"My brother's wife's cousin's girlfriend's second uncle twice removed smoked four packs a day from the time he was seven and died of natural causes in his sleep at 95, right after he ran two back-to back-marathons with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips."
"My great-great-great-grandfather smoked all his life and never even got a cold. Not once. In fact, I think he's still alive! Smoke 'em if you got 'em!"
"My grandmother's best friend's mother lived to 102; ate only junk food, smoked like a chimney, and went ballroom dancing every Saturday right up until her very last day."
The Legend. That mythical, magical smoker who confidently marches through life enveloped by tendrils of deep blue smoke at all times and never, ever feels one single negative effect of it. The one who sucks deeply on those coffin nails and spits them triumphantly in the face of the Grim Reaper, if he ever dares wave his scythe in her direction. A marvel of existence, this smoker's story is told and re-told in hushed reverent tones, wherever other smokers huddle and shiver, pulling the acrid biting fumes deep into the soft fragile folds of their lungs. More than one smoker has bet his life on the existence of The Legend, with the hope of eventually becoming one himself.
And I'm here to tell you that The Legend...does in fact exist. Actually, she was my grandmother.
But, before you sigh in relief and rush off to light that cancer stick, STOP. Don't be hasty. Make a cup of tea. Get comfy. Hang in with me for a bit. You'll want to hear the rest of this.
Born in the early 1920's in Europe, my grandmother was not expected to survive for more than a couple of hours after her birth. Her parents prepared for a funeral, not a christening.
Yet, much to the surprise of the learned medical professionals of the time, survive she did. She was left with a weakened heart, but other than strict instructions to never do any vigorous exercise, she needed no other medication. I'm sure the advice would be different today, but at that time, in that place, it was considered a solid treatment plan.
In her teens and early 20's, she lived through the brutality of WWII, surviving regular bombings, violence and some of the worst that humanity could offer up, at times at point-blank range. My grandmother, as it turned out, was bullet-proof.
In her 30's, she was involved in a spectacular car crash, where she was ejected from the vehicle, pinned underneath it, and dragged through the city streets, past horrified onlookers, until the car mercifully, eventually slid to a protracted stop. The doctors told my grandfather to start making funeral arrangements. Your wife, they said, will not last through the night.
Not only did she last through the night, but a few weeks later, sporting the full body cast she was to be imprisoned in for nearly a year, she discharged herself from the hospital and arranged transportation to send her home for the rest of her recovery. She said she didn't care for hospitals.
After that, she endured communism. And food shortages. And political strife. Finally, she relocated her family overseas and began a new life.
Throughout most of that life, with all of its improbable twists and turns, she smoked. Her husband smoked. Her son smoked. As did her daughter, my mother. Her son-in-law smoked. Her daughter-in-law too. The neighbours. The cousins. The in-laws on all sides. Most of the friends, as well. Everyone except the family dogs! But that was only because they had no opposable thumbs and couldn't work the lighters; they had to make do with all the second-hand smoke instead.
Needles to say, most of my family memories were formed through a thick swirling haze.
The years went on. My grandmother, the legendary leader of us all, carried on puffing and laughing away, not a care in the world. And so it was until my other grandmother came for a visit from Europe. I was just a child when she showed up at the airport gasping for air, dragging an oxygen tank, and asking where she could light a smoke. She died soon after. COPD. She was in her 60's. And her illness and subsequent death started a chain of events that marked many of the milestones in my life.
A few years after that fateful visit, my father's only brother finally put out his last cigarette as he lay dying from throat cancer. In his 40's.
Then it was my uncle, my mom's brother - heart attack in his 40's. By an unlikely stroke of luck, he survived. The rest of the family cheered, celebrating the miracle out in the hospital parking lot, hidden from view by thick roiling clouds of smoke. But at least my uncle quit smoking after that health scare. Until he got discharged.
That stellar chapter in the family history was followed by my grandfather's unexpected and abrupt end - complications from prostate cancer surgery. Apparently they're not kidding when they say to quit smoking before all those procedures.
A few years later, it was my mom's turn to play cancer roulette - cervical cancer. In her 50's, a young, vibrant, full life ended in pain, suffering and despair within a year of diagnosis. She put out her last cigarette right before the ambulance took her away for the last time.
Yet my grandmother, by then in her 80's, kept smoking, not a hint of cough in sight. Nary a pill needed. Puffing away, enduring the unending, unrelenting misery of watching her loved ones suffer and die in agony, one after another in short succession, by the hand of an addiction she refused to leave behind.
The stale tendrils of smoke next reached out to my father, who, in his late 50's, consumed by grief after losing my mother, his childhood sweetheart, started a new life. One which did not include any part of his old one, save for smoking. We all cope in our own ways, I suppose. My last memory of him, likely the only one I'll have, is of a cigarette firmly clenched between his ruined teeth, wisps of smoke escaping through a crack in the car window, the sounds of a wracking cough slowly dying on the wind as he drove out of my life.
A few years later, still unbearably broken of heart over her daughter's (my mother's) early death, my grandmother, at 92, in good health and surrounded by swirls of smoke, caught a cold. And then she was gone.
My only comfort was that she was finally released from her grief. As it turned out, I had one other reason to be thankful, if you can call it that, a couple of years later. She didn't have to watch as her only surviving child, now in his 60's, having lived through that early heart attack, smoked his way through to a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. And then he was gone too.
And me? Despite being witness to all of this, I had started smoking in my early 20's, and I kept right on doing it. After all, my grandmother lived to 92 and she had smoked all her life! She was never sick! She was MY legend. That mythical magical excuse I used to keep smoking, even as my family fell around me, one by one.
But, you see, my nicotine-addled brain only saw my grandmother - an active, shiny 92 - the blue smoke accenting the ice blue of her eyes. THE LEGEND. It didn't register that every single person I had loved had died, horribly, because of smoking. Smoking was either a strong contributing factor or a direct cause for every illness or ill effect that befell each of them. But I only saw THE LEGEND, so blinded was I by that smoky haze surrounding my brain.
By my late 30's, other than a few cousins and distant relatives I had no real contact with, my whole family, the ones I spent Christmas and Easter with, the ones I grew up with, the ones I called with news big and small, the ones I loved, were gone. An only child, I was the only one left standing. And smoking.
Yes, you build your own family with your partner, close friends also fill the gaps and life carries on. But it's never quite the same. There is always a sadness and an empty space that you can never fill in. I'm optimistic and happy-go-lucky by nature, but I've spent more nights sobbing into my pillow than I'd care to admit because of all I have lost. There is no one alive now who remembers my first steps, or who it was that got drunk on that trip to the cottage that year and went skinny dipping in the lake. There is no one I can phone if I forget how to bake my grandmother's famous apple cake. It's like a part of my life, of my memories, just disappeared into nothingness. I didn't have enough time to hear all the stories, to collect all the recipes and to share some of mine. And I never will. There have been so many moments that I wanted to pick up the phone and call them. But there will never again be anyone on the other end of those calls.
And I know that people die. And the younger generations are left with only memories and they move on, in turn raising younger generations. It's the natural order of things. But not this early. Not yet. I should have had another 30 years, maybe not with my grandparents, but with everyone else. So many memories that will never get made. Instead, where a family had once been, I just had a pack of smokes. Cold comfort, that, especially on those days. You know the ones. Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, Mondays; all are bittersweet.
Having somehow survived, mentally and physically intact thus far, into my early 40's, it was finally time for me to make a very important decision. Where am I going to place my bet?
Having seen what that one first puff of a cigarette, that each member of my family took at one point in their lives, amounted to, I saw what it meant to be a smoker. The odds of survival there, quite frankly, stunk!
But I didn't want to be a Legend either.
Because when you hear the stories of THE LEGEND, as told in that smoking huddle, you're not ever getting the full picture. My Legend, my grandmother, was an anomaly. The exception that proves the rule. Yes, she smoked right to the end. Yes, she lived to 92. No, she did not die of cancer or a heart attack or any of the other 100 diseases brought on by smoking. But in the end, legends don't get to escape smoking's wrath either; it just gets them in a different way. My grandmother may have had a long life, but her final chapters were just as touched by smoking's miserable effects as those who die of a smoking-related disease. Mental suffering can be just as much a prison as physical impairment, for those who have to endure it. She paid her smoking dues, my grandmother, with interest. Up close, legends are just sad addicts with nothing left to live for, the gift of time now a curse. How aspirational is that?
So, don't envy The Legends. Don't use them as an excuse to keep sucking on those refried butts. Don't romanticize them. And don't bet that you'll be one, either, if you're still so inclined. Legends are considered special and mythical for one main reason; there are so very, very few of them. Placing a bet here would just be foolish.
My decision was finally made. I put all my chips on being a free and happy Quitter. There are no guarantees, of course, but I really like my odds here.
And now that the smoke has cleared, and you too can see the true story behind THE LEGEND, it's your turn to bet. Choose wisely.