant moisture from her lips. After 10 days, when more air had been drawn through that narrow tube than is pulled through most jet engines in a year, she returned to the real thing, putting herself and the crushed, lipstick-stained index card out of their collective misery.

I regret that I didn't aim for a higher degree of verisimilitude with that cigarette, that I didn't spend more time on it. I remember thinking a straw might work, but when I suggested it, my mother said something I made would be better. This both thrilled and upset me. I wanted to help her quit, but even then had little faith in her succeeding. And I believed that if I made the cigarette and it didn't work, then I would have played a part in the drama of her recurring failure. So I made the device, quickly and halfheartedly, and when she failed again, I quietly accepted part of the blame.

Years later, I found another suspiciously rolled piece of paper in a kitchen drawer. I looked at it closely. It was better than mine, but it had failed too. My little brother made it.


A contradiction: Although I've never smoked, I have always liked to step outside with the smokers at parties. I envy them the escape. Whatever the spirit of the party, the smoking subset always coheres into a smaller, more intimate crowd on a back porch or balcony. Like the dark panel in a cartoon, when suddenly what is said seems to have more weight or truth or humor in it, these gatherings make me happy. I like smokers, so why am I so hard on my mom?

Because hanging out with friends who smoke is not the same as registering your own mother's self-destructive tendencies? Because the people we love most seem to be the people whose weaknesses we are least able to withstand?

Because I wanted her to live forever.

Because when I was 16, she couldn't make it to the top of a hill on a family hike, and I saw the fear in her eyes as she tried to catch her breath. I am haunted by the knowledge of how smoking leads to an early death. I can't stop believing that there is some combination of words we've left unsaid, an image, idea or reason we've not explored, that, if expressed in just the right way at just the right time, would have been enough.

It is now the case that I don't know whether my mother is smoking or not. She says she's not, but at least once she has stopped and resumed without telling me, so I don't know if it's the truth. "What do you expect?" she said. "Addicts lie." My father and brother knew, but the secret was kept from me because I would be disappointed. My father and brother were disappointed, too, of course, but a special category is reserved for me, the result of my years of caring too much. I sent roses to celebrate what I thought was her year anniversary of not smoking and couldn't understand why the flowers made everyone so unhappy.

So my mother and I are stuck. I want her to take better care of herself, she wants me to leave her alone. Neither of us can honor the other's wish.

I'm a mother now and find myself thinking a lot about what it is reasonable to expect, hope, want from a loved one. Is wanting someone to take care of herself so she will be around longer a selfish impulse? Is it better to blithely love our loved ones, self-punishing tendencies and all? I look for clues in literature and I can tell you Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy" haunts me. His family tried to help, tried to reform him, but nothing worked, and after he's gone, the scene in which his widow looks at the house keys hanging by the door and wishes for one more ordinary day, drunkenness and all, hit me hard. How will I feel when my mother is gone? It's a thing we can't know until it happens, but I'm pretty certain I'm going to wish desperately for one more day. And if I got it, I wouldn't care about her smoking, would I?


In the last phone message she ever left regarding quitting, my mother said a doctor was prescribing tranquilizers to keep her calm during the first week. After that, she would take them as needed to suppress anxiety and panic. She made it three weeks, then started smoking cigars as a way to avoid cigarettes. We were thrilled at first. Three weeks was the longest she'd ever gone, and we fooled ourselves into believing that the cigars were just a temporary crutch. We even ignored for a time the fact that she had started breathing the cigar smoke deep into her lungs. This was the most devastating and demoralizing of all her attempts, and when I remember the picture of the beautiful 16-year-old at the Copacabana, I am furious with those people, that time, that place. I want my young mother to know that there will be nothing glamorous about smoking in 40 years. I want to tell her that in 50 years the smoke she breathed for the first time that night will have so debilitated her lungs she will be reduced to sleeping with oxygen tubes in her nose at night and will not be able to walk around the block with her granddaughter. I wish she knew that the sound of her wheezing will terrify her daughter.

But I would also have to tell her this: A whiff of cigarette smoke reminds me of home, of childhood. It brings back a picture of her lighting a cigarette, circa 1983, when I was 12. She had a faded yellow T-shirt that summer with the Periodic Table of the Elements on the front. She was a runner then, slender, beautiful, healthy. I can see the shape of her lips as she inhaled, the way it hollowed her cheeks just a bit. I didn't know it at the time, but she smoked with style. I can hear the lighter closing, the first exhale. I can see her so clearly. My mother, happy.

Jessica Francis Kane's first novel, "The Report," will be published by Graywolf Press on August 31. Her essays appear often in The Morning News.

By Jessica Francis Kane

Jessica Francis Kane's new story collection, "This Close," will be published March 5. She is also the author of the collection "Bending Heaven," and a novel, "The Report."

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