I quit smoking twenty seven years ago today.
I loved smoking. I reached for a cigarette as soon as my eyes opened in the morning, and usually went through half a pack by the time I got to work. I smoked at my desk for as long as it was allowed, and joined the huddled masses puffing outdoors when it was no longer permitted. I was out there in the rain… in the snow… on days so hot your body temperature could have lit your cigarettes.
I smoked in my car. I smoked in the house. I smoked on planes and in auditoriums. I smoked backstage in the theater, especially if I was due to sing a solo.
I always carried my accoutrements with me… my monogrammed Zippo lighter… the gold-plated portable ashtray I bought in Spain… even the delicate pink cigarette holder my mother gave me, humoring my delusions of sophistication.
I stopped smoking reluctantly during my pregnancies, but asked my husband to bring me a carton of Dunhills as soon as the babies were delivered. How I loved to watch as the flames reached the gold crest printed on those fine cigarettes, transforming Her Majesty’s imprimatur into a silver ash!
i never thought I’d quit smoking.
I never wanted to quit smoking.
But I did… and with good reason.
In 1990, God blessed my husband and me with the most gloriously beautiful baby boy imaginable. He had the face of an angel, framed with caramel colored ringlets that eventually reached his waist. Like his remarkable sister, he was a late talker, but he formed full, coherent sentences as soon as he started to speak.
He had boundless energy… inexhaustible energy. Unless he was in his highchair, he was in constant motion, as though he were unable to stand still.
Then we realized he had a real problem. He could not flatten his foot. He was always on tippy toes, and like the ballerina in The Red Shoes, he just couldn’t stop moving.
I was horrified. “He’s going to need medical care,” I thought. “He’ll probably have to wear a brace. He might even need surgery.”
I was so selfish that I barely thought about the discomfort my poor little fellow would suffer, focusing much more on the inconvenience and the expense of correcting a small anomaly.
I picked up the phone book and found a pediatric orthopedist, who agreed to see him.
I wasn’t prepared for what he told me.
“This goes way beyond my area of expertise,” he said. “There’s an orthopedist in Little Silver, Andy Bowe, who takes in cases like this, but you’ll also have to contact a neurologist to find out what’s causing this.”
I went home and told my husband what the doctor had said. He asked me to confer with my father, who was also a physician.
“I don’t know the man in Little Silver,” he said, “but I have a friend who teaches pediatric orthopedics in New York. Let me give him a call.” The two of them spoke, and decided the friend would see our boy after my father arranged for some xrays. They were duly taken, and we made an appointment to see this guy. We also made an appointment with Dr. Bowe for the following day, knowing we’d need a second opinion for our insurance company in the event that surgery was needed.
So, twenty-seven years ago yesterday, we marched into the office of my father’s eminent friend.
“This is very serious,” he said. “Look at the X-ray. The bone structure is incomplete. I can operate to help him walk now, but he’ll need follow up surgeries every two years or so. As a result, his legs will be stunted, and will probably not reach the same length.”
I looked at my beautiful baby, and watched him morph into Toulouse Lautrec.
“What’s the reason for this?” we asked.
“Well, that will require neurological tests, but my guess is that this is cerebral palsy. It will take at least six months to make a determination.”
The braces I’d feared now seemed as inconsequential as a Band Aid.
My husband and I left that office like zombies.
Wordlessly, we put the baby into his car seat, and sat in the front of our little red Geo.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a cigarette, and put it into my mouth. As I lit it, my husband asked, “what do we do now?”
I took a long, slow drag, then pulled the cigarette out of my mouth, and stared at the sky.
“St. Jude, tell me that man is full of shit, and I’ll never have another cigarette again.”
“But what should we do?”
“I don’t know. Let’s take him to Little Silver. We’ll figure things out after that.”
And on January 23rd, 1992, I smoked as we made our way to Dr. Bowe’s office.
He examined the baby. He looked at the Xrays.
“I’ve seen this,” he said. “The baby’s heel cords are too tight. We’ll put him in physical therapy for a year to see if that will do the trick; if it doesn’t, I’ll operate.”
“How often will you have to operate, doctor?”
“And his legs will be the same length?
“Of course! Why wouldn’t they be?”
As we walked out of Dr. Bowe’s office, I crumpled the pack of cigarettes I was carrying, and I’ve never smoked again.
Physical therapy didn’t do the trick, but Dr. Bowe’s operation was completely successful. We did wind up seeing a bunch of neurologists, whose diagnoses ranged from hyperactivity to PDDNOS, a form of autism that is no longer recognized.
By the time my son was six, we were done with all the doctors. The only vestige of his condition is exceptional strength in his legs; as a football coach once told me, “he runs so fast for a fat kid!”
St. Jude most definitely kept his side of the bargain… and so did I.
Talk to him whenever it seems your problems are insurmountable. They’re not for him.