Smoking with the Patch On

4:09 pm Essays

The way I saw it, I had two choices before me the morning I came downstairs to find Stella firmly tethered to her oxygen tank – and defiantly waving a zippo and a Parliament. Run like hell or stand and fight. Even with cancer, my 82-year-old mother was a force to be reckoned with. Wrapped in her ratty afghan, with her defiant thatch of white hair, stained sweatshirt and watery blue eyes, she looked like an elderly Andy Warhol in hausfrau drag. As frail as she was, I knew better than to underestimate her craving. She was as dangerous as a crackhead on the first day of rehab.

“I don’t even want to smoke,” she said, pulling back as if I were a stranger in a raincoat determined to snatch her candy. “I just want to take one hit.”

Smoking was Stella’s one true religion. She was the Mother Teresa of the Temple of Lucky Strikes. When I was a little girl lost in Woolworth’s all I had to do was stop and listen. Once I heard the coughing, I’d just follow the sound to mother. I did the math once. At three packs a day, for 73 years, Stella had smoked an astonishing 1.6 million cigarettes. She got hooked on nicotine, on that long lovely pull, when she was 9, a fatherless little girl living in Waterbury, Conn. Her mother, a Lithuanian immigrant whose English was pretty much limited to “How much?” “Too much” and “Where’s the toilet?” handed cigarettes out like candy to keep her brood quiet. I guess she figured if they were coughing, they couldn’t cry so much.

Now, Stella was all grown up — and I was at home and in charge. I’d been living the high life in New York City, an executive with a corner office and a neck-craning view of the Hudson. My mother’s cancer gave me the opportunity to change all that, to come home — to the fabulous Jersey Shore. Cloaked by a chilly late winter, trapped inside with a crotchety old woman lugging around an oxygen tank and a bad attitude. I did the only thing possible: I started smoking.

Until then, I’d been an adamant non-smoker, the kind who gleefully threw away other people’s cigarettes and gave hell to smokers who dared puff in my presence. I knew all the statistics, and willingly imparted them to anyone dangling a death-stick. But when it came my turn, I embraced my new habit with gusto. Cigarettes became my new best friend. I needed something. Drugs and alcohol were out. I couldn’t handle her, and a woozy, boozy disposition at the same time.

One of my earliest memories from childhood was my mother’s morning routine: a cigarette and a cup of coffee to greet the day. Now, it belonged to me. But in the strangest of ways, it made me closer to my mother than anything else ever could. At last, after years of trying, I finally understood something about Stella.

Growing up, I was the absence of Stella. We weren’t just night and day – we were Haagen-Dazs to Turkey Hill Frozen Delights, Rachmaninov to Liberace. Every kid wanted June Cleaver. I got Lucille Ball – with attitude. Stella got these urges. And when she did, god help us. If Sears had a sale on gray paint, she’d buy six cans and proceed to paint every white surface in the house, including the kitchen cabinets, the kitchen sink – and the bathtub. For months after, I’d sit in the tub with my little yellow ducky, now slick with gray, bobbing in the oily surface that comes only when you paint enamel with a non-enamel substance.

Once, she bought me a pony. Every little girl’s dream, right? I’ll never forget the sight of my poor dad’s face the night he came home after a hard day at the chemical plant to find Baby the pony tied to the oak tree in the front yard. There was no hay, of course. No grain to feed it. No stable. Just poor Baby, tied to that tree. He was cute enough, but with a watery digestive problem and a rapacious bite. Unfortunately for me, little girls were his favorite dish. Stella had bought him from a drunk in the bar where she worked. He had a hard-luck story. She had $50. That was Stella, all heart and inspiration – and to hell with the consequences.

Cancer, though, has consequences. If she smoked again, she’d die even sooner than the doctor predicted. This latest predicament was my own fault. I knew enough to keep my cigarettes well hidden. Somehow, Stella had sniffed out a stray. I looked at her, and felt my heart swell and break. She was begging her baby daughter for the one thing left that gave her any real pleasure. Could I really deny a dying woman a last wish?

Yes. Yes, I could. Growing up, the specter of death had rung our doorbell and gleefully run away, giggling into his bony paw, more times than I could count. Dying was Stella’s attention-getter and bargaining chip, one she shamefully used to lure her four children home at any opportunity.

“You’d better come home for Easter,” she’d say during her weekly call to my Wisconsin dorm. “I’m sure I won’t see another spring.”

“If I were you, I’d skip that trip to the Dells. I doubt I can hold out till Christmas.”

“Sure you can always go to your friend’s wedding. But don’t expect me to be here past Hanukah.” When I’d remind her we were Catholic, she’d say, “Those Jews get more holidays than all the other religions rolled together. They even get two Halloweens.” “Stella,” I’d say, “it’s called Purim, and I don’t think candy is the point.” Even through the phone, I could see her batting her hand and muttering “pfffffft.”

Despite a rheumy cough and a steady diet of nicotine, caffeine and booze (rum, coke, 2 cubes, short glass) Stella was never actually sick. Like many Children of the Depression, Stella was a survivor, a 5-foot-8 sinew, bone, bouffant and pot belly survivor. She never took vitamins or exercised in a gym. She worked, spending half her life in one smoke-filled tavern after another, hefting 32-pound cases of beer from the cellar to the bar with the ease of a mother cradling a newborn. Well into her 60s, she walked her dog, a scruffy mutt named Frenchy, five miles a day – confidently predicting her pending death even as she laced up her New Balance sneakers. Up until the last year of her life, the only time she ever spent in a hospital was to give birth to her kids – and that she did with a shot and a cigarette every time.

So when an actual doctor finally told my siblings and I Stella’s cancer would most certainly kill her, we all said, “It’s about god-damned time.” By then, she’d been “dying” for 25 years.

Stella didn’t fear death, especially now. She happily invited him in for coffee and a light. Every morning since we’d arrived at the Jersey Shore for her recuperation from surgery, she’d wake up and say the exact same thing: “Am I dead yet?” And every morning I answered the same way: “Yeah, you old broad. Welcome to heaven. Jesus is in the can. Make sure you take the air freshener when you go in.”

Whenever I could, I’d sneak outside like a guilty teenager, prop my feet on the porch railing and watch the waves pound the shore, one cigarette in my hand and another smoldering in the ashtray. Instead of Prozac, I had Parliament Lights. That sweet inhale was the only thing that got me through a day spent with Stella, wrapped tight in her ratty afghan, her only source of amusement Regis and Kelly, Rosie and Oprah. And me.

The day she came home from the hospital was the day it finally hit me. For the first time in my life, another human being was completely dependent on me. Me, the single one with the still-empty fish tank in her apartment, the one who used her oven to store shoes. My mother was helpless as a newborn, confused and in pain. Any thoughts that this would be a lark were erased the first time I changed her diaper.

Holding onto your own mother, naked in the tub, as afraid of the warm water as she once was of running outa cigarettes, is a sobering moment for a daughter. As I carefully washed her wounds and awkwardly maneuvered her bird-like body out of the tub, I thought, “This is what my body will look like. This is my future.” My second thought? “Who will be there to take care of me?”

I’d always considered myself capable. Strong, even. After all, I ran a department in one of the world’s largest media companies. But it didn’t take but a day for me to admit that housewives and mothers had the most grueling jobs in the world. Back in the city, I’d take a cappuccino break at 10 am, to chat with my co-workers about the latest exhibit at the Met. Now, by mid-morning, I’d already gotten my mother roused from a fitful sleep, figured out which medicines to sneak into her oatmeal, dressed her, done the dishes, gone food shopping – and started planning for lunch.

Meals presented the greatest challenge. They were the Omaha Beach of my new life. Before, I considered planning for dinner dialing the telephone to the nearest take-out joint. The first time I tried cooking a chicken I was so worried about salmonella poisoning I cooked it at 375 degrees for four hours. Needless to say, that chicken was as appetizing as laundry lint. Oh, yeah, my cooking improved, but it didn’t matter. My mother complained about everything I made. A typical conversation went something like this:

Mom: What’s this?

Me: It’s bean and vegetable soup. I made it from scratch.

Mom: I hate soup.

Me: You love soup. I made it just the way you used to. Just taste it. You’ll like it.

Mom: I want ice cream. And a cigarette.

Most days, we just talked, which, for us, was unusual. Before the cancer, our conversations were pretty much limited to: “You gotta eat more lasagna. The cheese will help your digestion.” Now, she’d remember a good day from my childhood or the way my dad liked to call me Lady Jane. I think it had something to do with those hard yellow candies they used to sell at our local Woolworths. One Sunday, she even made it to the ocean’s edge. Still she protested all the way that she “never did much like the beach.” But when she got home she called everyone in the family to tell them about sitting on the hot sand – and to complain about those dirty seagulls. Small victories, they were. As good, and as easy, as a slice of sweet pie. The kind she used to make, when summers meant sitting outside on our picnic table with chicken noodle soup and peanut butter sandwiches, under the oak that dominated our yard in Pine Beach.

After nearly 2 months, and despite my cooking, my mother was well enough to return to my older sister’s care, freeing me to return to my life in the big city, to my own green field of denial. Before I left, she told me she loved me in the only way she knew how. She shrugged and said, “I got used to you. But you have to go, right?” I did.

A few months later, we celebrated my mother’s 83rd birthday. She was strong enough to beg me for a cigarette when she caught me outside, sneaking one for myself. I looked at her — like a gnarled, white-haired child she was — asking her baby daughter for the one thing left that gave her any real pleasure. I hesitated, and then shook one from the pack. That night, Stella went into the hospital. Three days before Christmas, I was called to her deathbed.

As it turned out, it was the longest night of the year — December 21. Outside at the nurse’s station, they played an endless loop of Christmas carols. I tried to say all those things they say in the movies – all the while competing with “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” It was a moment Stella would have appreciated. Just like I did when I was a child, I laid my head on her breast, close enough to hear her heart beat. It was as soft as the flutter of wings. Finally, she was still.

The nurse came and I asked for a moment. I wanted to peel off all the band-aids stuck to her skin — so thin it was, like crumbling parchment. I combed her hair. She never wore it neat. This was my own small triumph. Soon after, my brother came for me and after saying his goodbyes we went outside. Dawn was breaking, bathing everything in a steel gray. I thought of that tub she painted so many years ago, and I had to laugh. My brother understood. And then, we each lit a cigarette. For Stella.

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