I began smoking again after close to two decades of not on the day of my daughter’s wedding, when my Chef and I along with my brother and sister-in-law were doing a pub crawl to drown our broken hearts at not being invited. I didn’t intend to add that horrible habit back into my list of vices, it just happened as most tumbles off the wagon do, with an offer for one, just to be crazy for the day, to be utterly rebellious, to illustrate just how deeply we devastated we were and maybe to scream at the God we were striving to find, even in our drunkenness. That first cigarette led to another as the day wore on and my sobriety returned. Serenity in the routine, lighting one up, slow deep breaths, as I sat alone, exiled, who wants to sit with a smoker? The habit returned and for a long time, for many many packs of those Kool Blue shorts, I welcomed it as an indicator of my brokenness. Could God find me if I lit this torch in the wilderness, would God seek me out again and bridge the divide between my daughter and I if I was covered in this ash of repentance? I sat alone on my porch day after day, waiting.
The practice of repentance smoking grew with my loneliness and ache. While I didn’t really want to smoke, I didn’t really not want to either. Lost in limbo, unable to garner enough concern to quit, I allowed my routines to become enmeshed with the craving, first thing in the morning with my coffee, after every meal, before bed. Many nights I would rise out of a deep sleep and go outside again, just to smoke and wonder what I could possibly do to change my relationship with Stella as I gazed at the stars she used to identify for me. As I continued to smoke and she didn’t reach out, I accepted the horrid breath and the smoky clothes and the coughing and the harm to my body as penance. I witnessed the disgust in my Chef’s eyes, I listened as he walked away from me, further and further. I accepted my punishment. I imagined scenarios of her returning home and me throwing away the coveted pack of Kool’s, tossing out my lighter. I experienced plenty of alone time to think and imagine as no one wanted to be around me during my puffing sessions, I didn’t want them there either. Fifteen minute retreats into despair spread throughout the day, moments for me to indulge in smoking and sulking.
After two and a half years though, I knew the punishment phase of my grieving had to stop. Just as laying in bed and letting the world continue without me hadn’t brought her back, no amount of nicotine would either. Finally, embracing my health for me, I chose to stop. I am edgy and twitchy and wishing for my vice and yet I am freer. I see the sad woman sitting alone, and I don’t want to be that sad anymore. I see how smoking was a slow suicide, a jumper on the edge of the bridge, begging someone to stop them, give them a reason to live. I recognize I have reasons other than my children, yet being their mom was my core identity. That portion sliced away left me too empty, the space filled up only with deep inhalations of smoke and then each slowed release of my devastation into the air, polluting my body and my surroundings, creating synchronicity.
Still I quit, the latest act of acceptance that I have no impact on this child ever walking across the bridge I have built. Filling my days with all those 15 minute retreats left me shamed and isolated, filling that spare time now is daunting. Attempting to break the habit of missing her, of wondering what I haven’t done that might work, imagining scenarios of her car in front of the house every time I turn the corner, dreaming of running into her at the store, always always seeking her face, I now have to take deep breaths and recognize that I cannot break that addiction. My craving for relationships to be rebuilt, to be rejoined with those who have walked away, I cannot kick this one. No big cosmic reward for avoiding the gas station, not picking up the spare pack this time, not searching the trash for a butt and feeling that momentary aliveness, even as it escaped my lungs, no now I am left with truth as any addict finds, that my problems are still my problems, just without the high to carry me through.
My Plum was ecstatic, the few friends that I have told grew tearful and celebrated with me. Still, I seek something to fill the void, to remind me to take those deep breaths and release my toxins. If smoking was the symbol of the cancer within my relationship, how will anyone know I am in pieces still, that I have not closed this chapter even as I crumpled the last box of cigarettes and tossed them away, that the tumor still resides within my heart? Each burnt offering I lit and consumed, the incense of filth I blew around my altar to a God who is not taking my calls, has blocked me on social media, is too busy with hurricanes to check His voicemail, the ashtray and lighter, my addiction paraphernalia evidence of past sins and secret desperate wishes for a Savior. I no longer attend the church of self punishment, I don’t tithe my pack a day as the offering plate of an overflowing ashtray sits waiting on the table, but what should I worship now? I gave up smoking and still no Stella.
I know that my friends and pastors would tell me that God is near, that Jesus is walking this horrible time with me and mostly I know it is true. Maybe I all the way know but I think most days now I don’t want to search for God, I want a miracle. I am out of offerings and apologies, I grow cold and old and wasted as I wait to be rediscovered as worthy by those who have snubbed me out of their worlds like each cigarettes I smoked down to the filter, looking at it with a mix of surprise and disgust that I had allowed that habit to form. My patience has diminished with my lung capacity, I no longer wait in faith, I don’t walk with the assurance of one who is supported by a loving God. I gave God an ultimatum I think, bring her back or I slowly commit suicide. I blinked, I gave in, God doesn’t pay up on debts I create. So God and my daughter stay silent and I have extra time now to not be smoking and alone and still I wait for a sign that I made the right choice.
I quit smoking. I shed a bit more shame and stopped polluting me. Yet even as I discard all evidence of these toxic 2 and a half years, I know that healing will take longer. Damaged bodies and broken spirits must be handled with care, to minimize suffering and reduce further devastation. My soul is seeking a response from my Creator. Maybe once the smoke clears, I will see Him again, will notice that He cries along with me and aches at my brokenness, that He sits in anger at a child who refuses to forgive, who accepts grace but offers none. I want to see that God but more, I just want Him to save us both from this hell. I believe He can do it, just as I finally trusted that I could get through the day without smoking. I did it, I quit smoking, a stumble of faith. Now I want to hear Him say I chose wisely, to embrace life over death. I want my daughter to call, text, email, walk over the bridge and give up her addiction to righteousness. My offer of grace remains, without limits or scorecards. Alone still on the porch, I wait.
And notice the leaves begin to tumble to the earth. And crickets singing as the night disappears. And remember that hope as tiny as the hummingbird that flits around the last blooms of summer still resides within me.