Anthony

Anthony said, “You’re a breath of fresh air!” I smiled broadly because I felt exactly the same way about him. We were sitting in my kitchen while he, as a visiting occupational therapist, was assessing my ability to take care of myself after I fell from a bike and fractured my foot. He said that the moment he came in the door, he could tell I was getting along fine and was clearly independent. Nevertheless, he joined me at my kitchen table, where I had been chopping up fresh rosemary, to ask me a few questions that he was required to do. His job was to determine if I was safe in my home. I’m not sure what would have happened had he decided I wasn’t. I should have asked. 

I don’t know why, but we seemed to connect instantly even though he was a black man in his thirties and I, a white woman in her eighties. We talked easily and laughed a lot. When I daringly declared my dislike of Trump, he high-fived me. I mentioned the Trump Baby Blimp, which, to my amazement, he had not seen, so he looked it up on his phone. We guffawed and changed the subject.

We shared our dismay about the devastations of addictions like smoking and drinking. He did neither, though, like me, he has the occasional glass of wine. We got around to racism in this country, and his attitude was stunning. He had learned somehow to brush it off. He told me that, once, as a high school student, he was walking into Walmart and a policeman asked him to stop. He had  looked around and automatically asked, “What for?”  The cop then shot him in the arm with a rubber bullet without warning. I was aghast, but Anthony shrugged and said that one of his best friends now is a policeman.

His story of unfairness reminded me of another Anthony being treated so wrongly: Anthony Ray Hinton, an Alabama black man, was picked up for a crime he did not commit. He ended up, after a  contemptible trial, being convicted and spent nearly 30 years on death row while people in the outside world fought for his release. In the midst of such terrible injustice, that courageous man somehow managed to find peace and compassion for others. He was finally released ironically on April Fool’s Day, 2015.

Black men who withstand such cruelty and remain strong and peaceful, like Mandela and Martin Luther King and Hinton and this smiling man sitting across from me, are true heroes.

 Anthony then spoke about loving France. In fact, he and his wife had gotten married in Paris. His face brightened as he talked about being able to walk down the streets there without people giving him that “look.” I didn’t need him to explain what he meant.

I asked him if he spoke French and was surprised when he said he didn’t. I told him about the many free programs online where he could learn it. I showed him the one I was using on my iPhone and turned to the first beginner lesson. He played with it for a few minutes and had such fun that he said he would definitely look into it.

Throughout the time we spent together, we laughed a lot. It was the kind of conversation, a meeting of souls, that left me feeling joyful. When he was gone, I reflected on what a sweet, kind, young man he was. How could anyone be nasty to such an open-hearted being?

I sprinkled the rosemary on my vegetables, put them in the oven, and prayed that in spite of the deep-rooted racism in this country, people will continue to awaken from that and all hateful prejudices that fester in old minds and fearful hearts.  

MY MISTER ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD

I’m now living in a kind of neighborhood that I thought only existed on the Mister Rogers TV show. For instance, years ago, when I moved to Connecticut, I walked over to my immediate neighbor on the right to introduce myself. I guess she must have seen me come up her driveway, because she met me outside her back door, standing there with her arms crossed over her chest, prison matron-like. She barked, “What do you want?”

I backed up a step, put my hands up in surrender and stammered, “I…we just moved in and…I just…wanted to say hello.”

“Well, we didn’t have any trouble with the people who lived in your house, so I hope we don’t have any trouble with you.”

“Uhuh. Well, nice meeting you,” I said with probably a touch of sarcasm as I backed carefully onto the road. That was my only attempt to get to know my neighbors. I decided to wait for someone to come to me, but nobody brought an apple pie to my door. Though I lived there over 30 years, I never learned the names of the people nearby.

Then I moved to my little complex in Florida. As I was unpacking the car, a woman walked up the driveway. “Welcome to Pinebrook,” she said with a big smile. How nice. We chatted for a bit. She invited me over to her villa for tea where she gave me restaurant tips and explained how things worked with the board of directors, etc.

When I left in the late spring to go home to sell my house, she offered to look after my villa. She even collected my mail and called me if something looked important. I’d tell her to go ahead and open it, and she would fax it to me if necessary. Actually, she helped me out for two whole summers before I became a full-time resident. She refused any kind of payment.

The people in this honest-to-god neighborhood are kind and helpful and not at all gossipy or nosy. One day when I was in the pool, I told a woman that I was thinking of buying a bike even though I had not been on one in longer than most people on earth have been alive. “You can have mine!” she said brightly. “I don’t use it any more. I’m never going to ride again.”

“Really? Well, only if you let me pay for it!”

“No! Don’t be silly. Saves me the trouble of taking it to the thrift store.”

So, I took her bike. It was a little rusty, like me, but worked fine—like me. So, though scared to death at first, I began enjoying it and then loving it. I feel twelve years old as I ride up and down my little street. Second childhood has arrived, and it’s fun.

Yesterday, I was swimming alone in the pool. A man came up to the fence and asked, “Did you lose these?” He was holding up a sheet of postage stamps. “I found them here by the mail boxes.”

“No.” I stopped for a moment.

“See anyone else come by while you were swimming?”

“Yes,” I said. “Fran and Joan came by for their mail.” I know people now. I learned their dogs’ names first—like Gizmo, Adelaide, Tucker, Aspen. But I didn’t know this man who was a new owner. He introduced himself, “Hi. I’m Darren. My wife’s name is Cathy.”

“Oh, yes. Lovely woman!” I called out as I dogpaddled in place. “Met her at breakfast this morning!” She had sent out a group email, and six of us managed to roll out of bed to get to a restaurant by 7:30 am. We’re going to do it again next month (a little later, so a few more might show up.)  

He left to go see if one of the women I had mentioned had lost the stamps. I continued to swim marveling that he didn’t do a “finders/keepers” and take them. They were, after all, just lying on the sidewalk.

I swam on feeling utterly blessed to be living here. I thought about a few weeks before when some women put together a buffet for Fran’s visiting family and friends after the funeral of her husband who died suddenly.  I made some quiche and soup to take. It felt good to do something so, well, neighborly.

I got out of the pool, and as I was drying off, noticed my purse and remembered that I, too, had stopped at the mailboxes. Uh oh. I looked inside for the new stamps that I had bought.  When I couldn’t find them, I laughed, phoned Darren and left a message, “Well, if there is just one missing, they may be mine after all!”

Later, as I was making dinner, I heard a knock on the door. It was Cathy, bringing me the stamps. Mr. Rogers would have approved.

 Early this morning, while I was riding back and forth on my little street, I saw Peggy, the woman who had given me the bike, walking down the driveway in her nightgown to collect the newspaper (no need for shyness here. It is a cul-de-sac and we’re all friends). I stopped and thanked her again. She smiled. She has the kind of sweet face that takes a lifetime of goodness to mold. “So glad you’re enjoying it,” she said. We chatted a bit about how much we love living here.

I rode on singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” and wished everyone lived in a Mister Rogers neighborhood too.

 

TALKING TO SMOKERS

How does one have a conversation with  smokers about their addiction? It’s really hard. Just a mere mention of someone’s addiction, any addiction, is dangerous. When you stick your neck out, you can get your head verbally guillotined. I know. My sister would get so angry if I said anything about her smoking. Occasionally, I would dare to gently broach the subject with her, but she would tell me to shut up. There was no overcoming her resistance.

She continued to smoke right up through her long decline and horrible death by lung cancer.

I get very upset seeing people smoke because so many of my family and friends have died from cigarette-related diseases: lung cancer, throat cancer, heart attacks. Cigarettes have broken my heart many times, so I am far from dispassionate about the issue.

I KNOW how hard it is to give up cigarettes. I managed to do it in 1971 after smoking for years. It was one of the toughest things I ever did. Cold turkey. No patches back then. For me, the physical withdrawal was easier to get over than the emotional attachment I had to them.

Cigarettes deaden us even before they actually kill us. They create a dull haze that smothers sensations and emotions. When I stepped out from behind that smoke screen, I unleashed a lot of fire inside me.  But, in facing my feelings, I became more fully and completely alive. It was excruciatingly difficult, but oh so worth it.  It helped me to quit when I woke up to the fact that I was being completely controlled by that addiction. That little white stick had me by the short hairs. I got really mad about that. Then it occurred to me to quit for the same reasons I started: that I would be more sophisticated, glamorous, and fashionable—but as an ex-smoker.

Some people are lucky. Once they decide to quit, they just do. My mother and my aunt were like that. I wasn’t. When I finally managed to give them up, I knew how dangerous it was to toy with this addiction, so I vowed never to touch one again, or to allow myself to be lured by that insidious thought, “Oh, just one won’t hurt.” I have known people who, after giving up cigarettes for years, pick one up, smoke it, and get hooked all over again.

A very dear friend of mine is a long-time smoker. She has many reasons why she doesn’t want to give them up—like, “I’m too old. I’ll get fat.” When she said, “And, besides, I love smoking.” I wanted to scream, “I LOVED SMOKING TOO! NOBODY GIVES UP SMOKING BECA– USE THEY HATE IT!!!!!” But I didn’t. I managed to say that quietly.

Horribly, she keeps on smoking in spite of the fact that she suffers from COPD, a lung disease caused by cigarette smoking. It is so severe that she has been visited by EMT crews five or six times over the recent years. Suddenly, she will slip into a terrifying state of being unable to breathe, becoming so weak she can’t even call for help. Fortunately, she wears a panic button around her neck. She pushes it, responders come and rush her to the hospital where doctors and nurses fix her up enough to send her home.

After these frightening episodes, she gives up cigarettes until she gets over her fright, and then starts right in smoking again. It makes me weep. One might ask, “How could she keep on smoking?”  Like my sister, smoking doesn’t make her a bad person. She’s a lovely, generous, intelligent woman. She has just been cruelly snared into one of the most powerful addictions on earth. Unfortunately, like my sister, she has made it quite clear to me that she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Yesterday I got an email from her. She was in the hospital again. She had had another COPD episode. How awful. I phoned her when she got home and managed to say quietly, “Barbara. Is there anything you can do to prevent these attacks?”

“Well, I could give up cigarettes, I suppose.”

The topic was opened. I continued carefully. “You know I love you. I would do anything in the world to support you to give up cigarettes.” We were able to talk about it for a bit. I told her that the way I finally was able to give them up on the fourth try was to understand how evil cigarettes are and that everything about them is a lie.

Of course, she knew that the advertisements years ago lied: “We’re going to make you more attractive and glamourous. You’ll be sexy. Every man (or woman) will find you irresistible. You will be sophisticated if you smoke. Start smoking now.” We had all believed that back then. We had seen doctors recommending certain brands. She might even have glimpsed the ad with Ronald Reagan smilingly holding up packs of Chesterfields or heard  the ridiculous nonsense that menthol cigarettes would be better for you. We had both started smoking before learning that every one of those advertisements was a dastardly lie. It took some time, but the truth was finally exposed that cigarette smoking had led to and would continue to lead to the deaths of untold millions.

Even though, eventually, companies were forced to stop those advertisements and print warnings on packs, smokers continued to smoke, because, by then, we were all addicted. The lying ads were gone, but those demonic little white sticks continued the lies in their own way: “Hey! Don’t worry. You’re not going to die from me. Really. I’m your best friend, I’m there when no one else is. I lift your mood when you’re feeling down. I calm you when you’re upset or excited. I’m always there for you. I make you feel better in every way, don’t I? And isn’t it great that I help you keep your weight down? Mmmmm. You love smoking me, don’t you? Let’s relax and hang out together. I’m your go-to good feeling. Don’t worry about that cough. Grab a light. Inhale deeply, because, baby, you NEED me. And, like the song says, ‘You belong to me.’”

Of course, no one hears that soft, seductive voice, because it is too buried in our addicted brain where we are also oblivious to the fact that we have become co-conspirators with cigarette companies in the mission of our murder. We sink into a hideous death while they get rich. Our loss doesn’t matter because there are always more potential addicts. Here’s their latest policy: “We’ll give cigarettes to children in poor countries. Eventually, they’ll pay for them even if they don’t have food. It’s an entirely new, money-making market!” The whole business is so ghastly, it’s beyond comprehension, really.

I told my dear friend that she must view cigarettes as so awful and nasty that she will not even touch one. She must hate them and see them for exactly what they are. I emphasized again how much cigarettes lie to us in order to trap us into this hideous addiction.

And then an idea occurred to me based on what I knew about her. “Barbara,” I said, “Cigarettes lie to you in the same way Donald Trump does. Think of them that way.”

She laughed. “No one could hate Donald Trump more than I do.”

“Fine!” I said, “You need to hate cigarettes even more than you hate him and his lying ways.”

Listen. If I thought she loathed Hillary Clinton as much as she does Trump, I’d encourage her to use that. I don’t care. It’s way beyond politics for me. I just hope that stirred her to action.

Later, I met some friends for dinner. I told them how despairing I was that I was about to lose yet another person I loved to cigarettes. They commiserated and I was gently distracted by other topics and delicious food.

When we left, I saw a woman standing in front of my car smoking a fucking cigarette. She was lovely—blond, well-dressed, but standing there alone, puffing away. I guess my one glass of wine had stripped away the few inhibitions I have left at my age. I walked right up to her, looked into her blue eyes and said with as much tenderness as I could muster, “You have to stop smoking.”

She looked a bit startled and said, “Nobody has ever said that to me before.”

We talked some more. And, then to my horror, she said that three health professionals had told her that she was too old to stop. “That’s crazy.” I said. “Every day you don’t smoke, your body heals. It’s that simple.” Then, on impulse I went through my spiel about how cigarettes lie to you–“like Trump,” I blurted out daringly, having no idea what her politics were. But it perked her up. She declared with vehemence, “How could any intelligent woman with any sense at all have voted for him!”

I didn’t get derailed and countered with, “How could any intelligent woman with any sense at all continue to smoke?” She sighed, nodded, put out her cigarette and left. Who knows? Maybe I made a difference. Maybe if smokers were approached by strangers who said quietly, “You need to stop smoking.” Maybe….someday, there would be a tobacco-free world. What a beautiful dream.