I’m generally a pretty happy person. Considering that my job is to keep up to date on environmental issues, I think this is pretty impressive. It’s not easy being aware of just how much we’ve trashed the planet, knowing how jeopardized our future is, and still find a way to look on the bright side of life.
But the past few days, I’ve been really, really down. More despondent than I’ve felt in a very long time. The kind of sad that comes with a sharp ache in your heart, like the loss of your first love. I can’t seem to get anything done, and I find myself bursting into tears a dozen times a day.
The reason is simple: my mother won’t stop smoking.
A lot of my friends smoke. In fact, practically all of them smoke (I do live in London, “The Big Smoke,” after all). But it doesn’t cause me pain to see them light up the way it does when I see her do it.
I am emotionally very close to my mother, and I am extremely similar to her in many ways. I feel more of a bond with her than I do any other person on earth. So when I hear her hack and wheeze, it’s like I can feel my own lungs collapsing in on themselves.
I haven’t met many people who are as close to their mom as I am. She is an incredible mother, and she has always given me the kind of love and support that is very, very rare among parents. Everyone’s parents are special, but I’m telling you: my mother is something else.
I never went through any period of angst or rebellion as a teen because there was no need. She always accepted me for who I really was, not for who she wanted me to be. She never tried to control me because she sincerely believed in me. She trusted me, and always allowed me the freedom to make all my own choices (she once said that the only thing she could find under my bed that would upset her was a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations).
I never once felt like there was anything I couldn’t talk to her about. Nor was there anything I could ask of her that she wouldn’t give.
Except for one thing, just one. I have been begging and pleading with my mother to stop smoking for as long as I can remember. She promised me when I was eight years old that she would quit. She didn’t, needless to say. It’s been a sore point with me ever since.
The fact of the matter is that she loves to smoke. She has lost quite a few teeth over the years to her habit, and still that has not persuaded her to quit. Every time she has had a tooth ripped out of her skull it has made me feel physically ill. She wears a bridge now.
I asked her recently, after yet another tooth had to be removed, if she was willing to keep smoking if it meant losing every single last tooth. She paused, looked sheepish, and said: “I’m sorry, but it’s true – I’d rather keep smoking and lose every tooth in my head than stop.” I burst into tears.
My step-grandfather even offered her £10,000 to stop, and she hasn’t. That’s how much she loves to smoke. And, considering that she’s been smoking for 40 years, and that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the planet, it’s somewhat understandable, although still deplorable.
For the past several months she has been wheezing. It’s not acute wheezing, it’s not as though she’s unable to climb a flight of stairs. But every single breath she takes sounds ever so slightly forced. I don’t think most people notice it – she swears she doesn’t – but I know my mother, and I know what her natural breathing sounds like, and this isn’t it. Every time she breathes in I literally feel a tinge of pain. I’m so close to her, it’s like I can feel it in my own chest.
Our whole family wants her to stop smoking. But nobody sees her as often as I do, so none of them have to see face to face her deterioration as often as I do. Each time she breathes in, it’s like hearing nails on a chalk board. I can’t help but say, every time, “You’re WHEEZING, can’t you HEAR it?” It’s gotten to the point that both her and I are sick of my harping. But I can’t help it. I just can’t say nothing. Especially as several of my closest friends have lost a parent to cancer in the past few years, the idea of her dying young doesn’t seem so unlikely.
They say that you just can’t force somebody to quit smoking, but what, then, am I supposed to do? Just sit here and watch her die?
I wrote to my family for some advice. My uncle – my aunt’s husband – wrote this to me:
“It’s terrible to hear how poorly your mother is doing. I don’t know that there is anything her sister — or anyone — can do. My family and I all spent years trying to persuade my father to stop smoking. He’d just make a dismissive joke each time. He didn’t stop until he was diagnosed with emphysema at the age of sixty and he died in horrible circumstances from it eight years later. I cannot tell you how painful it was to see him in his last six months in hospital and nursing home, tethered to machines that helped him breathe. Eventually he saw there was no use. He wasn’t ever going to get better. And he asked to simply have his oxygen lowered so that he would slip into a sleep, then die. And he did. I wish I could take her on that journey. But I can’t. And somehow I think she has to come to this on her own, in her own way.”
Maybe I can’t help her. But I ask again: what, then, am I supposed to do? I feel like I am witnessing the early stages of emphysema, the beginning of a slow and painful death.
When it comes to environmental issues, although the state of the planet makes me very, very sad, I can make some kind of peace with it all most of the time. When I first started working as an environmental reporter, I found myself sleepless and crying on a regular basis. Now I’ve kind of gone past the point of worry. I’m so aware of just how bad things are that I’ve basically accepted that I’m going to watch the planet grow sicker and sicker as I grow older, and there’s not much I can do about it. All I can do is enjoy my life as much as I can, and do everything I can as an individual to try to make things better. As long as I do that, I know I’ve done my best, and I can sleep at night.
But I just can’t get to that stage when it comes to my mother. I can’t just let go. I can’t just focus on my own choices in life (like not smoking myself), and resign myself to the fact that she’s going to smoke herself to death. I just can’t get there. I mean, it’s my MOM.
So I am increasingly finding it hard to control my emotions. I’ve begged, scolded, cried, sobbed, screamed, and given her stony silence. Nothing seems to get through. And it’s putting a barrier between us. She is afraid to be around me, because it’s always difficult and it’s rarely fun anymore. I hate that I seem to be the only person who gets on her case all the time about this, I hate that I have to be the bad cop. But I refuse to stop.
So I’ve considered staging some form of non-violent protest. I’m so desperate that I actually considered a hunger strike. But then I realized that I might actually starve to death waiting for her to quit. Then I thought about a silent strike: refuse to speak to her until she butts out. But then I realized how incredibly impractical that would be, as well as lonely and painful. (Aside: I never realized how tricky it is to come up with effective forms of non-violent protest. No wonder the French are rioting.)
I just don’t know what to do. And what really kills me is the fact that she quit the second she found out she was pregnant, both times, and refrained from puffing until she gave birth. So clearly she has the willpower in her, somewhere, to stop. She could do it for the love of her children, but sadly – tragically – she can’t do it for the love of herself.
This, I think, causes me more pain than anything: seeing so plainly the fact that she doesn’t care about herself. My beautiful, brilliant, funny, irreplaceable mother is precious to me beyond comparison – and she doesn’t care about herself.
What can I do? Just a few things.
One: Keep harassing her (I simply can’t stop).
Two: Express my emotions the way I know how. If I was an artist, I’d paint something. If I was a musician, I’d compose a song. But I’m not, I’m a writer. So here you have it.
Three: Laugh. The ability to find humour in even the most tragic things in life is, to me, the only way to deal sometimes. An environmental activist once said to me, “black humour really helps.” It really does.
Any fans of Frisky Dingo out there? This scene from episode seven, with the mercenary super soldiers the Xtacles making pottery together, makes me chuckle:
“What’s with you and hogging green?”
“Get your own green!”
“Hey what is that?”
“What is that even supposed to BE?”
“It’s… it’s an ashtray.”
“It’s, uh, it’s for my mom.”
“Diane still SMOKES?”
“Right in the uh … [points to throat] you know, the little neck hole.”
“Dude, I know.”
“Dude, I know!”
“Dude, I know, my [BLEEP]ing mom!”
“Dude… I KNOW.”
For a week my Facebook profile read: “Zoe is going to be that Xtacle making an ashtay for his tracheotomized mom.”
Anyways. Yesterday my mother told me that she was going to take a small step towards quitting, by cutting down and using foam tips as filters in her rolled cigarettes (instead of rolled cardboard). It’s not enough – and I’m not going to stop harassing her – but it is a start.
So for an evening we made peace, drank wine, and watched the first seven episodes of Frisky Dingo.
She laughed as much as I did at the pottery scene.