Cigarettes as Control

How grief spurred me to start smoking—and to quit

I smoked my second cigarette on a dour July afternoon when I was 15.

When I was younger, in the years of Captain Planet and after-school specials, I had been stridently anti-smoking. I would hide my uncle and aunt's cigarettes, or harangue them to quit, fruitlessly but to the best of my 10-year-old abilities. I smoked my first cigarette around that time, when I snuck into my uncle's place and lit the longest butt in the ashtray just to be sure I didn’t like it. I didn’t—I don't remember if I coughed, but I do remember the smoke from the rapidly shortening nub rising up into my eyes, and burning so strongly that I dropped the cigarette and almost spilled the ashtray.

But as a teenager, when that summer day bore down on me, grabbing that Marlboro Menthol Light just seemed right. My friends and I were sitting on the sidewalk just off Grand Avenue in Queens, dressed better than our usual sneakers and jeans. Someone may have been wearing a tie. I don't recall anyone speaking, just a gauzy image of everyone plucking cigarettes as a girl swung an open pack in front of us. Our eyes were red. We'd all been crying. That shell that 15-year-olds walk around in that makes them feel invincible—mine had been shattered.

More accurately, I suppose, it had happened a few days earlier. I arrived home to a message from my friend, Justin. He spoke quickly, saying to call him, but it wasn't much stranger than the typical awkward messages he left on my answering machine. I called him back. I never quite understood why people say “You should sit down for this” when they have big news, but when Justin told me that our close friend Jorge was dead, I sat down.

Jorge was fun and loyal, the type to give you the shirt off his back, and on at least one occasion he actually did. We were both underdressed for a surprisingly cold morning and he handed me his Old Navy button-down, which wouldn't have done either of us any good against the breeze, but the gesture always stayed with me—my definitive Jorge moment. During the summer between 9th and 10th grades, he went to stay with family in Utah and drowned while swimming in a lake, some combination of his being a poor swimmer and catching a cramp. The exact circumstances didn't actually matter to me because they were an answer to the wrong question. The question wasn't “Why didn’t he wear a life vest?” or “Why wasn't anyone able to get to him?” It was an infinitely broad and dizzyingly cosmic “Why?”

After Justin's call, not knowing what else to do, I called Jorge's house. His sister Vivian answered. I choked out some tearful version of “Is it true?” She howled yes and we sobbed in each other's ears for a few minutes. But I had never been so shaken as at the funeral, when I caught that first glimpse of him in the casket. The world melted away and I can't tell you where anyone was or even the color of the coffin, but the warm-hued image of my friend seared itself deeply, viciously, into my mind. He looked mature and calm, and somehow unfamiliar. He was buried in his Yankees jersey. Whatever I felt burning in my chest at that moment, it was dwarfed entirely by the plaintive wailing of Jorge's mother. I felt terribly small in that room. And if smoking that cigarette wasn't right, then it was something—a single modicum of control, a fleeting break from helplessness. Even if it was destructive.

Jorge’s death is not the reason I became a smoker—it was merely the unfortunate happenstance that set off my smoking habit. If it were as simple as just needing the relief at the funeral, I wouldn't have kept smoking, but I did.

In fact, I soon grew to love smoking. It became a wonderful crutch to me over the years. I loved the sound of a Zippo lighter snapping open. I loved having an excuse to strike up a conversation with people outside bars, or to break the monotony of a long work day with a few trips outside. I especially loved nights sitting on my stoop with my cousin, smoking and talking until the paper got delivered, just as day broke.

I liked to use stress as an excuse for smoking because people barely argued with it, but the truth is that I rarely felt stressed. I had a habit, no doubt, but it was a behavioral craving, not a physical one. There were times to have a cigarette: before school, at the bus stop, after a big meal, before bed. And I liked the action of it. There was a sense of ritual: Slide a cigarette from the pack, tap it a few times against the lighter, the flame, the sizzle. Inhale, exhale. Repeat.

I cut back gradually after college, then drastically when I moved in with my girlfriend, only smoking on occasional weekends. But I liked knowing I could turn to it. I'd buy a pack for the last few weeks of a semester in graduate school, just to help the stress of those final assignments, but what would start as one or two cigarettes a day became two or three packs a week before I'd have to consciously pump the brakes. The truth is that I didn't particularly want to stop. I knew I should, but I felt that by declaring I quit, I'd be judged if I failed. What would I do when real stress crept up on me?

In the spring of 2013, I found out. My mother told me she had to go under the knife for a valve replacement. She scheduled her surgery for after my birthday, because as a single mother she was incapable of selfishness—she was facing a tremendously frightening unknown, and she didn't want to ruin my birthday if something went wrong. It was touching, even if it was pessimistic. Wrapping up a semester of grad school had been a welcome distraction, but as the day approached I found myself smoking more than normal.

My mother arrived at Mount Sinai before 5:00 a.m. with her boyfriend, Pete, and my grandmother. Just before she got called into the prep area, she and I broke away into the hallway for a moment. She told me she was proud of me, gave me a hug, and I steeled my nerves and told her to tell me all about it when she got out. As they carted her away, she blew us a small kiss and waved. I went outside for a cigarette. There were a few left in my pack, and I lit one as I sat on a bench outside Central Park. I remember watching the cigarette tremble in my hand.

The procedure was routine, as far as open-heart surgery goes. We spent the morning and most of the afternoon in the waiting area. It was a six-hour operation, they said. There was a board up on the wall, like the ones that show airline arrivals and departures, that was meant to let us know what stage of the surgery. The fact that it never changed was not reassuring. Pete fell asleep for a while, and my grandmother might have even snatched a few winks, but as the day went on, I shifted from my early no-news-is-good-news outlook to a more anxious state of sleeplessness. I spent hours craning my neck to check the board every few seconds and made a few more trips outside to smoke.

When the doctor called my cell phone to say it was over , his tone was upbeat, and as soon as I heard him use the word “perfect,” I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I didn't know I was holding my breath until I exhaled. The same relief was visible in my grandmother and Pete, and palpable over the phone when I called more family from the waiting room. Then I went outside for a smoke, to calm myself down. Later that day, my mother woke up for a second, and I told her she did well, that she was strong. She nodded at me hazily through the anesthesia, and we left so she could rest. When I finally arrived home later that night, I stayed out for a cigarette before going inside, one more to cap a long day.

That was the night that I decided to stop smoking for good.

Outside my house, I looked up at the moon and exhaled, watching it shine through my cloud of smoke. A startling thought crept in—that we weren’t out of the woods yet, because bad news likes to wait until you're at ease before it crushes you—and I felt my relief beginning to crack.

“If everything turns out alright with my mother, I'll stop smoking,” I thought. And if not, then quitting would be the last thing on my mind.

I do not believe in God, or any great sentient power. Beyond occasional conversational thoughts to my late grandfather—who I had appealed to a lot that day—this cosmic bargain was the closest I've ever come to earnest prayer. Or maybe it was just growing up—from a teenager betrayed by mortality turning to self-destruction to an adult throwing away a harmful habit as I watched someone I love fight to live.

When I went to see my mother the next day, she was awake and alert and making jokes. I knew I had to uphold my end of the deal. The truth is, I barely miss the smoking. A few months later I took a drag of a friend's cigarette, just to make sure I was done with them. I was.

I know now that quitting was probably just another desperate swipe at control. And I know that my mother's health did not hinge on my quitting, but I nonetheless feel obligated to my word. I started smoking in a vulnerable, angry, feeble attempt to assuage a loss. I quit to avoid another. So far, so good.