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Sunday, December 9, 2007

A tough evening in a smoke filled room

Growing up with bad asthma: Chapter 2

In 1980 most people didn't think twice about smoking in front of others, let alone what harmful effects it might have on kids. My family was no different.

Grandpa was sitting on the day bed of his sitting room, a cigarette dangling between two fingers. I watched as the smoke swirled above his hand, polluting the air. In a way I enjoyed the smell of cigarette smoke, but my lungs hated it. My throat burned. My head ached. My chest was tight.

Someone flatuated, and grandpa laughed. I watched as his body bobbed up and down as he did so, and then he put the cigarette to his lips, inhaled, and blew his smoke across the room where it lingered in the stale air. No one seemed to notice this but me.

I heard a smack, and I turned and saw that Uncle Ted, who was sitting on a bench by the window with his baby girl on his lap, was cringing away from his wife, who sat next to him. She was blushing. He was laughing. I assumed she smacked him.

Uncle Tommy was sitting in a faded leather chair facing oposite me, and all I could see of him was his foot as it dangled over the thick arm of the chair . I could hear his laughing over the laughter of the others.

I was standing in the doorway trying to breathe air from the hallway that was barely fresher than that in the room. My shoulders were high. I was calm. I was breathing slowly, but with difficulty. I did not want anyone to know I was in distress. I was ten-years-old.

Aunt Mable, who had been curled on the floor near her brother Ted, stumbled across the room and darted past me into the hallway, laughing the whole way. I could hear her laughing all the way down the stairs, only to cease with the slamming of a distant door.

My Great Aunt Dolly, who was sitting on the tile in front of the crackling fire in the fireplace, was rolling side to side with laughter. Aunt Torri was sitting on the floor between the leather chair her brother Tommy was slouching in and the TV, was laughing so hard she fell over onto her side.

My dad and mom were sitting on the bed to the right and left of grandpa. Mom had a smile on her face, but she wasn't laughing. I was hoping she had had enough of the foolishness of dad's siblings and would want to go home, but she made no effort to move. She looked comfortable wrapped in one of grandma's afaghans, and more than likely was in no hurry to go back out into the blizzard that was raging outside.

I wanted her to look at me at least and notice I was miserable, but she didn't do that either. I was on my own. I certainly wasn't going to ruin the evening by telling them I wanted to go home.
After the laughter boiled down there was silence in the room a moment, then my dad said, "You should have seen dad in action today," he was smiling cheek to cheek, peering at his dad, who chuckled, and puffed on his cigarette.

I heard a bang from down the hall, and turned and saw my brother Devin rush from a room. "Come on, Rick. We're gonna play hide and seek downstairs."

"I can't." I whispered, hoping no adult heard me. The last thing I want to do is explain why I don't want to play. I turned back around, and saw that none of the adults I could see were paying attention to me anyway. They were all looking at dad. Good.

"So anyway," dad said, "It was the God Damned ugliest car you'd ever seen." He cowered as mom reached around grandpa and made to slap him. Grandpa, it seemed anyway, pretended not to notice.

"Watch your mouth, Brett!" She meant business. There was no swearing when mom was around.

"It was a Gremlin," dad continued, " if that's not the dumbest name for a car to begin with, and it was light green with this ugly orange stripe down the side."

I watched as grandpa dumped the butt of his cigarette in his beer can, and I felt a moment of joy because, I assumed, the air would be fresh now for a while. Then I heard the flicker of a match, and smoke billowed into the air where Aunt Torri was sitting. She blew out the match and a new cloud of smoke wafted up to mingle with the cigarette smoke. For a brief moment the sulfurous incense of the match seemed to mask that of the cigarette smoke.

She set the wasted match into an ashtray and tossed the match book to Aunt Dolly, who proceeded to pluck a Marlborro from a basket, and then she handed the same match book to my dad, who burried it in his grasp. I took a difficult breath of hallway air, but couldn't prevent myself from breathing in some of the smoke that was now lingering thick and fog-like in the room.

Dad said, "And dad said, 'Son, ain't that the the God damned ugliest car you'd ever seen?' and I laughed because that's exactly what I was just thinking. And here it we had just parked it in the middle of the showroom." He plucked a cigarette from a pack in his breast pocket, and stuffed it into his mouth.

I heard a another bang behind me, turned, and watched as my brothers rushed from a room, down the stairs. "Come on, Rick!" The shout of one of my brothers reverberated through the house.

"Anyway, it wasn't five minutes later," dad continued, talking with the unlit cigarette dangling from from his lips, "and this costumer came in. Dad," he paused, seemed to snicker off a laugh, and lit a match. "Dad walked this guy over to that ugly Gremlin and said, 'Now, aint that the most beautiful car you'd ever seen."

Slow breath in through the mouth and out the mouth. It was very thick air, so it seemed. My chest burned as I inhaled.

Laughter filled the room.

Dad cooly chuckled as he lit his cigarette, took in a deep breath, and blew smoke across the room. He chuckled again, then added, "He sold that car less than an hour later." Even mom joined in the laughter this time. But not dad and grandpa; they were too cool to laugh. They both smiled as they puffed on their respective cigarettes.

Time passed. Listening to the stories of the adults made me forget my conundrum, if not for a short while. Then it all came back to me as I heard mom's voice.

"Do you want to sit up here," mom said to Aunt Dolly, who sat Indian style on the floor. Yes, get up mom, and come over by me

"No," Aunt Dolly said, "I'm doing just fine here on the floor. Besides, it feels good by the fire." Oh, she just wants to sit by the fire. Come on mom! Look over here! I felt a sting through my arm as I hit the door frame with my fist.

I heard grandma's voice from the part of the room I couldn't see from where I stood, and then watched as she walked around the leather chair, past me and down the hall. I heard a door shut.

I felt a breeze as Devin rushed into the room. He had a fresh beer for grandpa. Kr-chick went the beer tap. Grandpa tossed a quarter into the air and it plopped onto the floor. Devin bent to pick it up. Grandpa took a swig of his beer. Moments later my older brother Bear popped into the room with more beers, and handed them out to the men in exchange for quarters.

"No running!" I heard grandma say from behind me as Devin rushed past me again and down the stairs. Grandma came into the room with a box. She sat on the floor and set the box next to her and removed the lid. She started handing out pictures.

Oh, come one, I thought as mom took a pile of pictures and slowly flipped through them, I just want to go home. Come on! Can we just go! COME ON!

Once she was done handing out pictures, grandma came and stood by me. "Why aren't you playing with your brothers?" Then, as though she had come up with an answer to her own question, she said, "Come with me."

I followed her through the room, over legs and around chairs, to a connecting room where her bed was. My cousins Tommy Jr and Tocca were playing with something on the other side of the bed, giggling all the while. On this side of the bed were cousins Jewels and Jan lying on the floor coloring in a Bugs Bunny coloring book.

Grandma walked me around the bed, and moved a few things around the top of an antique dresser. She was looking for something, and now she found it. She picked up the object and proffered it to me: it was a wooden puzzle. “I picked this up at a yard sale the other day," she said, "I was thinking of you.”

She told me I could sit on her bed and play with it. However, she had already told all the other kids they were not allowed on the bed. That was her rule.

You're letting me on your bed because you feel sorry for me, I thought, and opted to not get on the bed.

"Go ahead, Rick, it's a fun puzzle."

Knowing I had no other options, I hopped onto the bed and pretended to play with the puzzle. It was hard to feign at this point that I was not short-of-breath, but I managed.

As soon as grandma was back in the other part of the room I heard a boom, a rush of laughter, and noticed Uncle Tom was rolling around the floor wresting with Torri. At first I thought they were really fighting, but then I realized they were both holding their guts. They were laughing.

I started playing with the puzzle, but stopped as my brothers rushed into the room in a loud furry and jumped onto the bed.

“You can’t be on here,” I said. They didn’t listen. A moment later all the boys were on the bed, and I was sitting on the floor. My chest was now itchy tight, and I could feel the wheezes. I really had to work at making them not audible. I sat leaning against the wall behind the leather chair.

I could smell the smoke over the smell of antiques, and I could feel my throat burning. I made to wipe snot away from my nose, wiping it on my sleeve, eyeing grandma as I did so, knowing she'd say something if she noticed. My nose burned.

I poked my head around the leather chair hoping no one would notice me, and listened to the lighthearted conversations and the laughter. I didn't care about that stuff, what I was interested in most was my mom. I knew she usually would get to the point she'd want to leave and would hint to dad it was time. Usually she would do this and nobody else would want to go.

This day, when I really wanted to leave, she didn't say anything. She just continued looking at her pictures.

"You want to look at these?" I looked to my right and saw Torri was holding the stack of pictures to me.

"No thanks," I half grunted. I wanted to, boy did I want to look at pictures, but I wanted to go home even more. I thought if I were home I'd be able to breathe fine.

I was wrong.

(For part III click here)

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