I will never forget the look on my husband’s face as he helped carry his grandmother’s casket to a hearse waiting outside a little Catholic church in a tiny town in Nebraska on a cold, windy November afternoon.
Marcella Svendsen, my mother-in-law’s mother, died of lung cancer in 2010. She smoked for much of her life.
I have very rarely seen my husband cry, but he did as we buried his only remaining grandmother that day. He wept because he loved her dearly, and he couldn’t believe that she died because of something she chose to do, despite her family’s warnings and despite the fact that she gave herself cancer because of that choice. He wept because he couldn’t bear to see his mom, aunts, uncles, and cousins so sad, and I wept for all of them, trying to understand why Marcella sent herself to the grave.
Before Marcella died of lung cancer, I didn’t have much of an argument against smoking besides “it’s bad for you, it’s stupid, and it makes you smell bad.” But that cold afternoon after I watched Marcella’s grandchildren each take home a yellow rose from her casket, it hit me.
Smoking is utterly selfish. Marcella never quit smoking because it made her feel too good to do it and she was addicted. If she had seen the sadness in the little church in Nebraska that day, I hope she would have quit so that her children and grandchildren could have spent more time with her. Instead, she kept puffing away until she killed herself, thinking more about how to satisfy her craving than how her actions would very immediately and painfully affect the lives of those around her.
For years, as a student and now as a member of Hillsdale College’s faculty, I’ve walked through clouds of smoke as I enter campus buildings. I have always hated to see bright, young college students do something as idiotic as smoking cigarettes, but now when I hold my breath as I squeeze past them, I think about the grandchildren they won’t get to love because they will have died before they got to know them.
Some of the students I work closely with for this newspaper smoke on a regular basis. Not only do I think they are making a stupid, unhealthy choice by doing it, I find myself attaching the word “selfish” to them in my mind. Why else would they do something that is clearly not good for them and very obviously harms anyone they’re close to? Oh right – because this is the “me” generation, and satisfying themselves is more important than thinking of others.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly updates reports detailing the effects of smoking. It found in a 2002 report that those who smoke die, on average, 14 years earlier than nonsmokers. Not a year or two earlier — fourteen years earlier.
If Marcella Svendsen had lived 14 more years, I would have been able to spend more time with her. As it was, I met her once in 2008 and then saw her a second time at my sister-in-law’s wedding. She couldn’t make it to mine — she was dying of lung cancer at a hospital in Nebraska.
If she had lived 14 more years, she could have met and spent years getting to know any children Ryan and I will have. If she had lived 14 more years, she could have spent them with her husband, Don, who is now drifting further and further into confusion each time we see him — his wife smoked herself to death and left him to die alone in a nursing home. I could waste many words describing the dozen kinds of cancer smoking causes or how tobacco companies profit from addiction, but I think the most effective non-smoking argument is a simpler one.
Smoking is, at its core, completely and totally selfish. It doesn’t benefit you in any way and every time you inhale, you’re one breath closer to death, one breath closer to being lowered into the ground while your grieving family watches above.
Which 14 years of your life would you like to give up? After you finish that cigarette, sit down and write a letter to your future grandchildren, explaining why you couldn’t make it to their weddings: you were too busy feeling good when you were 21.