Puffing Away the Minutes

Joshua - Grafton, West Virginia
Entered on July 28, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: addiction, family

My grandfather used to hate doctors. To him, there was something crooked and hypocritical about them.

“Hell, they probably don’t even follow their own advice anyway,” he used to say. So why waste the money to be scolded, poked and prodded by a stranger?

His rationalization seems reasonable enough, but I believe he was more afraid of the first health-history question they’d ask: “Do you smoke?”

I expect he probably lied and said, “One pack a day.” And he’d have said it with a grin, and a single bony finger raised in an attempt to charm the doctor. Truthfully, though, he’s been chain-smoking two packs or more every day since he was 12.

He’s now 61 and has barely survived two strokes. Cigarettes are the culprit. Smoking narrowed his blood vessels, making circulation difficult, then blood clots clogged his vessels, causing the strokes.

His first stroke made him impatient, shaky and unsure of himself; yet even while in a hospital bed, he kept his personality. After every meal, he’d save his dessert for me, storing it in his top bedside drawer. I would take it home and eat it after every visit, replacing what he gave me with a candy bar from the hospital’s vending machine. He never ate the candy bars, but I knew he enjoyed our little game.

I was 7 years old at the time, and he and I had something special within the austere and confining walls of the hospital.

When he was back at home, my grandfather had a strict diet and daily regimen to follow, but his stubbornness prevailed. A month after being released from the hospital, he lit up a cigarette and was back to eating any Little Debbie cake he wanted.

It took 14 years before smoking caught up with him again. This time, I was there when it happened.

That night, my grandfather was flicking through the channels on the television, and I was surfing the Internet. When I glanced over at the couch, I saw his face was slack, as if numbed.

I ran for help, and the next-door neighbors pulled our car to the front of the house. We piled in and sped toward Grafton City Hospital’s emergency room.

The doctor wanted to airlift him to a bigger hospital, but the helicopter would not be available for hours. An ambulance could be at the emergency room in five minutes and get him to a better facility in half the time it would normally take.

My grandfather was in a coma, but able to squeeze my hand when asked to do so. He was moved to the intensive-care unit. One of his carotid arteries was 99 percent clogged and the other totally clogged. The doctors said he probably wouldn’t make it through the night.

But miraculously, he made a full recovery.

And three days after his trip to the emergency room, he was asking for a cup of coffee. And a cigarette.

Today, you can find my grandfather with a cigarette firmly planted between thumb and pointer finger, puffing away.

I believe he’s too old to quit now—despite his two near death experiences—and that being obstinate is hereditary. Still, I will never touch a cigarette.

To my grandfather, doctors aren’t the enemy anymore. The enemy is time. He counts it by the puff.