Despite having done the following for most of my life; drinking things warmed in the microwave, eating kool-aid straight out of the packet, using a roll-on anti-perspirant daily, a couple of weeks ago, I managed to hit a quarter century.
However, it was a birthday spent mostly in bed (I wish I could do a giggley-wink-wink here, but I was merely whiney, miserable and sickly with flu et al.), followed by two weeks of corporeal rebellion.
How predictable that epiphanies would come bouncing along wearing their “Stick with the winners” badges as I approached the eve of ageing.
It’s been a while since my last cigarette. Note ‘last’. I can say this with an almost arrogant certainty, “I will never smoke again.”
I did not find some aspect of God. A fractured personality did not suddenly develop moral fortitude and stage its coup while I slept. I just didn’t want to any more.
There was something about my habit that lingered with each dissipating exhalation.
The blues and greys were the rising detritus of past demolitions. Ugly things that diminished me and built me up so long ago, they might as well have not existed. And yet I still held this thing to my lips.
I smoked because I wanted to see. I smoked because I wanted to feel. I smoked because people didn’t expect me to.
I smoked because I liked it.
I have fond memories of burning tobacco.
There were conversations with good friends that stretched over sunsets, ashtrays and hours.
There were the liftclub cigarettes, the packs that belonged to everyone and no one, the ones we prayed over, hoping we didn’t stink of the guilt when we got home to our families.
A solitary indulgence sometimes, I’d take to quiet heights with views of the city and myself; the roof of the archi building at Wits, Great Hall stairs, the balcony of my boss’ house when we still had offices there.
I can still taste the menthol of a slow Craven A, the best after a meal at Muchacho’s while driving down the Brixton Hill towards Auckland Park that one day in 2003.
There was the cigarette in my cousin’s garden on the morning of my wedding; everything was damp from the rain, and so sharp, I could cut with the leaves.
My last cigarette was dispatched without any ritual; the end stubbed out among a billion other crutches in the communal ashtray of our office smoking room. I walked back to the office, without a word to anyone.
And that was it really.
I don’t wish to glorify something that has the potential to harm you. I lived through my grandfather’s struggle to breathe. A chain smoker, who had to stop because of a bullet that grazed his lung during a robbery he stumbled upon. After decades of reaching into his pocket for the next one, he quit just like that. The damage was already done. It was a few years after that, when he needed two oxygen machines, because he just couldn’t do it on his own. Something so basic, done without active thought, and yet there he was, aware every second that those humming machines were the gatekeepers of his mortality.
I should’ve known better. And I did, but I smoked anyway. There’s this quote from Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram that I often pull out, something along the lines of, “I smoked in those days, because like all people who smoked, I wanted to die as much as I wanted to live.”
And maybe I was caught up in something I didn’t quite understand. But you get on in years, and if you’re lucky, you learn from what you’ve lost and your world becomes that much easier to navigate.
This is not a ‘come walk with me, I have seen the light’ post.
People smoke for different reasons. People quit for different reasons. Some people never smoke at all. But one thing I do know, we all have our crutches. I know I’m still leaning on a few.