American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
October 8, 2002
WHOSE LIFE IS IT, ANYWAY?
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- It's always the family trying to do right by the loved one -- that same loved one who never did right for himself while he still could. It was his life, he could do what he wanted to while he lived it ... as long as it didn't hurt anyone else.
That's true for all of us. Lately, armchair psychologists make sure we get the point about choices. You can choose not to be fat because you can choose not to eat those candy bars. "Oh, yeah, easy for you," they snicker. You can choose not to light a cigarette. "Oh, yeah, easy for you," they cough.
It was during a casual conversation with a priest over thirty years ago I learned we have a right to live our lives as morally and legally as we choose and then live with the consequences or rewards of our choices.
I was arranging for my newborn's Baptism and gave the priest (whom I had never met before) her name: Wendy Maria. He almost shouted, "That's not a Saint's name. It has to be a Saint's name."
"Doesn't Maria count?" I asked uneasily.
"Technically, yes," he said, "but I have to say the name in Latin and I need a real name that will translate."
"Oh," I said, rather nonplused.
"Names will do us Catholics in," he said, seeing my discomfort. "I baptized a baby a week ago. Dennis Patrick they called him. A good name, I thought to myself, until they started referring to him as DP. In my time DP. meant displaced person." He laughed a good-natured laugh.
"Old routine things in the Church don't seem to be running to form today," he said, exasperation creeping into his voice.. I still have my mind on a caller shortly before you, Mrs. Daley. "Why, a grieving widow came in to arrange her husband's Requiem Mass and subsequent burial in consecrated ground.
"I told her he hadn't been to church for 20 years and never expressed the slightest interest in going -- not even on Palm Sunday when everybody shows up."
"The woman had tears in her eyes," he said with sadness in his own. She literally begged, "Oh, Father, he was a good man, such a good man, he believed in the faith of his childhood, but he just ... I don't know."
Looking directly at me now, with his watery blue eyes, his neck turning red around his starched Roman collar: "Just yesterday, this 'good man' could have walked in for a visit, just to set a spell with the Lord, but no, he leaves it to his wife to follow the casket as he's wheeled in feet first ."
"But, back to your wee one. I will settle on Wenceslaus Maria, and you can call her what you want to call her when you take her back home."
What I learned in hearing about the man who chose not to go to church Sunday mornings is a lesson I'm now applying to those smokers expecting compensation for themselves or their heirs because they chose to live (and die) the life of a smoker.
Make no mistake, they do choose to smoke. No one forces them, encourages them, or lights the cigarettes for them. They do it all by themselves ... because they choose to ... it's not illegal nor immoral and in its proper places hurts no one else. "Live fast, die young, leave a pretty body," becomes a youthful line and then a mantra -- always followed by a nervous chuckle.
None of knows a single smoker who would say they hate smoking. They'll might say they can't afford the cigarettes, they'll say they really should stop but add "I enjoy it, if I didn't enjoy it, I'd quit right now." They say, "It's the only thing I do. It's my only vice," and more words they truly do believe, except when they're all alone and can acknowledge the truth. Sadly.
If anyone is asking, "What do you know?" Well, I do know, and I know very well. I also know I was young and unenlightened when I chose to smoke. By the time I wanted to be done with it all, I convinced myself quitting would be harder than suffering consequences later.
Eventually, though, I chose not to smoke. Neither while I smoked nor in these later years of freedom from the habit have I suggested I was ever powerless to help myself. I always knew I would stop, I only gambled on when. Was it easy? No, but it was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. Was it worth it? Oh, yes.
When I read about the jury awarding millions of dollars to a smoker now quite ill with a disease directly attributable to his having smoked for 40 years, a smoker who ignored the warnings printed on every pack, I'm reminded of the back-sliding Catholic who planned to enter church feet first through the grace earned by his loving wife, never having once walked in on her arm all those years..
Although I quit smoking 25 years ago, I smoked for 30 years and nothing will diminish the vertical lines on my upper lip, lines etched by pursing my lips at every puff, dragging smoke from each cigarette day in and day out. Thanks to modern procedures, I could probably get "Bo-Tox" injections for a smooth upper lip. Or, I could go after Johnny the Bellhop who encouraged me to "Call for Philip Morris" 55 years ago. Or, more likely, I could put the blame exactly where it belongs ... with me.
There are things in life no one can do for me. No one can establish my relationship with God; no one can fall in or out of love for me; and, no one could stop smoking for me. That had to be my choice and my determination not to have anyone visit me while I suffered from a self-inflicted illness.
I don't want anyone else to make things right for me; I don't want anyone else to have to make excuses for me. This is my life. I own it. And, I expect to always own up to it.