There are two words a smoker never wants to hear: "chest X-ray."
I was doing a piece about New Year's resolutions for our holiday book (in this issue) when I realized that until this year I had only managed to fulfill one of mine in all these years.
I'm not bragging but this year I actually did all the things I vowed to do last January 1 – I lost 50 pounds, I got in shape, and I'm taking guitar lessons. I was about one for 50 as far as keeping my resolutions before this year, and that one time was 15 years ago when I quit smoking.
I loved cigarettes. My idea of dealing with the health issue was to switch from Big Red to Marlboro Mediums and later to Marlboro Lights. One Christmas I got one hell of a chest cold. Naturally, I smoked my way through it, like all good smokers do. I couldn't shake it, though. Finally I had to go to the doctor, and that's when I heard those dreaded words.
I was in a panic as I drove to the hospital. It got worse. I ran into a nurse there – "Did you hear about Dickey? He was doing great, quit drinking, got remarried."
"Good for him," I said glumly.
"He's dead. Had lung cancer." I turned ashen.
I made my New Year's resolution on the spot. Actually, it was a fervent prayer. Like most non-practicing Catholics I can be very religious when I need something. On the other hand, I can also blithely convince myself there is no God, like when I steal a piece of chocolate from a little kid.
"Dear God, please don't give me lung cancer. If you give me another chance, I'll never smoke again."
When I went into the room for the X-ray the technician gave me the big lead thing to hold over my chest. "What's the point?" I asked myself. "It's too late now."
He emerged from the other room a few minutes later carrying a big manila envelope. "Give this to your doctor," he said. The poor bastard couldn't even look me in the eye.
As soon as I got outside I ripped it open and looked at the X-ray. "My lungs are a charcoal gray mass of Marlboro cancer!" I shrieked. I dropped the envelope off at the doctor's office and went home and smoked. I waited by the phone —nothing. The next day — nothing. A week passed. Finally I called, believing the doctor was avoiding me so he wouldn't have to deliver the bad news.
"Do I have it? I asked meekly.
"Pneumonia? No. I just wanted to make sure," he replied. I was stunned. Pneumonia? My first thought was to try and fool God. "Yo, Big Guy. I was just pullin' your leg about the smoking thing. We cool with that?"
At that moment I swear (to God!) the sky darkened. I never smoked another butt.
I get a kick out of New Year's resolutions. Statistics show only eight percent of us actually follows through on them for more than a month. I can remember sitting at a bar at three in the morning on New Year's when the guy next to me kept repeating, "I swear to God I'm gonna stop drinking this year. I swear." I'm like, "Dude, it is the new year already. You already blew it!"
The fact is most of us are too ambitious. We make resolutions we can't possibly achieve, probably because we are usually drunk when we say them. "I'm gonna feed all the poor people!" Yeah, good luck with that.
I suggest setting the bar lower. Make resolutions that are doable. Here are a few of mine:
"Try to hit the urinal (most of the time)."
"Don't fall asleep in your own vomit (except maybe on Saturday night)."
"Don't eat red meat (except beef and lamb)."
The truth is, it's all about willpower. We either come to grips with getting older or we don't. At some point in our lives we have to rethink our game plan.
I used to have a nun who gave us some sage advice. She said it was OK to talk to God like he was a real person, and it was OK to make deals with him. That's how I quit smoking.
"God, please help me finish writing this stupid column and I'll promise not to make my entire family watch football on Thanksgiving."