For as long as I can remember, my grandmother was followed around the house by the sound of an oxygen cord on linoleum tiles. She had emphysema, otherwise known as ‘The Smoker’s Disease’, which was most heartbreaking because she never smoked. When you suffer from emphysema the parts of your lungs that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide are damaged, as are the tubes leading into the lungs, which shrink. Damaged airways don’t regenerate, resulting in permanent shortness of breath.
The first time I smoked a cigarette was horrible. I was fifteen, crouched behind the barbecues of a children’s playground. My best friends and I shared one in a huddle, retching and gulping milk one girl had purchased in foresight. Afterwards we sprayed each other with perfume someone had been given for Christmas and washed our hands scrupulously. I remember it was the first bottle any of us had owned.
For a few weeks we persevered in bus interchanges and parks, never really finishing a cigarette let alone smoking it properly. We let what we’d inhaled linger in the back of our mouths before exhaling self consciously. We disposed of the butt as if our mothers might search the park for evidence. Eventually it was decided we’d rather spend our wages on hot chips and gravy from the takeaway at the local shops. We’d tried our best to, but we didn’t like smoking.
My Farpa cared for my Grandma in a manner so tender, I’ve never seen it replicated. Every winter morning he would bring her porridge and tea in the bedroom of their chilly farmhouse. He bought her jewellery and silk nightgowns in town and even when his Alzheimer’s was at its worst, her name was the first he asked after. Although my Grandma wasn’t a smoker, my Farpa was for many years. When Grandma was diagnosed with emphysema, it came to light that passive smoke probably contributed significantly to the severity of her disease. Those days the extent of the dangers of smoking weren’t common knowledge. By the time she was sick I think he’d already quit, and the significance of his smoking was never quite acknowledged.
There was an English guy across the table from me last night. He told me he grew up in an industrial estate and that his mum ran the local hot food van. With a glance toward the kitchen he asked the table if anyone would like a smoke before dinner, and was a bit put out when everyone declined. As he lit a cigarette, he explained he’d started smoking when he was sixteen because that was the legal age at the time. A few years later the legal smoking age was raised to eighteen, and he remembers thinking that if it had always been that way he wouldn’t now, at age thirty-three, still be a smoker. By age eighteen he felt that he would have “gotten over all that teenage bullshit”.
I didn’t smoke tobacco again until I was on exchange in Germany. A very attractive boy I couldn’t really understand sat next to me on a dark bench at a garden party. He tried to teach me how to roll. I’d had too much gin and my fingers felt numb. Every demonstration he rolled I smoked, until I was dizzy and sick. From that point on the smell of cigarette smoke made me nauseous. Walking through parties I politely held my breath, and if someone accidentally blew smoke in my face I might have absented myself to the garden for a few minutes.
As a child I sometimes accidentally ripped or trod on Grandma’s oxygen cord, which as a result tugged sharply on her nose piece. I’d immediately feel flushed and sorry. When she wanted to move to the opposite end of the house one of us pushed the oxygen machine behind her and made sure the cord didn’t snag on a chair leg. When she was having a particularly bad spell Mum would take us all down to the coast, because Grandma found it easier to breathe the ocean air. It’s only in retrospect that I realise most of my memories of Grandma, who died when I was a child, are imbued in some way with the symptoms of her illness.
By my last year of school most of my friends were smokers. We usually spent lunch in the back car park because it was the only place on school grounds having a cigarette might go unnoticed by the teachers. When conversation lulled people busied themselves twiddling tobacco between their fingers and thumb, delicately pre-rolling smokes. Cigarettes were shared tenderly, fingers brushing as they were passed around. One girl’s boyfriend held the filter up to her lips as she inhaled, holding his gaze.
On a hot and tired afternoon a girl from another school who I’d never met pulled up to collect a mutual friend. Upon being introduced she sat down on the bitumen next to me and efficiently lit a tailored cigarette. She offered me one, which I declined. This is always a slightly awkward interaction. Laughing, she said she’d been smoking since she was fourteen and, taking a long drag, she’d already been diagnosed with emphysema and, exhaling, that she had made no attempt to quit. I didn’t respond. Her best friends would later describe her as a pathological liar, but for me, that conversation stuck.
I think there is something in the question of what we choose to pick up, and what we choose to let go – physically, culturally and personally. There is no lesson here. We make choices about our bodies, and we’ll never know which one was ‘correct’ – or, if something goes wrong, exactly why that happened. There is an intimacy in smoking. Girls huddled in parks, an attractive foreign man in a dark garden, kids who do it because it’s what is done. It’s a way of sharing something, of being in particular spaces and moments. Seeking intimacy, in particular, is a high risk venture. We struggle to navigate the path we think will bring the most good and do the least harm, and the formula by which we make these decisions is informed by our personal experience, and changes like we do.