Why My Mother Will Never Quit Smoking Even If It Does ‘Rot’ Your Brain

My mother, the smoker
According to the findings of yet another study on the health risks of smoking, there's yet another horrible way the habit can hurt you: By literally "rotting" the brain. Hey, why stop at emphysema when you can have early onset dementia and/or rapid cognitive decline, too?

I don't mean to sound bitter or heartless. But as the daughter of a lifelong smoker (well, two lifelong smokers, until my father passed away), I honestly wonder if all these studies are a waste of time. Look, it's like this: My mother has been smoking for over 40 years. Just like every other smoker, she knows cigarettes are lethal. She knows exactly why she can only laugh so hard without going into a coughing fit. She knows exactly why she wakes up hacking and wheezing all night, every night, like some tragic consumptive in a classic novel. 


She's heard the latest news, seen the gruesome commercials, read the bold-print warning labels. But she'll never, ever quit. Why? The answer is stunningly simple. My mother will never quit smoking because she doesn't want to quit smoking. And she will never want to quit smoking. She wants to smoke more than she wants to stop coughing. She wants to smoke more than she wants to live a long, healthy live. In fact, sometimes I think she wants to smoke because she wants to die.

I know this is the part where I'm supposed to talk about how much my mother's refusal to quit smoking hurts my feelings. How she makes me feel like cigarettes are more important to her than I am and so on and so forth. But I don't. I don't feel that way at all. I stopped allowing myself to feel fear or sadness over how smoking might be damaging my mother's health so many years ago, I don't know if I even remember how anymore.

Instead, the sadness and fear I feel are on behalf of my two children, who adore their grandmother and would be absolutely devastated if anything ever happened to her. "She needs to quit smoking," my 11-year-old daughter will say quietly, anxiously, as my mother coughs and coughs and coughs. "Why doesn't she quit smoking?"

"I don't know," I tell her. That's a lie, of course. But I can't bear to tell her the truth.

I want to make something clear: I'm not judging or criticizing my mother because she smokes. I was a smoker, too, before I had kids. In fact, I quit the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I won't lie; I've had the occasional weekend cigarette here or there in the years since. I don't think the craving ever really goes away. "Smoker" can become part of someone's identity. It became part of my mother's identity long ago. My mother is a smoker in the same way that my mother is an artist. That's just who she is. (The above image is one of my mother's drawings; a self-portrait from the '70s.)

I'm lucky, because smoking never defined me. It never had the chance. And I'll never be a smoker again. Because I don't want my kids to lose me, too.

Are you the child of a smoker?


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