This last summer I smoked my first cigarette. It came at a time that I consider the lowest point of my young life as of yet.
Now, I’ve smoked cigars and cigarillos in celebratory and social circumstances. But my appreciation for a cigar differs greatly from my condemnation of cigarettes. I recognized the health risks of cigarettes as common sense from an early age. But no elementary school anti-smoking campaigns and ads could compare to what I’ve learned from the example set by my grandparents.
My younger sister and I grew up knowing that our grandparents smoked habitually. And in the ignorance of our youth we hardly even noticed when they’d step out to smoke. We knew the candy in Grandma’s purse usually hid underneath her pack of cigarettes. And we had long since become familiar with the smoky scent of their old Buick. They attempted several times to quit, but as a product of an older generation they simply didn’t know any better when they first formed the habit. And to my sister and me, they didn’t outwardly appear unhealthy at all.
When I was about seven, though, my parents had to explain what it meant that Grandma had a heart attack. She thankfully recovered, but the effects of smoking had now taken on a tangible reality to all of us. My grandparents quit shortly thereafter. But their decision wasn’t only for their benefit. They wanted to be alive and healthy through as much of our lives as they could. They wanted my sister and me to remember our own grandparents.
While admirable, their abstinence from cigarettes did not rescue them from the consequences of their lifetime habit. Since my sister and I have grown up, my grandparents have since developed numerous health issues. This includes the common lung disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which hinders airflow as a result of heavy smoking.
And one of the most debilitating results of my grandparents’ old age, though not necessarily related to smoking, was my grandpa’s development of Parkinson’s disease. You may have heard of it in association with Back to the Future actor Michael J. Fox. But my grandfather contracted the disease from using the now-illegal pesticide DDT on his father’s farm. Parkinson’s, usually developed later in life, degenerates brain cells and impairs the motor skills of affected body parts. And as my grandfather and I have both grown older, I’ve grown accustomed to its effects.
I first noticed, as a child, a slight tremor in his hands and feet; in my adolescence I’d feel embarrassed as his more violent and uncontrollable shaking drew attention in public settings; and now I sympathize with the life-calloused man, no longer in control of the body he once pushed to seemingly impossible limits to provide for his family.
Unfortunately, Parkinson’s doesn’t stop there. It can also quicken the brain’s natural degeneration by pairing with age-related dementia and alzheimer’s. My dad called me one night during my freshman year of college to tell me this was indeed the case for my grandfather. I think my dad understood my silence as we ended the phone call. I could no longer hold it in as I proceeded to weep alone in my dorm.
But over the next couple years his condition only gradually declined, as is the case with dementia. And his Pizzuto stubbornness kept him tending to the tomato plants and fixing things around the house. He would fall from time to time, but things remained in this state of relative stability as I continued with my sophomore and junior years.
But after a long period of absence spent studying in Costa Rica and working for Appalachia Service Project (ASP), I returned home for my senior year and noticed a drastic change in my grandfather’s condition. He confused easily, tired quickly, fell with more frequency and severity, and spoke more incoherently. His face had sunken and he had lost weight; he became more prone to anger and outbursts; he had grown to depend almost entirely on my grandmother, who also showed more signs of aging.
Despite her tenacity, my grandmother could not care for both of them alone. And later that fall, she and my grandfather moved in with my parents. With what remaining energy and time they had beyond their their full-time jobs, my parents became full-time caretakers. And Whenever they could spare any free time, they searched for assisted living homes for my grandfather.
After not being able to help in the busyness of my first semester, my units allowed me to register as a part-time student my final semester and relieve my parents during the weekends. A medically trained cousin had also moved in to help, and my parents had hired a daytime assistant to help care while they were at work. My sister also joined me when her schedule allowed it. But seeing and interacting with my grandpa in this capacity didn’t come easily.
His inability to accomplish even the simplest tasks broke my heart. At first I would try to correct him, but eventually I learned to play along with his hallucinations and faulty memories. He would become upset at us for babysitting him, imaginably so. We followed him to ensure he didn’t fall, or hurt himself. But his mind kept him from understanding that everything we did was out of love.
Some days he walked with more pep in his step, communicated more lucidly, and even cracked brilliant witty remarks as he had always done. But they didn’t last long as his body and mind would quickly drain of energy. After one such day, I sat with him on his bed to help administer his oxygen before he went to sleep. As I put my arm around him to help him from falling over, he slowly reached his arm up with what remained of that day’s strength and pulled me in close, his head resting on my shoulder. I tightened my grip around his bare shoulder, and pressed my head against his. With nothing but the sound of his oxygen machine, I let the tears silently fall down my face. I laid him down and said goodnight to him as his eyes struggled to stay awake. And as has become our custom, he mumbled in reply “I love you more.” I shut the door and walked out to my grandmother, who had been watching. She hugged me, saying “poor grandpa.”
My parents had eventually discovered an assisted living home we unanimously agreed most suitably fit my grandpa’s physical, mental, and financial needs. We discussed how in these situations people like my grandpa can transition easily and live comfortably for many years. On the contrary, the change can come as a shock and leave patients in vegetative senility.
With graduation approaching, my coming summer commitment in Appalachia made me question whether I should remain close to home. My parents thought it a nice gesture, but refused to let me put my life and future on hold. They knew how important my dreams were to me, and as they have always unrelentingly supported me, they encouraged me to fulfill those goals.
Graduation soon arrived, and I packed up my belongings as my parents packed up what belonged to my grandfather. After a quick graduation/going away party, we moved my grandfather into his new home, only several miles away from his previous house where my grandmother would return. He would ask when he was going home, and as my grandmother would answer “when you get healthier,” my guilt and fear would increase. I said goodbye, unsure of what would happen during my summer away. I waited for him to return our usual exchange of “I love you more,” only with the image of his confused grey eyes.
I arrived in Appalachia initially excited for the change. But as the nostalgia wore off and the stress of the job set in, I began to think this second summer was one too many. With every passing day I felt I belonged less and less. I questioned my value to the organization as my guilt accrued. My phone calls home came with mixed responses regarding my grandfather, some good, some bad, but offered no realistic relief.
On top of the regular stresses of the job, I was simultaneously learning to navigate heartbreak as I contributed to the end of my relationship halfway through the summer (which provided lessons I couldn’t have learned otherwise). Not wanting to ruin her experience with the organization she helped me discover, I looked at this as an opportunity to quit and go home early. But my friends and family dismissed this excuse to take the easy way out. They encouraged me to take time to think through my decision. I ultimately realized I couldn’t quit on myself or my goals. WIth the help of my family and friends, I pushed myself to se my commitment all the way through.
While I am now glad I stayed through the end of the summer, the remaining time didn’t continue without its struggles. ASP, while ultimately rewarding for staff members, comes with numerous daily obstacles in serving volunteers and homeowners on limited hours of sleep and insufficient diets.
Some staffers, to cope with the craziness, turn to smoking for summer. While I would have dismissed this option of stress relief during my first summer, one such friend offered me a cigarette one day towards the end of my commitment. Feeling physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually empty by all that I had gone through over the summer and the past year, I accepted her offer.
On that hot late July day, on the tailgate of a pickup truck in a parking lot in southeast Kentucky, I slowly and intentionally smoked an American Spirit. With every inhalation of smoke I thought of the promise to my grandparents I was breaking. With every exhale I cleared my lungs of guilt, shame, and pain with the white smoke that dissipated into the clear mountain air.
I recognized that I had reached my lowest point I would ever let myself experience. And as I took my last puff and stamped out my first and last cigarette, I vowed a covenant to myself, my grandparents, and God that I would intentionally live my life with fulfillment and compassion from then on until the day I lose control of my very own mind and body.
With the end of the summer I flew home with no definitive plans for what would come next. I looked out the window to the disappearing Appalachian Mountains where I isolated that pain, loneliness, and guilt. I still had much to process in the days, weeks, and months to come, but as I returned home to my family, I committed to work on transforming any negativity into experiences, memories, stronger character, and lessons learned.
Since the end of summer and my return from Appalachia, I have visited my grandparents frequently in between working towards my future. Things have remained stable for my grandpa in his home, where my grandma visits him almost daily. They still have plenty of health and financial challenges in regards to their situation. And it still disheartens me to try and connect with my grandpa as he slowly continues to lose control over his body and mind.
But as with the challenges we face in our lives, this difficult season has provided its share of learning opportunities for my family and me. It forced us to confront difficult issues and talk openly about them. It forced me to help my parents share increased responsibility. My family, which has always been fairly reserved, has grown more comfortable sharing frustrations and processing emotions. Furthermore, we better understand that choices we make today regarding health and wellness can – and will – impact us in our later years.
As my family and I work to improve our lifestyles, I think back to my cigarette. It resembled me betraying my grandparents, abandoning my family, and allowing my self-absorption to make me lean on my own understandings rather than trusting in my Lord. Since that cigaretteI have worked to improve my interactions, values, and faith. And though the future still remains unclear, I will continue to move forward with my commitment in mind.