Son: Dad Once 'Made Smoking Look Good' But In End, Made 'Smoking Look Deadly'

Chris Jennings writes about his father's efforts to quit smoking.

Nov. 26, 2010 — -- Official family history states that when I was seven and my sister was nine, the two of us convinced our father to quit smoking. I have no actual recollection of this. I simply remember him smoking and then not smoking. He remained quit for over a decade and then we started smoking together.

That first effort at quitting took place in the office of a Boston hypnotist. Smokers tend to have vivid memories of any cigarette given the (usually false) designation of "last." My father told me that on the way to his appointment in Boston he frantically worked his way through a pack of Dunhills, trying to squirrel away enough nicotine to weather the coming winter. Whatever happened in that office -- I always imagine a swinging pocket watch: You are getting very sleepy -- it worked. He left home a two pack-a-day smoker and came back a five pack-a-day gum chewer. The warm tobacco scent of his breath was replaced with the cinnamon of Big Red.

When I was 18, and had been surreptitiously smoking for about four years, my father and I went on our annual canoe trip in Quebec. We paddled through a chain of windy lakes having the expansive debates that we enjoyed during that period. Sometime during my late teens it dawned on me that my father was a person with tastes and notions that were not totally unlike my own. Our old fixed roles -- teacher vs. pupil; breadwinner vs. ingrate -- began to dissolve and we found ourselves meeting as two curious adults. This sudden and unexpected discovery of one another, as if we hadn't been there all along, was a thrill to us both. Nobody in my family ever took to the peculiar notion that parents and their children could be friends, but during those years my father and I became something like confidants. We began a feast of mutual respect that lasted until he died and brought us both a lot of pleasure and confidence.

Late in the afternoon of our first day out, we paddled through a narrow passage and emerged onto Lac Vert, a large granite-bottomed lake with water so clear that fish were visible at more than twenty feet. We paddled the lake's perimeter, surveying various campsites before settling on a small rocky island which we imagined might lower our odds of meeting a bear.

After pitching camp and eating several rounds of fried eggs, I pulled a crushed pack of Winstons from my jeans and offered one to dad as casually as I could. He hesitated, glancing between me and the pack, before realizing his role in the small bit of theatre I had initiated. He gave me a slight nod -- much obliged, partner -- and slid a cigarette from the pack. He lit it off my extended match, a strike-anywhere which struck mercifully on the first try. Holding the cigarette between his lips he took out a slim pewter flask and offered me a sip of pocket-warmed vodka. We stretched our damp feet toward the fire and leaned back to smoke, completely intoxicated on the absurd manliness of the whole scene.

We smoked together for several years. (He eventually told me that he had already begun backsliding when I proffered that Winston on Lac Vert.) Because almost everyone else was smart enough to disapprove, our smoking never lost the thrill of a conspiracy. Every furtive cigarette came with a fatherly preamble on the agonies of quitting and the well-known health risks. Unfortunately, those mini-lectures didn't stand a fighting chance. Good sense was easily dwarfed by the pleasure of strolling together through Central Park on winter nights, the dog trotting ahead of us, happily puzzled as to why she was getting so many walks.

Before my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005 we had both been quit for a few years (with the obligatory string of lapses). There's no way of knowing if his relatively brief return to cigarettes was responsible for his lung cancer or if the damage had already been done by his decades of heavy smoking. I've often wondered darkly if it was one of our shared cigarettes that caused that rogue cell in his lung to start mindlessly replicating itself.

My father was once one of those people who made smoking look good -- the urban squire in his dinner jacket, a silver lighter on the dresser amongst cufflinks and collar stays -- but he ended up as one of those people who made smoking look deadly.

I have several good photographs of my father smoking: a black and white shot shows him hunched over an ancient Remington portable, his index fingers poised above the keys and the slightest squint in his eye from the cigarette on his lip; a picture from the late '60s shows him lazing on one elbow at the news desk, his on-air cigarette and muttonchops vying for chief anachronism; a snapshot from my high school graduation shows the two of us arm-in-arm, mugging for someone's camera, our parallel cigarettes held aloft in a pose of mock defiance and victory -- a pair of grinning criminals. These pictures stay at the bottom of their drawer. I don't like looking at any of them.

And that's the problem: now that he's gone, almost all of the sweetness is drained from these memories of smoking. It takes a remarkable trick of the mind to smoke despite so many good reasons not to. It's a trick that baffles non-smokers, but, unfortunately, it is one of those mental tricks that we perform without even noticing. All it takes is a touch of editing and the immense hazards seem negligible.

I'm hoping that a similar trick of the mind will eventually edit the cigarettes out of several of my finest recollections of my father. In the meantime, these memories are unusable.

CLICK HERE to visit the American Lung Association website to learn more about Lung Cancer Awareness Month.