Cigarettes, Flicks and Smoke Signals

By on March 26, 2015
Cigarettes, Flicks, and Smoke Signals

By Vonda Skelton –

I hate tobacco smoke. I hate the way it smells, the way it permeates my clothes and hair, and especially the way it kills. But during a caregiving season of my life, cigarette smoke took on a new and positive role—as a way to communicate with my terminally-ill sister, Gail.

The doctor gave us the bad news six days before Christmas. There was nothing more they could do and my sister had “weeks to months” to live. Three days later my sister and mother moved in with my husband and me. Together, we would love Gail and care for her and make her final days as comfortable as possible.

There was one little problem: Gail was a smoker. The problem was complicated by the fact that we can’t leave her alone—even for a moment. My mother has asthma, and cigarette smoke is one of her triggers. So even though I hate cigarettes, that meant I have to be the primary back-deck-smoke-partner. After all, inhaling secondhand cigarette smoke for a few weeks wouldn’t likely kill me, but Mother could die from an asthma attack.

Our first night out, I wiped down the dirty, wet patio chairs and bundled us up in warm winter coats, hats, and gloves. With her catheter bag hanging from her walker, my sister toddled to the door and I held her steady as we maneuvered the step down to the deck. Our warm breath created whirls of smoke in the frigid air before the first cigarette was ever lit.

After safely seating her in the chair, I handed her the Marlboros. Her hands shook as she fumbled a cigarette from the pack and placed it between her pale lips. She flicked the lighter. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing. I removed my gloves, took the lighter, and gave it a flick. Still nothing. I ran back into the house, grabbed the long-nosed grill lighter, positioned it under the stick of tobacco, and flicked. Bingo! The dirty deed was done. I was hired. I was the official cigarette lighter.

We sisters sat in the cold mist and faced the awkward night together. She puffed and I talked about grandkids, the economy, and how to get four meals out of a chicken. Two cigarettes later I was shivering and reeking of smoke. I helped my sister out of the chair and back into the warm house. I’d done my job.

An hour later, we did it all again. I could feel the resentment rising as I coughed and shivered in the cold rain. Not exactly my idea of quality sister time.

Over time my attitude changed. Oh, I still hated cigarettes. I still hated the way it smelled, the way it permeated my clothes and hair, and especially the way it killed. But for those few months, I loved the way my sister opened up and talked out there on the deck. Yes, much of it was medication and illness-induced confusion and confabulation. But there were other times. Times the conversation centered on gut-wrenching hurts and pleading apologies and faith-affirming questions about her new Lord.

We shared our disappointments in ourselves and others. We shared the celebrations we missed. We shared a mutual heartache for the years we lost as sisters. And even though the cigarettes remained a sore spot to the very end (“Do you really need to go out there AGAIN???”), they became a source of communication between two sisters who never had much in common. And whether the communication was written or spoken or simply sent up in smoke signals, the message to Gail was the same: Jesus loves you. I love you. I’m glad we’re here.

Gail’s been gone two years now and oh how I cherish those precious moments we spent together. Those times she cried and puffed while I cried and coughed. Those times our words floated among the smoke swirls…and we had another day of life together.

Luke 15:2 tells us that Jesus “…welcomes sinners and eats with them.” I have no doubt Jesus would sit out on the deck and breathe the smoke-filled air with two saved-by-the-blood sinners: my sister and me.

I have a feeling He’d even flick the lighter, too.

Vonda Skelton is a national speaker, freelance writer, and the author of four books, including Seeing Through the Lies: Unmasking the Myths Women Believe and the Bitsy Burroughs Mysteries for kids. She is the owner of The Christian Writer’s Den Writing Blog, founder of the Christian Communicators Conference, co-director of the NCompass Writing Retreat, co-owner of SCW Productions, and co-director of the Gideon Media Arts Conference and Film Festival Intern Program. Vonda and Gary have been married 42 years—and they’re still happy about it! http://www.vondaskelton.com/.

About Vonda Skelton

Vonda Skelton is a national speaker, freelance writer, and the author of four books, including Seeing Through the Lies: Unmasking the Myths Women Believe and the Bitsy Burroughs Mysteries for kids. She is the owner of The Christian Writer’s Den Writing Blog, founder of the Christian Communicators Conference, co-director of the NCompass Writing Retreat, co-owner of SCW Productions, and co-director of the Gideon Media Arts Conference and Film Festival Intern Program. Vonda and Gary have been married 42 years—and they’re still happy about it! www.VondaSkelton.com

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Cigarettes, Flicks and Smoke Signals