LOSING ART, a work of creative nonfiction, is a tragic love story. So far, seven excerpts have been published in: Mayday Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Dillydoun Review, Minerva Rising, New Mexico Review, The North Dakota Quarterly (print only) and Litro Magazine (coming soon).
MARCH 28, 2022
[Adapted from Losing Art: A Memoir]
Art and I smoked in every nook and cranny of our house. The walls were orange-streaked with nicotine, the carpets and upholstery permeated with the odor of stale tobacco and smoke. We were resentful when non-smoking guests and family members came to visit, because it meant we couldn’t smoke in our own home. We smoked in the car, we smoked in the back room of our shop—no doubt chasing customers away. The air was thick with it. Our hair and every piece of clothing we owned were impregnated with the stench of smoke—we stank of smoke—but we didn’t care, because we loved smoking.
We may have been pariahs, but we were pariahs together. When we smoked, we could take a break without stopping what we were doing. We had a built-in excuse to leave wherever we were for a few minutes and catch our breath so to speak, timed by the lighting of a cigarette and the slowly inhaled and then exhaled breath. There was always a cigarette at the end of a meal, or between courses; a cigarette after sex, or between rounds; a cigarette to applaud a job well done, or to comfort ourselves after a job we knew we could have done better.
It’s easy to forget the icy, rainy, miserable days that Art and I stood outside feeding our addiction, the meetings that would go on for hours, at the end of which we wouldn’t know whether to pee or smoke; the all-consuming need that would arise when we would take a train or a plane or spend the night in a hotel or have a meal out.
Our smoking habit was crazy expensive for two people who were always on verge of going broke—it cost more than twelve-hundred dollars a month—which was just about equal to the deficit between how much we made and how much we needed. So, in an effort to stay afloat, we would periodically try to limit ourselves to ten cigarettes a day.
On a typical ten cigarette day, I would light up my first one—it was all I could think about after a long smokeless night—and take it in with my second breath of air. The second cigarette was after breakfast, effectively ending the meal as Art and I pushed back our chairs and greedily sucked in smoke. The third cigarette was a much-needed midmorning break. On and on throughout each day, we lived from cigarette to cigarette—until we would finally give up and smoke as much as we wanted to.
Early morning conversations were peppered with coughing fits.
Are you okay?
Yeah, I’m fine …
Smoking kills—everybody knows that—but when we learned about the smoking related death of someone we knew, our knee-jerk response was to light up more.
Yeah well, we would cavalierly reassure ourselves, You have to die of something, right?
Art’s smoker’s cough became a choking cough, a racking cough, a cough that sometimes seemed like it would never end. Whenever he left the house he carried a bottle of Tussionex, a prescription codeine cough syrup, along with a bottle of Robitussin (in case the prescription stuff didn’t work). I remember the hopeless expression on his face as he shook both bottles and put them into the bag—because it was obvious that something was seriously wrong.
Never once, in all the years we were together, had either one of us ever suggested we quit smoking entirely. Cut down … yeah … but Art’s fucking cough finally made us both terrified enough to try. When Art told me he’d really like to quit smoking, I immediately said I would quit too.
Chairs nestled close to each other, holding hands much of the time, frightened, but determined to succeed, Art and I watched the quit smoking video while chain smoking for six hours. The program was nearly at its conclusion when we were instructed to hit pause and write a pros and cons list for smoking.
If we are to buy it all, Art said, most of the items on any pro-smoking list have already been debunked. But I’ve smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for fifty-five years, and that’s after subtracting the five years I gave it up. Cigarettes have been like an old friend, one it has been almost impossible to say goodbye to.
Yeah, I get that. I’ve been smoking for almost as long. You know, I’m gonna miss taking a step back from my work and smoking a cigarette. It’s almost like being able to step outside myself. Also—fear of weight gain is probably the toughest one for me. The last time I quit smoking, I gained nearly thirty pounds in three months, with no end in sight.
That’s not an issue for me, I’ve been the same weight since my army days. The last time I quit I took up running and didn’t gain an ounce.
I took a puff of my cigarette and exhaled loudly, gazing wistfully at Art’s trim body. No, you wouldn’t, I said. You know, the thing that sticks with me is the image of a shrouded figure of Death, and you and me thumbing our noses at it.
I like that image, Art said. Let’s choose life.
Okay. Ready to watch the rest?
The video instructed us to tear up our last few packs of cigarettes. For good measure I poured water on top of the broken cigarettes in the garbage. Art and I each sadly and ceremonially smoked our final cigarette.
Five hours later Art went poking through the metal garbage can in his office, cursing me. What were you thinking, he muttered aloud as I watched. Pouring water on these?
I shrugged. I was trying to keep us from smoking them.
Oh wait! he said. Here’s one that’s not too wet. Here’s another.
Art assembled a collection of the best of the worst cigarettes.
I’ll be outside, he said to me, and he gathered his soggy mass of cigarettes and went out on our front porch to wait for me.
I waited for you until I realized that you weren’t going to come, Art said to me about an hour later. I didn’t light up. If I had, it would have been all over.
I know. That’s why I didn’t come.
Almost immediately, Art’s cough got substantially better—still there—but he was able to stop coughing with a couple of small sips of the codeine cough syrup. He had, however, enough pain in his upper back to send him to a doctor for relief.
It starts just about here. Art pointed to a spot he could just about reach at the lowest part of his shoulder blade. And it continues up … like this. Using two hands, he awkwardly pointed out the path of his pain, ending at the spot between the top of his shoulder blade and his spine.
Art’s doctor stood behind him and traced the pain pathway he had shown her. She was a tiny woman and had to stretch her arms up to reach the top of Art’s spine while he was sitting on the exam table. The pain begins here and travels up like this? It’s a classic nerve pathway. She listened to his lungs with her stethoscope, and then sat on her rolling doctor’s stool with her legs tucked up neatly underneath her long skirt and pulled her waist-length gray braid over her shoulder and to the front.
The braid is beautiful, I thought to myself, admiring the way the light sparkled on the gray and silvery strands. Brave too—in a world where gray means old
We just quit smoking a couple of weeks ago, Art said. I still have a pretty bad cough too. Do you think I should go for a lung X-ray to rule out cancer?
Well, of course you’re coughing, she said. It takes time for a cough to go away after you quit smoking. Give me a minute—I just want to check on something.
Art and I sat on our side-by-side examining room chairs, holding hands. Classic nerve pathways, I said. That’s good, right?
We’ll see, Art said, noncommittally.
The doctor returned a couple of minutes later. I thought we had a sample tube lying around, she said. Voltaren gel is like an aspirin that’s applied to the skin. You can use it along with Naproxen, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
So, you don’t think it’s cancer, Art asked her one last time. I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and hum … or more accurately stick my head up my ass. If Art’s doctor wanted to pronounce it not-cancer, I was with her all the way.
Late one night Art was standing in the doorway to the bathroom gently banging his head against the doorjamb.
I got out of bed and touched his shoulder. What are you doing Sweetie? I asked him.
The pain. I can’t take the pain.
Come to bed. Let’s put on some gel.
Looking back, I realize we were both willing participants in the denial of how sick Art really was, desperately clinging to the doctor’s words about the pain following classic nerve pathways. We both knew that without a single medical test she couldn’t possibly have pronounced him cancer free.
Art lay on the padded bench on his belly, and the chiropractor percussed his ribcage gently with his fingertips. Tap, tap, tap … like he was playing a drum. You hear that? He said, looking sideways at me.
His lung sounds dull. He was listening with his naked ear, without the added boost of a stethoscope.
Sounds dull … what does that mean? I asked.
Here’s the thing. I’m not a doctor, but it sounds like his lung could be collapsed. I think he might have lung cancer.
The chiropractor turned off his laser machine and helped Art to sit up. Laser therapy can exacerbate cancer. So, before I can treat you, I’m gonna need a written report of an X-ray stating that you don’t have cancer. I don’t know how to read an X-ray—it’s the written analysis that I need.
Yeah, okay, sure, Art said. I can get you that. He was noticeably shaken. Well, we both were. It was the first time anyone had said the c-word … and even though this guy wasn’t a doctor, he was saying aloud what we had been terrified of hearing for quite some time.
Let me know, the chiropractor said. If it is cancer, I have other ways I can treat you.
How did you manage to get this appointment? The doctor asked us when we came in the following Friday for the diagnosis. It was February—more than six months after the first time we had come to see her. Her expression was cold, her words harsh sounding, making me feel as if I had done something wrong. I noticed her beautiful silver and gray braid was now colored an unnatural light brown, a color that didn’t reflect the light, but seemed to suck it all in.
We set it up that way, I said apologetically. He had the scan on Wednesday, and we didn’t want to wait through the weekend … not knowing.
I always try not to give people bad news on a Friday, because they can’t do anything about it until Monday. You have stage four lung cancer, the doctor said tonelessly, looking at the computer screen on her desk and not at us. Because of where it is, and how large it is, surgery is not an option for you. You’ll need to set up an appointment with an oncologist to see what treatment options might be available.
Or no treatment, Art said.
The doctor nodded her head soberly. Or no treatment, she said.
Fuck, I thought to myself. They’re both talking about no treatment as an option. Suddenly I realized it was going to be my job to be Art’s advocate, and I would need to figure out how to step up and do it. For sure I couldn’t leave things the way they were—with the two them solemnly intoning: Or no treatment.
Art and I rode home together in silence—the chasm between cancer patient and caretaker-to-be was already a fissure threatening to open wide between us. We had been an us for so many years. We did this and we did that. Nothing in our life together had been remotely as divisive as this. Art had cancer—he was mortally ill—I was not. I could only imagine his unspoken terror, just as he could only imagine mine. How could he share his fear with me at the risk that expressing it out loud might make him feel even more isolated and alone? How could I talk to Art about my own fear of losing him when he was the one who was dying?
As soon as we got out of the car and walked into the house, I started to cry. I would begin to try to figure out a way to take care of Art … to convince him somehow he simply had to get treatment … just as soon as I could figure out how to stop crying.
The phone was ringing. Art and I stepped into his office and stared at the phone, but neither one of us made a move to answer it.
I’m going to miss you, Art said to me.
Will you? I thought to myself. Will there be a you who is going to miss me? I looked deeply into his face, already trying to memorize the lines of it. Oh god Sweetie, I’m going to miss you.