Walter’s Cigarettes

Post Author: Emily Brown

When I was a teenager, I promised myself that I would never buy cigarettes. A few of my friends smoked, and occasionally someone would offer me a cigarette and I would accept. Fearful of addiction, I came up with what I thought was a fool-proof strategy: if I never bought cigarettes, I could only ever smoke when I was bumming cigarettes, and since I couldn’t return the favor, politeness would prevent me from smoking too often. Ten years later, I walked into a corner store sporting a clerical collar and a small baby bump and, for the very first time, bought a pack of Newports.

My beloved congregant Walter was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. An African-American man who worked as a diversity trainer (among other things), he connected easily with people from all kinds of backgrounds, and constantly, lovingly encouraged the congregation to be a model of a community overcoming racism, classism, ageism, and more. He laughed and cried unreservedly. He spoke at length about “Ubuntu” theology, the African theology that emphasizes interconnectedness. As the president of our church’s board, he led the committee that interviewed me and called me as the associate pastor; when I told him with some trepidation, only a few months later, that I was expecting a baby and would need to take maternity leave, he rejoiced. Shortly after my baby Abel was born, we got word that what Walter had thought was a dental issue was in fact a bone tumor forming in his jaw. His diagnosis took us all by surprise – a vibrant man in his early 60s whose father still lived independently, we had all assumed we would have him with us for decades to come, even if we did nag him to quit smoking. They gave him six months to live.

Months passed, and Walter responded positively to treatment, but the doctors were clear that there was no cure for this kind of cancer, only temporary reprieve. When we baptized Abel, I asked Walter to be his godfather, knowing that Abel would probably never remember Walter.

The months turned into a year, and Walter continued to work, to attend church, to travel. He took long, luxurious smoke breaks outside the church, making conversation with every congregant and neighbor who happened along. I kept nagging him to quit. He would laugh, and take another drag on his cigarette. When I found out we were expecting our second child, a girl, he was one of the first people I told.

In the spring of 2015, the treatments stopped working. Bone tumors impinged on Walter’s spinal cord, limiting his mobility. He was confined to his apartment, then to his bed. A home health aide would come for a few hours a day, but eventually it wasn’t enough. He went on home hospice care. “This is just a strategy,” he told me, ever the optimist, “because it’s the only way the insurance will cover a nurse. I can start the treatments again when I’m stronger.” It wasn’t just a strategy – he slept more and more, and ate less and less. My colleague and I visited every week, then every day. I liked his health aide and his hospice nurses, but I sometimes wondered if they were hiding his cigarettes. “You’re all out,” they’d tell him. “You smoked the last one a little while ago.”

One day, I came to visit and he was clearly unsettled. Too disoriented to think clearly, his hands fluttered from one bedside table to the next, rifling through tissues and get well cards and lip balm in search of a pack of smokes. Cigarettes were all he could think about, all he could talk about: “There might be some in that bag, check that bag for me, would you?” he requested. “Go out into the living room and see if there’s a pack on the table.” I confronted his home health aide: did she know where any cigarettes were? She swore that she didn’t, and although she often ran errands for him, she could lose her license if she bought tobacco products on a patient’s behalf.

Ten years earlier, I had promised myself I would never buy a pack of cigarettes. At the time, it was just a strategy, a way of keeping smoking from becoming a habit. It had been years since I had a cigarette, but my vow still stood, and it had come to mean something more, as well. In those intervening years, I had learned to think systemically about evil and sin, and my vow never to buy cigarettes had become a commitment not to hand money over to the companies that profit from these insidious products that cause disease and death. In the face of Walter’s desperation, though, my principled stand seemed inhumane. Walter had lost so many sources of pleasure, joy, and comfort already as his body turned against him. He couldn’t swallow food, he couldn’t bathe alone, he didn’t even have the mental acuity to carry on a conversation. Cigarettes were one of the few small pleasures left to him. And so I went to the corner store and bought him a pack of cigarettes, shocked at the price tag (seventeen dollars!). Oddly, no one seemed perturbed at a pregnant clergywoman’s stammering request for Newports.

The Gospels tell us a story of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, despite the Fourth Commandment’s clear mandate not to do any labor on the seventh day. Confronted by Pharisees, Jesus asks “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9). Jesus gives them a different way to assess the rules and guidelines that tells us what to do and what not to do. We have to think not only about what is lawful and unlawful, but also about what is life-giving and what is destructive. I have no doubt that cigarettes do harm, that they destroy life, that they may very well have caused the cancer that in turn caused Walter’s death. But Jesus’ words to the Pharisees challenge us never to make idols of our boundaries. When principles and rules conflict with compassion and mercy, Jesus asks us to choose mercy, every time. And the most merciful thing I could do was to bend my boundaries and buy the cigarettes. I brought them back to Walter, who visibly relaxed at the sight of them. I helped him to open the package and find his lighter. After just a few puffs, his eyes flickered shut. I put out his cigarette for him, squeezed his hand, and let myself out.

That was the last day I saw Walter – I went out of town the next morning, and he died while I was away. I haven’t bought a pack of cigarettes since, but someday I might. I can’t rule it out.

Emily Brown is a UCC minister, presently serving as Associate Pastor of Broadway UCC in New York City.

Image by: jacmack34
Used with permission
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