Becky McPherson took a fierce drag from her Marlboro Red as she sat in the small, dimly lit bathroom facility designated for hospital staff, holding her cell phone to her ear and listening to her husband speak. If the wrong person caught her smoking in this bathroom, there would be hell to pay, but the immediate hospital staff who worked with her was always good to look the other way, and she trusted that would be the case again today, even though she wasn’t working with her normal crew.
“I told you yesterday…..” Becky reminded Steve, her sandpaperry smoker’s voice expressing just the mildest frustration over her husband’s selective memory, “…..Sherri had to go to visit her family in Wisconsin this weekend and I volunteered to work her ER shift.”
“Ah, yes,” Steve responded, recollecting what his wife had told him before in regards to her unusual overnight weekend work that kept her from being home that spring Sunday morning. “And you’re done at 1?”
“Right. After work I’m gonna stop and visit mom so I’ll probably be home around 3:30. Then I suppose I better figure out what to make for supper….” Becky thought out loud, dragging from her cigarette rather robotically while mentally lost in her unrelenting schedule as a nurse and a mother, her exhale adding to the intense air pollution in the already hazy enclosed space.
Before Steve had time to respond, 15-year-old daughter Haylee slogged into the kitchen in her pink pajamas with what he presumed was her first cigarette of the day dangling lazily from her pouty teenage lips. When she spotted her father on the phone, Haylee asked, “Is that mom?” to which Steve nodded affirmatively.
“Happy Mother’s Day, mom!” Haylee exclaimed with as much energy as she could muster through her talking dangle, the first blast of cigarette smoke filling the McPherson family kitchen that morning before she fished out a box of cereal from the pantry.
Joy filled Becky’s face as she heard her youngest daughter’s greeting from afar. “Awww…..tell my little sleepy head thanks and that I’ll see her in a few hours,” Becky relayed to Steve to pass on to Haylee, and then asked, “Are Courtney and Trevor home?”
“Yeah, Trevor’s in his room doing homework,” Steve responded, pausing to add, “I think Courtney might be too but I know she has some graduation preparation stuff today.”
Becky took another intense drag from the three-quarters-smoked cigarette and a confused look emerged on her face when she asked, “Hey this was the fishing opener weekend, wasn’t it? I thought you said a while back you and Courtney were gonna go up to the cabin for that this year.”
Steve was glad this conversation was happening over the phone so Becky couldn’t see his nervous response, composing himself as quickly as possible and answering, “Oh she’s so busy with school, work, and preparing for graduation, we just decided to hold off until after Memorial Day.”
Becky mulled the answer and thought it made some sense, but nonetheless briefly recalled that she hadn’t seen Courtney and her father interact much in recent weeks, which was kind of odd for them. “Well don’t let time slip away and miss the chance before she starts college,” she finally responded.
“Right….we’ll get on it this summer,” Steve said, hoping it would bring closure to this terribly awkward conversation without tipping off just how strained the relationship had become with Courtney since the night she attempted to initiate sexual relations with him.
“Well, hun….break’s over. Gotta get back to work,” Becky said, taking the final drag from her Marlboro Red and then dropping it into the toilet and flushing it. “Remember I’m heading to see mom before I come home.”
“Sounds good. We’ll see you then. Love you,” Steve responded.
“Love you too,” Becky said before ending the call, the final wisps of smoke escaping her mouth and nose with those last three syllables.
Through the smoky haze, Becky took a look at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, ostensibly to see if she really looked like she was old enough to have a child graduating high school in two weeks. She had recently turned 42 and as she looked at the draw lines around her lips and deepening crow’s feet around her eyes, along with the scattershot selection of gray hairs peeking through her naturally brown hair, she decided nobody was likely to confuse her with Courtney’s sister.
An air of guilt quickly emerged on her face as she looked down to her phone for a final order of business, scrolling through her texts and stopping at a number with no saved setting. She began texting, “Can we meet at the usual place today at 1:30?” and then waited a few moments before a response rolled in reading, “Yes. C U there.” Becky made a clinical affirmative nod before putting her phone in the pocket of her scrubs and exiting the smoky bathroom, ready to resume with her job for the final three hours of the shift.
Seconds later, Becky was walking down the hallway of the bustling emergency room en route to her work station, slipping out of the way as two nurses hastily wheeled a gurney down the hall. She was startled as another nurse called her from a room down the hall.
“Becky, I have a 48-year-old female who claims to be a patient of yours in family medicine….named Donna Green. She’s having a severe COPD attack!” exclaimed the nurse as she waved Becky into the room, at which point Becky turned around and raced into the room.
As Becky walked in, she noticed the familiar middle-aged Donna hooked up to a ventilator, nearly passed out but gasping for breath with her lips turning blue and her chest in obvious pain. “I know she has a bronchidilator. Dr. Meirose prescribed it for her last year. Do you know if she used it during the attack?” Becky asked the nurse she barely recognized with the name tag Sharon.
“Her husband said she did but it wasn’t enough to settle her down. He drove her down here as fast as he could,” Sharon responded, pausing to turn the dial on the ventilator for her oxygen treatment as her hyperventilating persisted.
It was a nervous five minutes or so as Donna’s COPD attack persisted, at times settling down to the point where it looked past peak but then flaring up again to the point that Becky and Sharon thought they might lose her. Finally, her breathing slowly began to get under control and they adjusted her oxygen downward accordingly on the ventilator until the attack finally relented. Donna spent several minutes coming down from the close call as Becky and Sharon tended to her respiratory needs.
“Thank you, Becky….” the still-winded Donna offered with a smile after observing her favorite nurse. “And you too, young lady,” she added for Sharon’s benefit, even though all three of them were in the same general age group.
“You gave us quite a scare there Donna,” Becky said while observing the patient’s comeback, pulling up her patient data on her computer and reading the specifics. “Looks like we got you on 50 milligram corticosteroid tablets twice per day. I think after this attack we might want to raise that to two 100 milligram tablets per day.”
Donna cringed a bit and explained herself, “They get me all wound up and agitated when I follow the prescription.”
Becky nodded and added, “I’m sure but wouldn’t you rather be high-strung for a couple of hours a day if the alternative is coming to see me again in the middle of a full-blown COPD attack?”
Donna nodded as though she couldn’t dispute the risk-reward balance heavily favored following the nurse’s orders, letting loose a fierce smoker’s cough accompanied by a stew of phlegm being discharged in the closing phase fallout of the COPD attack.
Becky then progressed to the topic she knew would be more challenging and where she wasn’t exactly a credible preacher. “Now I can smell the cigarette smoke on your jacket here, Donna, so I know you haven’t given it up. I hope this attack was a wake-up call that you have to quit immediately. We’re not playing with you on this.”
Sitting slightly up in her bed, the unattractive, overweight, and clearly downscale Donna cut a crude profile as she briefly concurred with an “I know!” seconds before deflecting blame. “Not sure if you’re the one in the best position to scold me here though, Nurse Becky,” pausing to burst into an aggressive laugh that morphed into another extended wet cough, and then adding, “From what I’ve seen, you smoke more than I did before I got sick.”
Becky politely laughed in agreement, but seemed unflappable in response to the fair points made by the patient. “Oh I’m sure I’ll get mine too, but at least for today I’m not the one who was brought to the ER for a major COPD attack. Donna, every cigarette you light up after a situation like this exponentially raises the risk of you being back here very soon. I would advise cutting the cigarettes out cold turkey but if you can’t do that, no more than three or four cigarettes per day until you ween yourself off completely, okay?”
Donna nodded in a way where it was unclear to Becky whether she would comply. Nurse and patient commiserated for a few more minutes before Becky had to move on to the next emergency. Even though she had been seeing a litany of patients with diseased lungs for years that should have been cautionary tales, Becky always managed to detach her own lifestyle from what was impairing her patients. For better or for worse, it didn’t phase Becky to see this woman not much older than her with a similar smoking history whose lungs were so damaged that she probably wouldn’t live more than five more years. Becky turned at the doorway before walking out and verbally signed off to Donna Green, closing with “You know I love to see you Donna, but not this way. Let’s make sure the next time we see each other it’s at the clinic for your regularly scheduled appointment next month okay?”
Donna and Becky exchanged smiles and farewell greetings before Becky headed off to aid the next emergency that came through the ER doors.
A few hours later, Becky’s ER shift was over and it was time to follow through with the meeting set up via text message on her morning break. She drove her tan car down a commercial stretch in a slightly run-down neighborhood in the suburbs just west of Minneapolis. She didn’t know why she was nervous after all of this time, but it was clear the way she was pumping on her Marlboro Red that the tension of this biweekly routine had not yet become normalized for her. She put her turn signal on and made a left turn into a mostly abandoned alley, pulling up to a black van with slightly tinted windows waiting for her.
Becky tensed up further as she took a final deep drag from her Marlboro Red, tossing it out the window of her foggy vehicle and then exhaling to add another plume of nicotine and tar to contribute further to the yellow-ish tint on her windshield. She then honked the horn three times and stepped outside, letting the second party know it was her. In seconds, a tall, young black man stepped out of the van and approached her, a growing smile on his face upon seeing his best customer awaiting his services.
“Miss Becky,” the man greeted in a thick East African accent. “I understand you’re interested in some of my wares,” he added with a smirk.
Becky’s nerves were calmed by the man’s charm offensive. “Abdullah, I’m sure glad you don’t have any place better to be on a Sunday afternoon than hanging out with me in this dirty alley,” Becky played along as Abdullah opened the back of the van, nervously looking over his shoulder to make sure the coast was clear and then extracting a large box.
Abdullah sat the box on the hood of Becky’s car and responded, “With as much money as you spread my way, I make sure to clear my schedule for you!”
Becky laughed as she cracked open the box to take a peek, seeing three cartons each of Marlboro Reds, Marlboro Light Menthol 100s, and Camel Pink No. 9’s just as she ordered almost every two weeks, on some occasions on very short notice when she or the girls were running low. She smirked approvingly at Abdullah as she put the box inside her car and then opened up her purse. “The usual?” Becky asked in reference to the cost of the purchase, pulling out an envelope full of $20 bills she just withdrew from the ATM machine.
“Yes….500,” he responded, taking the envelope as Becky handed it to him and rummaging through it to make sure the count was right.
“Oh what’s the matter, Abdullah. Don’t you trust that I can count?” Becky teased, reaching back into her purse to light up another Marlboro Red.
“Just the right amount once again,” he said with an approving smile before stuffing the envelope full of cash into the pocket of his hoodie. “Nice to do business with you as always.”
Becky nodded back with a smile before making some small talk. “So are you gonna visit your mom for Mother’s Day or doesn’t she live in Minnesota?”
“Nah,” Abdullah responded. “She’s in Somalia. Haven’t seen her since I came to America eight years ago.”
“Wow, that would be hard. I’m sure she misses you,” said Becky sympathetically.
Abdullah nodded, adding “I’m hoping to bring her here one day but it’s quite a process. And I don’t want to get too public with immigration officials about how I make my money if you know what I mean.” As Becky nodded in response, Abdullah asked, “How about you? Is your mother still with us?”
“She sure is,” Becky responded. “I’m heading over to visit her next actually. What do you got planned for the rest of your Sunday?”
Abdullah flashed a mischievous smile and replied, “Good afternoon for a road trip to North Dakota.”
Dragging from her cigarette, Becky let loose a quick laugh from which wisps of smoke spilled out of her mouth and nose, knowing Abdullah’s reference meant he planned to pick up another vanload of black market cigarettes in Fargo that he could sell in Minnesota.
“Well I won’t keep you, then. You have a long drive in front of you,” Becky closed.
“Say hello to your mother for me,” Abdullah closed before exchanging final friendly greetings with Becky and climbing in their respective vehicles to part ways for the day.
As Becky began to drive off still working on the cigarette she’d lit during the conversation with Abdullah, she thought back a few years earlier when she first did business with him. She had become infuriated after Minnesota’s Governor signed a gigantic new tax hike on cigarettes to pay for a professional sports stadium and reached her breaking point, asking some of her smoking friends if they knew where she could get a discount. One of them told her that there was a growing smuggling industry taken on primarily by Minnesota’s Somali refugee population, trucking in cigarettes from low-tax North Dakota and selling them in high-tax Minnesota. She thought long and hard about whether it was the worth the risk but ultimately made the connections to get in touch with a smuggler who could cut her cigarette bill by a good 40%. And so was born a legend.
Becky did her research before making the contact, almost scared away when she read that many involved in the cigarette black market were affiliated with either mobsters or terrorist cells who used the quick cash raised from cigarette smuggling to fund-raise for terrorist operations at home and abroad. She didn’t want any part of that, but after meeting Abdullah, it became impossible for her to reconcile this charming and well-mannered young immigrant being associated with anything that pernicious. And while she preferred to remain in denial about where the money Abdullah made went, Becky had at this point convinced herself that it couldn’t possibly be going to anything sleazier than what Minnesota’s state government had earmarked their own cigarette blood revenue for. Cigarettes were still around $1.50 a pack in the late 1980s when she started at age 12, and in her mind there was absolutely no justification for why they were now nearly $10 a pack, so even though she and Steve made enough money to afford paying the prices the state of Minnesota insisted she pay, it was a matter of principle for her to refuse to. She may still get nervous every time she approached Abdullah for a black market transaction, but she always drove away satisfied that she was denying the state of Minnesota more than $300 in tobacco taxes every two weeks.
Becky took a victorious final drag from her cigarette as she turned left out of the alley, tossing it out the window and onto the street. Her Mother’s Day had already been extremely exhausting, but the most emotionally exhausting part of the day was coming next.
It never stopped being haunting for Becky to walk down the long, lonely corridors of the West Branch Community Nursing Home even though she’s been visiting her mother here for the past seven years. Becky had been a nurse for nearly two decades now and had seen all kinds of soul-crushing images of human suffering, but walking past these rooms and seeing lonely senior citizens lying in bed watching TV by themselves filled her heart with sorrow more than just about anything else. Today was perhaps better than most as being Mother’s Day, there were occasional bursts of human interaction in a few of the rooms, with the families of the elderly residents doing their duty and paying a visit.
Proceeding past the kitchen area, a cluster of the more functional residents sat amongst each other in their wheelchairs, mostly watching television in silence. As lonely and unfulfilled as they seemed, these were the lucky ones, Becky thought to herself, making the final march toward the room that her mother Ann stayed in and tensing up with an even greater anticipation than she felt when she was pulling up to Abdullah’s van to purchase illegal bootlegged cigarettes for herself and her daughters. She knocked on the door to announce her presence before stepping inside the room, even though doing so didn’t really make much sense at this point.
Ann was sitting upright in her wheelchair, her face motionless upon her daughter’s entry and her lifeless eyes projected downward to the floor. The age marks on her face were minimal as she was undoubtedly one of the youngest people in the nursing home, but despite that relative youth, it was equally clear she was nearing the sunset of her existence, the will to live drained from her after nearly a decade of frontotemporal dementia.
Becky said “Happy Mother’s Day, mom” out of tradition, fighting back a tear as she always did upon seeing her mother now in the advanced stages of a condition that had begun fully sapping the life from her for the last few years. Becky opened her purse and removed a Mother’s Day corsage, crouching to her knees and pinning the corsage onto the lapel of her mother’s blouse, the tear she’d been fighting back up to this point now rolling down her cheek. She reached up to Ann’s forehead and stroked her hair, partly for grooming purposes to make her look as good as possible with the corsage, but also hoping to see a glimmer of life from her. Regretfully, there was nary a blink of the eye response from Ann so Becky pulled back, sitting on a chair in the room and sliding it up toward her mother.
Ann looked as pretty today as she was capable of looking, her once lustrous mane of brown hair now thinned down to a mostly silver-hued coiffure that glistened with the sunshine radiating in through the window behind her, and decked out in a nice blouse that Becky called in advance to arrange having Ann dressed in for Mother’s Day. Becky briefly contemplated taking a photo to capture the moment, but held back as she really had no desire to remember her mother this way after she passed. She leaned forward to speak to Ann, fully realizing she would neither understand the words nor talk back.
“Well mom, you’ve now officially celebrated one more Mother’s Day than your mom did,” speaking in reference to the grandmother who’d also suffered from frontotemporal dementia for years and had been bed-ridden throughout most of Becky’s memories, dying at age 62. “And you outlived your sister Karen too. That’s something to be proud of,” Becky added, not believing her own words but hoping the tone of her voice would convey the faintest hint of empowerment to her mother for the pyrrhic victory of perseverance in the face of this horrible genetic disease that had haunted females in the Gunderson family for generations. Becky rarely brought the kids to see grandma, knowing that some very hard questions would come from it and that her answers would be intensely morbid. She may have been old enough to need to come to terms with it, but they still had too much life in front of them to concern themselves with the Gunderson matriarchal curse at this point.
Becky stayed with her mother for the better part of an hour, letting her know she’d see her next week, a commitment Becky tried her best to maintain even though it took all of her willpower to keep the promise. As she made the same long walk down the hallway from which she walked in an hour earlier, Becky didn’t hesitate to open her purse and ready her pack of Marlboro Reds, both because she was seriously jonesing for a cigarette and because the last hour reinforced her long-held belief that the reward of finding pleasure from whatever gives it to you in the time you have in this life vastly exceeded the risk of deferring that pleasure in pursuit of happiness at some arbitrary time in the future that may never, and in her case probably wouldn’t, come.
Becky loved the feeling that smoking cigarettes gave her, and her daughters seemed to love it just as much, so there was no point in denying it to herself or to them. She knew the world judged her as a terrible mother for it, but most of them didn’t know her experience and none of them had lived a day in her shoes. In her profession, she had witnessed so much human suffering on a daily basis, but at least in her mind it was a zero-sum game. And whatever health consequences awaited her, Courtney, and Haylee down the line from years of heavy smoking, Becky still figured it was a less devastating outcome than what she’d just spent the last hour seeing in her mother.
She picked up her pace as she approached the nursing home exit, opening her pack of Marlboro Reds and inserting one into her mouth. She dangled it for the last 15 yards before going through the exit, sparking the cigarette to life almost instantly after stepping outdoors. She took an intense drag from her cigarette, applying maximal suction to satisfy a nicotine craving nearly an hour in the making. After seven seconds of inhalation, she removed the cigarette from her mouth and exhaled a monstrous plume of smoke in front of her, which was followed by a hoarse and phlegmy cough the likes of which were increasingly common for her in recent years. Perhaps this foreshadowed her laying in the same ER gurney with a COPD attack that Donna Green did a few hours earlier and denying her the opportunity to hold her first grandchild, but with as good as that hit of nicotine felt hitting her brain, she decided as she did so many hundreds of times before that it was worth the risk.
As she progressed toward her car, dragging from her Marlboro with higher-than-average frequency, her mind gravitated to her family and what she could make them for their evening meal. She was dead-on-her-feet exhausted, but appreciated every opportunity she had to spend time with them and care for them, as she kept getting that weekly reminder that the time to do so was probably fleeting.
Becky spoke to Steve on the phone during her 20-minute commute from the nursing home to their own home, and he told her the kids were all gone but that he’d text them to be home before 5:00 for the obligatory Sunday evening McPherson family dinner. She pulled into the driveway, her mind fully immersed in meal preparation as she dragged from her third cigarette since leaving the nursing home. As she walked in the front door holding the box of cigarettes she’d picked up from Abdullah, she was legitimately startled to hear the collective chorus of “Happy Mother’s Day!” from Steve and all three of her children, and even more shocked at the delightful smell of food cooking which even managed to overwhelm the odor of stale tobacco smoke that typically dominated the McPherson home.
An aura of joy filled Becky’s face for the first time since she heard Haylee wish her a happy Mother’s Day over the phone that morning, only her face was beaming twice as bright now as she looked at the bustling activity in the kitchen. Trevor was frying bacon in a skillet over the range while Haylee was doing her best to not break the yoke on the eggs she was frying and Courtney was whipping up pancakes a few feet down the counter. That’s my girls, Becky thought to herself as she watched Courtney and Haylee both dangling cigarettes over their respective skillet and bowl as they cooked, smoke billowing from their mouths and noses and ashes lurking over the food that could at any point drop into it. She rarely saw the girls prepare food, but it didn’t surprise her in the least that when they did, they followed her lead and smoked while they cooked.
As Becky started to walk in to help, Trevor held her back, “Nope. Not today mom. You just sit down on your favorite chair and let us do the cooking today.”
Becky dragged from her cigarette with a pleasant confusion. “Who are you guys and what have you done with my teenagers?” she asked, and they laughed in response while continuing to shoo her out of the kitchen.
“Well you’re owed one day per year to be as selfish as we are the other 364,” Courtney added, the cigarette bouncing up and down as she spoke, the granny ash coming ever closer to falling into the pancake batter as she prepared to put them in the griddle.
Becky did as her children asked and scurried into the living room, walking past Steve who was setting up TV trays for everybody to eat there rather than the kitchen table, knowing Becky would relax better there. Steve smiled at Becky and said, “You got home a few minutes earlier than expected. They were hoping to get the timing right and have it ready right when you walked in but obviously it was better to be a little too late than too early and have it cold when you got here.”
Becky smiled back and responded through a talking exhale, “Well they got the timing just right. I’m starving.”
“The original plan was to have breakfast ready for you first thing this morning, but that kind of got blown up when you had to work overnight. That’s what’s up with the breakfast menu,” Steve explained.
“Works just fine for me,” Becky responded, taking a final drag from her Marlboro Red and crushing it out in the living room ashtray. “So you put them up to it right?” she asked.
Steve nodded his head in the negative. “Nope…this was all Trevor’s idea. He brought it up to me a couple of weeks ago.”
“Aww, what a sweet boy he is,” Becky responded, reaching for her pack of Marlboro Reds and preparing to light another one, but then pausing for a quick epiphany. “Hopefully this isn’t just his way of getting on my good side before he announces Lauren’s pregnant,” she added with a husky laugh that morphed into a smoker’s cough.
Steve laughed in response, but only for a moment before giving her a scolding look as if to nonverbally convey that she shouldn’t even joke about that.
“Dad, can you get in here and help with these eggs?!?” called out a distressed Haylee from the kitchen, clearly making this announcement with a cigarette in her mouth stunting her speech.
Steve smirked at Becky before turning around to go help the kids in the kitchen. Becky watched from her chair to admire the moment, but didn’t fail to notice the awkward body language when Steve crossed paths with Courtney, avoiding each other without a word and without eye contact. She didn’t know what was going on between those two, but she’d seen enough of these moments in the last month to recognize there was a problem. After that moment had passed, however, Becky just relaxed and took in this rare moment where her family was waiting on her, the haze of cigarette smoke that filled up the kitchen area that was for once coming from the lungs of someone other than herself.
A few minutes later, the kids and Steve prepared the trays to bring out to the living room, making sure Becky got the first one. They all began entering the living room at once decked out in their casual mix of sweats, shorts, and leggings, with Trevor leading the way holding a tray with two plates teeming with bacon, eggs, and pancakes with a jug of maple syrup, a glass of milk, and a butt can ashtray. He sat it silently on the TV table in front of his mother as she fought back the tears for the second time this afternoon, albeit this time tears of joy.
The five members of the McPherson family were soon sitting down to eat the food they prepared, with regular blasts of conventionally unsavory cigarette smoke expelled from the respiratory systems of Becky, Courtney, and Haylee as they ate, but which Steve and Trevor took fully in stride as always. As the starving Becky consumed the meal, she decided the bacon was a little burnt, the eggs were a little runny, and the pancakes thicker and doughier than she’d prefer, but whatever the meal’s deficiencies, no meal she’d eaten this year had meant more to her.