It has been a long eight months since a knock on my door at 5 a.m. changed my world forever. I am still trying to get used to waking up to an empty house. People ask how I’m doing and I say I’m fine, which is not entirely the truth and not really a lie. I have come to terms with the fact that the emptiness will always be with me. Sometimes I pretend Jim is just outside working, and that helps. I picture him in that faded, shapeless hat he wore to keep the sun off his head. He might be barefoot and shirtless, but the hat was always on. (I gave his clothes away months ago, but I kept that hat.)
Another image of Jim came to mind while I was watching “Dancing on the Edge” the other night, and Louis and Stanley were talking. Each man was smoking a cigarette and I was idly thinking that the smoke alone would tell you that the story takes place in the past because no one smokes on TV any more.
Jim smoked when I met him. A lot. At the time, though, it didn’t seem like the vice we view it as now. It was just a habit.
I remember him taking out his ever-present pack of cigarettes, shaking a cigarette from the pack, and lighting it. His hands were strong and slender, and their movements were graceful. He inhaled, tipped back his head, and blew the smoke out. His body visibly relaxed. He was a very nervous person, always moving, and this was the only time he was still.
A cigarette was as much a part of him as his shirt or tie, an accessory of sorts. Sometimes I looked out the window to see the car gone, and knew that he’d run to the store for a new pack. It got to be a family joke, because he never told anyone he was going. It was both an impulse and a necessity.
Later, of course, when the Surgeon General’s report came out, we knew smoking was a Very Bad Thing. The boys learned about the dangers in school and urged him to quit. I knew he wouldn’t–or couldn’t–and he didn’t.
Then he had a stroke. For six weeks he was housebound and not allowed to drive. No more quick runs to the store. He asked me to buy him a carton and I did the unthinkable. I refused.
He never argued or yelled or complained. He was pretty stoic about it, and when he could drive again he told me he had gone this long without smoking and might as well continue. He never smoked again, but used to say if he knew he was dying the first thing he would do is get a pack of cigarettes and light up.
I wonder now, if he had known he’d never leave the rehab center, if he would’ve ask for a cigarette. I think I would have given him one, or a whole pack, and let him smoke to his heart’s content, knowing it wouldn’t make any difference. He could have gone out in the courtyard and smoked as much as he wanted.
But maybe he didn’t crave nicotine any longer, not after 40+ years. I never thought to ask him, because I didn’t think he was going to leave us. I thought he was going to come home. But he didn’t.
And so I am doing fine, really, but sometimes little things bring back memories. And I think of him as young and vital and how graceful his hands were when he gestured with that ever-present cigarette.