The fact that I could get cancer or some other dreadful disease from cigarettes did not completely elude me. Hey, I'm pretty sure I read the warning printed on the side of each pack at least once.
But smokers have an amazing ability to ignore the consequences of their actions. Being addicted to such a wickedly awful drug like nicotine will do that.
And, believe me, I was an addict. I finally quit for good a week after starting chemotherapy -- three weeks after receiving my official diagnosis.
I don't care to spend much time analyzing why I began smoking cigarettes, but I'm sure it was rooted in part in a need to rebel against something or someone. It did not take long to become a slavish addict.
I had two groups of friends in my life as a teen. There were the students with whom I took the college prep classes in high school and played sports. And there were the kids from my neighborhood who went to vo-ed. I mostly hung around at home with the vo-ed kids, most of whom smoked. I started smoking when I was 15 or 16 and never stopped.
It wasn’t difficult for an underaged kid to buy cigarettes in the 1970s. There were plenty of cigarette machines to drop quarters into. And I could buy all the smokes (and beer) from the grocery store where I had a part-time job. The owner, a man with a lecherous reputation, never objected.
I went into the Army after high school. The U.S. government made cigarettes dirt cheap for us fighting men. (Okay, I was a finance and accounting specialist.) During basic training, the drill sergeants would tell us, “Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.” A butt can sat outside our barracks.
Mary Lou never rarely said anything to me about my cigarette addiction. She thought I would end up smoking forever and would be fine. This was the rare instance where she was wrong.
My children were another matter. Modern elementary education includes a stringent anti-drug and tobacco curriculum. There were questions and concerns from Sam and Hanna that I did my best to deflect.
One of the lessons cancer has taught me is this: Smokers who believe they’re only hurting themselves are delusional. I now know how selfish I have been. I’m too embarrassed to try to calculate the money I’ve spent on my nicotine habit over the years. And I won’t attempt to describe the look on the faces of Mary Lou, Sam and Hanna when I told them I had lung cancer.
Even now, months removed from successful treatment, the anxiety remains. Hanna had a nightmare a couple nights ago about me smoking again.
There is a memory I cannot shake. Sam and I were driving home on a dark, cold night after a winter baseball workout somewhere. As best I can recall he was 10 or 11 at the time. Less than a mile from the house, I stopped at a gas station but did not pull up to the pumps. Sam quickly deduced why.
“Please, Papa. Don’t go in there,” he pleaded from the back seat, tears in his eyes.
I, of course, ignored him, went in and bought two packs of Salems.
Please forgive me, Samuel. Please find it in your heart to forgive me.