He was 20 years old. Tall. Slim. A bright yellow cap was pulled down low on his head. A mask covered his mouth. From beneath the blanketing warmth of a down jacket, a blue hospital robe peeked out above the pale blue pajamas covering his legs. He exited the sliding doors of the Cancer Clinic, hesitated, sniffed the air with the intensity of a gopher checking for spring and shuffled slowly across the concrete sidewalk outside towards the wooden bench on the sidewalk in front of the building. He pulled an IV pole laden with 9 bags of fluids beside him with the rythmic grace of a caretaker sweeping refuse out of the way. Step. Pull. Shuffle. Step. Pull. Shuffle.
As he maneuvered his way into a wheel chair positioned beside the bench, a white car pulled up in the lane in front of him. A woman slowly eased her way out of the car. Her body moved with the careful deliberation of an old woman trying not to disturb the arthritis eating at her bones. She looked to be about 30. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, her clothes hung loosely from her slight body. In one hand she held a white plastic grocery bag. In the other a partially smoked cigarette let off steam. She hesitantly closed the car door behind her. She blew the driver a kiss, mouthed the words, "I love you," and took a drag from her cigarette as the car drove away. Slowly, she turned and walked towards the young man in the wheelchair. As she reached him, she pulled a small rectangular red packet from her bag and handed it to the young man. He smiled. His shoulders relaxed as he opened the packet emblazoned with bold black lettering that warned, smoking can kill you. She handed him a light and they both relaxed into a smoke filled moment.
I hadn't meant to intrude on this quiet moment between two cancer patients. I was sitting in the (Un)Loading Zone in front of the Cancer Clinic waiting for my girlfriend who had flown in from Vancouver that morning. Her mother had experienced a seizure the night before and been transported by ambulance from the southern part of the province where she lives. This Patient (Un)Loading Zone was the only spot I had been able to find to stop in while my girlfriend said her good-nights to her mother in the hospital.
I hadn't intended to be a voyeur. I hadn't intended to witness this moment between two people for whom the bond of smoking and cancer was inextricably linked. Watching the tableau in front of me, however, I felt saddened by the gravity of the situation these two individuals faced, and the reality that even in the face of death, smoking is a powerful addiction.
A few years ago, my eldest sister was in the hospital for a month. Unable to sustain long periods of time out of bed, she gave up smoking. Forever. What an awesome gift for herself, and to those of us who love her and want her to stay in this world, healthy, vibrant -- and a little bit longer than the self-prescribed exit date stamped on a cigarette pack.
Watching the young man and woman share their habit, I wondered if a cigarette pack has an expiry date. I wondered what happened to hospitals being Smoke Free zones. I wondered how we justify smoking as a means of relaxation. And I wondered what I would do in the same predicament. Would my desire to live scare me out of smoking or would my fear of dying scare me into holding onto an addiction I knew would eventually kill me. Would I be willing to claim my right to living fearlessly, or would I play Russian Roulette, pulling out a death laden cigarette, while pulling along my drug laden IV trolley, challenging both to 'get me first'.
If the addiction is greater than the fear of cancer I wonder what it would take to make someone quit smoking.
I'm still wondering.