04 July 2012
Pall Mall was a lawn game of ball and mallet -- a kind of precursor to croquet -- before it was a cigarette brand, that, if smoked unfiltered for several decades, can give you cancer and eventually make you die.
Pall Mall was the brand my parents smoked. In the house, in the yard, in the car, at work, at the ballpark, wherever the urge overcame them. It was the first cigarette I tried, in second grade, while waiting for the school bus. Mom had left one lit in an ashtray and when she left the kitchen one morning I snuck a drag and then, in a monumental fit of convulsive hacking, stumbled down the driveway toward the bus. My mom chased after me, gave me a sugary mint and said, "Don't something so stupid like that again." That night Pall Mall was the first brand I threw in the garbage, much to my dad's ire when he found out, attempting to defend myself in defending them from the chemicals that would contribute to their demise.
Live and learn. Or maybe it should be "learn and live."
In one of those weird, symbolic markers of mid-life transition, Mom and Dad both took up Benson and Hedges brand cigarettes after their divorce. Like Pall Mall, whose name came from Westminster in London, Benson and Hedges had its antecedents in the British Empire as well. By the 1970s and that insidious era of people liberating themselves from all sorts of things, Philip Morris Inc had divined that Benson and Hedges ought to reek of faux English sophistication. Leisure suits, Studio 54 and Proposition 13 would not be far behind.
It's funny. I equate every ephemeral parental upload and intake of tobacco, tar and nicotine with an inverse dismantling of my childhood. It's as if through the smoke I saw myself putting my own life together while theirs came apart. One morning soon after Dad moved out, my mom got up early, put on sweatpants and decided to go for a run. She asked me to go with her. In the cool of dawn we ran a half-mile out and a half-mile back, the first and only time in my entire life I saw her exercise. A slight 115 pounds most of her life, she nevertheless struggled to breathe and after that morning never ran again. When I asked her why she didn't want to run again she sighed and said, "I get what I need doing housework," then took a drag on her Benson and Hedges.
A child watches his parents. He doesn't quite ignore what he sees but absorbs it quietly, stores it away, even buries it. And then, if he's lucky, he receives a call in the middle of his umpteenth sleepless night from the Excavator, who hands him a pick-axe and says, "Let's go digging."
In the Reflecting Cave he sees himself as a boy. And as a man. He sees his parents as older than himself and he sees himself as older than they were when he remembers seeing them as older than he. He puzzles over what this all means.
One image jars him each night. It's the long-drag-from-a-cigarette stare into space. If you grew up with it, you know what I mean. Like a rocket that loses its fuselage after take off, it's heroic, bold, tragic and wasteful, all at the same time.
Dad had a heart attack that knocked him out of bed one morning 29 years ago and he was gone by the time my sister made it to his apartment. Mom has fought off three cancers during the past six years, each of which reared its ugly head 20 years after she quit smoking. That bastard, mutant gene. Victorious.
Mom has care and loving-kindness now to alleviate the pain of bedsores and pneumonia which have begun to ravage her body. One of the cancers is attacking her brain, fogging it, one might say, in a dementia that comes and goes like smoke. She visits old addresses in Milwaukee and Madison, moves around the Jewish Home effortlessly, finding herself in different rooms at all parts of the day, even though we know she never leaves her bed. The brain can be a trickster sometimes.
In Saturday night's phone call she was glad to hear about the Supreme Court decision about health-care but is skeptical about any new shot of political good-will to emerge. "They still want to tear it down," she said, adding, "there's a long way to go to fix this country." The Brewers frustrate her but she watches each night, stalwart. If you look up "hospice" in her bedside dictionary it says, "I no longer read." Mostly she sleeps.
When I was in rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I tried smoking myself. I bought a pack of cigarettes and each morning on the walk to class and each afternoon on the way home, I'd smoke one. In the mornings I'd smoke and drink a coffee; in the afternoons, it was always a Pesek Zman candy bar. During the Sukkot break that year I hopped a plane to London to visit Rachel and when I came up the the escalator at the Underground stop in Highbury-Islington, she noticed the cigarettes. "Interesting," she observed. "What brand?" "Time," I answered.
The cigarettes didn't last very long, but not far from Pall Mall I visited Westminster Abbey for the first time and from Shakespeare's grave wrote my mom a postcard. "London's great, you'd love it here."
Her body never made it there but in her last days I hope her labyrinthian mind can conjure walkways, sculpted gardens, men in hats and women in long dresses, playing games as the metropolis bustles around them.