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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

In Defiance of Death


Many of my friends rightly express deep concern each time they see pictures of me with a cigarette. Long-time friends may remember seeing me with a briar tobacco pipe dangling from my mouth as I pounded a typewriter (didn’t all great writers smoke pipes back then? Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and Harlan Ellison come immediately to mind), but few people seldom, if ever, saw me smoke a cigarette. Oh sure, I smoked a cigarette on stage in Bertold Brecht’s Private Life of the Master Race. I also smoked cigarettes when I was in the Army and the sergeant called out “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” and smoking didn’t make me a target by breaking light discipline at night.

I quit smoking a briar pipe when my wife Gretta was diagnosed with a heart condition. I didn’t want her breathing second-hand smoke. For nearly ten years, I made it one of my missions in life to help people become smoke-free. I even have a best-selling audio CD entitled “Smoke-Free Forever”. I practiced and taught hypnosis techniques to help people quit. I was extraordinarily successful.

                When my wife Gretta died of a sudden heart attack in 2012, I heard Gretta telling me “I want a cigarette.” She first told me that when I picked her up at the hospital after she had been injured in an automobile accident in a suburban Chicagoland shopping mall parking lot. I stopped at Walgreens and bought her a package of cigarettes at the same time I picked up her pain medications. We had both stopped smoking when Gretta’s father suffered his own heart attack years before Gretta.  Gretta went back to smoking cigarettes and I went back to smoking a pipe. Gretta quit again when her mother became ill with cancer. I continued to smoke a pipe intermittently. But when Gretta died, her words “I want a cigarette” haunted me until I bought a package of cigarettes and lit one.

                I know intellectually, as a trained psychologist, that people have a tendency to regress at times of extreme stress. I implant post-hypnotic suggestions to counter such regressions when working with clients. I neglected to do the same with myself.

                I regressed to two significant events in my past when I had told loved ones not to smoke. My father had smoked cigarettes for fifty years. I urged my father to give up smoking after my mother died. I was a non-smoker back then, and I did not want to lose my father to lung cancer. My father quit smoking to please me. Shortly after that, he died of a sudden heart attack. I associated my father’s death with my urging him to quit smoking. I began smoking in memory of my father. I told Gretta not to begin smoking again in that Walgreens’ parking lot. But she had insisted “I want a cigarette” and I acquiesced. I always gave Gretta what she wanted.

                When Gretta died of a sudden heart attack, I was reminded of my father dying.

                Some psychologists would say all this is merely a rationalization because I’m addicted to nicotine, and they may be right. Regardless, I now smoke as my antidote against death.

                I also receive significant secondary gains from smoking. Smoke keeps people away from me so I can devote my time to writing. I don’t want to be close to people who are going to die. As crazy as it may sound, I actually believe smoking will drive death away.

                Much of my current writing is devoted to characters who defy death. Some of my characters have a death wish (thank you, Brian Garfield, for introducing me to the concept). Manjusri, one of the major characters in my novel Abandoned, must climb the holy mountain to come literally face-to-face with and conquer Yama, the God of Death, himself. In the end, of course, we all must come face-to-face with death. Not even smoking can keep death away for long.

                But finding ways to function in the face of death is a challenge. Cigarettes help me meet that challenge.

                Don’t talk to me about dying. I know I’m going to die someday. Maybe there’s nothing noble about holding a cigarette in my hand. But no one I have ever loved has died while I was smoking. No one. Ever. So I smoke, not only for myself, but for you. As long as I smoke, I can keep you alive.

                Do you still want me to quit?


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