A few weeks ago, my little brother Matthew, his wife Jennie and I were sitting in our back porch. It was about 3 in the morning and we’d just spent the last hours catching up. Not catching up as in “How’s the basement reno?” or “How’d your garden turn out this year?” but really getting down deep in there, addressing questions of happiness and health, fulfillment and disappointment, the future and the past.
Matthew and I have always taken time to do this, no matter how little we get to see each other during the year. All we usually need is one good late night to get reconnected in that nitty gritty way.
So when I brought up the issue of Matthew’s smoking habit, we were already in the calm place where we can tell each other anything. He was actually having a Benson & Hedges he’d brought from Alberta at the time, and I was well on my way down my fourth Virginia Slim.
Obviously, having a quit-smoking conversation with my little brother while I, myself, was indulging was probably not the best approach. But somehow it seemed like the right time. Matthew was in town for my father-in-law’s funeral and I’d experienced a whole month filled with hard, hard stuff.
In fact, it was that month and the ones leading up to it that had caused me to pick up a pack of cigarettes more than a few times from the nearby gas station. Before that, I’d been mostly cigarette free for almost four years. But now here I was back at it.
Matthew has smoked since he was 16. My mom and I worry and I know Jennie has tried everything in the world she can think of to get him to quit. It’s not a subject that’s easy to bring up though, in large part because we see each other so seldom I don’t want to ruin the moment by stepping up on a soapbox and preaching down from it.
But that night, for some reason, was the night. I started talking to him about my fear of him getting sick. I talked to him about the bad few years we’ve just been through with William’s health and how if we could trade William’s heart for a cigarette addiction that is controllable, we’d do it. I basically threw everything I had at him.
And he sat there and listened.
Now, I know how pleasurable smoking can be — and for that reason wish I had never tried it. It’s kind of like how I feel about White Castle. I know I’m going to like those stupid little burgers and crave them for the rest of my life, so that’s why I have never gone to the restaurant in the first place.
Like my dad before me, I love every single last part of smoking: the sound of taking the plastic off the pack, the feel of pulling off the gold foil to reveal the white sticks, the flick of the lighter, the feeling of that first, glorious drag. I associate it with relaxation, pure and simple. The day is done, the night is chirping, the weather is warm, and, Virginia, let’s celebrate.
The party is promptly over, of course, when I wake up at 3 a.m. and worry that I am getting cancer. Lung cancer, tongue cancer, lip cancer, throat cancer — I’ve dedicated whole weeks to worrying about each of them. Remorse steps in and I hate myself. How old am I that I am still playing around with my health like this? Why can’t I be well-behaved, grown up, take up crocheting or something equally practical?
Anyway, I say this because I feel like I can relate to what Matthew is going through. It sucks to quit. You feel like you’re saying goodbye to a more youthful, fun-loving self. But as we sat and talked, I could feel something sink in for him. Even now, though he is richer, better looking and smarter than me, being a big sister still carries clout.
Since, he has christened me with the new nickname Soapbox. As of today, he hasn’t had a cigarette in 14 days.
How do I feel about this? So proud it almost pains me. I can see his life after he’s removed this monkey off his back and it’s one filled with hope and vigor. I can imagine the first morning a month from now when he wakes up and, rather than coughing for several minutes, feels great.
As for me, I’m ready to smarten up too. The party has to end some time, right? So with Matthew on board, it’s time to set sail into the sea of responsibility. Goodbye, Virginia. I love you.