Dying To Be Cool

Kathryn Lynch

Copyright 2019 by Kathryn Lynch

Photo of a woman lighting a cigarette.

My peers and I were in our 30s when summaries of nicotine use studies first appeared in the daily press. Every one of those examinations concluded that “smoking cigarettes was bad for you”. You could get lung cancer and die! By that time, all of my friends had smoked for around 15 years. Because of these ingrained habits, the information was ignored. I know no one (except my dad), who changed behavior because of these warnings. As a result, the losses were huge and the personal cost extremely high. This is a story about a silent killer which has ravaged many, wiping out much of an entire generation. It is the main reason why I am in my eighties, but no one else in my own family is older than the age of 58.  

Both of my parents smoked.

Dad blended well with other men of his times—with a hat on his head and a lighted cigarette between his fingers. Refilling his lighter with fluid became a weekly ceremony during which he could not be interrupted. Delay during this endeavor was akin to a man sitting down on his own hat--unacceptable. There was never any talk or plan in place to reduce the number of his “smokes”, getting rid of his “smokes”, or redirecting what later became known as second hand smoke.

In 1969 Congress passed the US Smoking Act. Cigarette advertising on TV and on radio was terminated. Packages of cigarettes would carry a warning that smoking was “dangerous to your health”. Dad told the story many times. He was driving the family car when the story came over the radio. He rolled down the driver's window, threw out his pack of “smokes” and he never smoked again. He outlived mom and all of his children except one, occupying an important place in the family until the age of 89.

Mom was a secretive, closet smoker. She smoked only when she believed she was alone, harboring the belief that Dad didn't want her to smoke and that it was not a ladylike endeavor. She was so good at this that it wasn't until I was 25 years old that my grandfather gave up her secret. Mom supplied herself with cigarettes taken from Dad's cartons, so when he quit, she reluctantly quit as well. She lived into her eighties, outliving four of her five children.
Mom and Dad had five daughters, two of them biological offspring. The other three were unrelated orphans from Japan adopted into our family for a better life. My younger sister was the first to be lost. Maureen took up smoking with her friends at the age of 14. All considered smoking as a cool social experience. Even when she married a nonsmoker and had four children, she continued to smoke at every opportunity, spending many hours with the phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Mom and Dad pressured her to quit, so when she visited them, she always took the position that she had quit. The smell of cigarettes remained on her clothing, but each time she managed to convince them that smoking was over. The smell of cigarettes hung heavily in the bathrooms of the house. I never tattled.
At the age of 52, Maureen was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was too late to stop the ravages of passing time. She died at the age of 54, riddled with cancer—Stage 4. Studies of the last fifty years have found a likely link between smoking and breast cancer in premenopausal females.

Cecilia had a Japanese mother and an American black GI father. Along with a teen age smoking habit, she acquired a heroin habit which would stay with her until the end. At the age of 45 she showed me the “hole in her breast”. It was a shocking sight. The breast tissue had swollen to the point that it had redesigned the organ, forming a recess in the center. Ironically she stored her cigarettes in the hole. Welfare workers arranged a surgical removal of the organ. At the time she lived more than a thousand miles away, so I called the hospital to wish her well. The phone was answered by a social worker who was part of a team searching for the patient who was missing. Four days later, Cecilia reappeared and crawled back into her hospital bed. “I ran out of cigarettes”, she explained. She died at the age of 47.

Julie had a Japanese mother and an American caucasian GI father. She began to smoke with her friends as a teenager. By the time she was 20 years old, her voice had deepened down, almost masculine sounding, a trait usually found in long term, heavy duty smokers. Smoking was important to Julie. The presence of others, even small children made no inroad into curtailing the pleasure she obviously received from her “smokes”. She married at 49 and four years later was diagnosed with the Big C. At 54, she was gone.

Christine was a full blooded Japanese. She loved pickles and her cigarettes. No one could break either habit. Ironically, she did not smoke until the age of 21 when she was free of the family home. When she visited, Mom and Dad put the full pressure of their individual quit program on her—with no success. She married a nonsmoker who felt the same way. When she died of lung cancer at 49, she left behind two minor children.

Smoking was the “in thing” when I first went to college. Free cigarettes could be obtained from hostesses hired by tobacco companies to give out cigarettes to passing pedestrians. (4 packs) The Student Union cafeteria where students ate was so smoke filled that it appeared to be drenched in a heavy fog. I tried smoking on my first visit there and was overcome by a fit of coughing. During the last two years, I ate in my room.

I'm 81 now. The mixed medical opinion is that I have had a long life because I never smoked, but that I am confined to a chair with congestive heart failure from years and years of breathing in secondary smoke. I am alone because every one else in my family over the age of 58 is gone.

Don't smoke! '

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