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When Asked the Question 'Did You Smoke?'

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The question was asked over and over  — each time someone new came in to my mom’s hospital room.

White scrubs, navy blue, turquoise… they all asked: “Did you smoke?”

So, my mom answered each time, “Yes.”


Yes, sixty years ago, when we all did. When it was OK. Not even OK —  expected.

I quit 35 years ago when my first grandchild was born. Annie. That’s when I quit. When one morning, as I was drinking my coffee, I reached for my pack of Silva Thins menthol and there wasn’t a pack within reach. I went through the day without ever finding that pack and then I quit. When Annie was born.

“How long did you smoke?”

As long as it was cool. As long as cigarettes were thirty cents a pack. As long as I needed 10 minutes of solitude as I was raising a family and trying to make sense of my life.

Don’t give me that look… the judgmental one. Don’t look at me like that.. like you never smoked…or wanted to. Or even just a couple of times when you were out drinking with your sorority sisters. At your bridal shower or with your friend who just confessed to her affair or any number of times when you just “tried it.”

Or maybe you didn’t. And that’s great. That doesn’t save you, you know, but it’s great. I wish I never did. Or I wish I quit ten years earlier or whatever it would have taken to prevent this stage 4 lung cancer that found its way into my bones within two months.

In September I was feeling short of breath, and in October they sent me to the hospital with pneumonia. It wasn’t pneumonia, but they didn’t say cancer. By November a renowned surgeon cut me open to peel back the layer of my lung they thought was causing all the problems, but when he went in there was so much cancer, he backed out and just took a biopsy. And sent me home.

Early on the morning of my 83rd birthday in December I couldn’t breathe, so I convinced my husband to call an ambulance and spent my birthday in the ER waiting to find out why. Why can’t I breathe?

“Did you smoke?”

The pulmonologist, a colleague of my own doctor, came in to see me after I was admitted — and this was his first question. I had never seen him before, nor he me, but he apparently decided to take the authoritarian judgmental approach, and before I could tell my story, he said, “Good day,” and left the room.

“Good day.” Because me sitting in a hospital on my 83rd birthday just shrieks of “good day.”

Yes. I smoked. I’m sorry. That’s what we do, right? Women are the great apologists. We apologize for deadly cells forming in our bodies and messing up everyone’s Christmas or Thanksgiving or birthdays.

I’m sorry I got cancer. I’m sorry I didn’t quit sooner. I’m sorry I can’t breathe. I’m sorry I’m dying.


And my mom did die. In a hospice room a little over two weeks after an oncologist told her on December 29 she had between several weeks and six months to live. Yes, she smoked. I smoked. So many people did and do. The question is still an accusation. It elicits defensiveness.

Well, yes I once smoked, but I quit. I tried to quit. I wish I could quit. Smoking is bad and quitting is hard.

Let’s not hit people over the head with it when they’re dying, though, OK?

This post was originally published on Medium.

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Getty Images photo via chaoss

Originally published: January 2, 2018
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