Note: This article was transcribed from an interview with Jody (not her real name) and rewritten in the first person.
When I was younger, I used to wonder what those grey clouds and halos emerging from my Dad’s mouth in wispy trails were. I only learned that he was a smoker and addicted to the habit when I was in primary school.
My father doted on me dearly. We were pretty close when I was young. But somehow his serial smoking of Marlboro Reds or Greens has been one of the many causes that made us drift apart over the years.
I’m now 26 and he just turned 61. With Covid-19 and all, and Father’s Day being something we do celebrate—I want those grey clouds and halos to disappear, but I wasn’t sure how.
He’s been puffing away for over forty years, oblivious to how that has affected me, my Mum, and my younger sister. Don’t get me wrong. We all love him to death (no pun intended), but even as the oldest child, I couldn’t seem to muster up enough courage to tell him what I really wish he would do—to quit.
When we talk, it’s superficial talk, like “how’s your day?”, “eat dinner already?”, “Ma not home yet?”. I miss the earlier days when our conversations were deeper and lasted more than 10 minutes. Maybe it’s because 5 minutes into our conversation, his habit would kick in and my mood changes.
There goes the white-and-brown stick hanging loosely between his lips, like a mini fireworks of doom and gloom. Then he would stare off into the distance, even if I was sitting right in front of him, exhaling circles and smoke-clouds like I didn’t exist.
His eyes would glaze over, his breathing would slow, and he would gather his thoughts, blinking as if waking up for a second time, before slowly but surely starting his day for real.
“Okay Jody,” he would say in his heavily accented Teochew voice, “Daddy’s going out now.”
Two years ago, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not only were we in for the shock of our lives, my Dad included, but it became a wake-up call for us to re-look at our health, mortality, and make some really hard life choices.
Her immunity was compromised due to breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke, resulting in bad headaches and who knows what else. I (kinda) snapped. The stress from my Mum’s cancer treatment and my wish for my Dad to quit smoking for the past two decades finally exploded out of me.
I pointed out his behaviour prior to my Mum’s diagnosis, when he was always at the balcony smoking away. Not only was the smell bad, it stunk our living room and bedrooms. His family was being put in harm’s way due to his addiction to smoking.
So the night I visited my Mum at the hospital, I sent a text message to our family WhatsApp group. I told my Dad to stop smoking in our house. Just go out and do it. I still love my Dad, but I wish I was brave enough to tell him face-to-face.
Maybe it’s because we’re a typical Asian family, where we don’t usually air our grievances or problems. My WhatsApp message got my Dad so angry, he left the house whenever he needed a smoke. For nearly three weeks, he would disappear to catch his smoke breaks and we would not see him for hours. Sometimes we worried if he would return home.
I even felt guilty for snapping. It wasn’t something I was used to doing.
Eventually, he grew tired of “disappearing”. He got lazy and decided to cut down. It was like an unspoken gesture of apology from him to me, and I readily accepted it. We hardly exchanged words about it. The lingering scent of secondhand cigarette smoke lessened over time, and we were appreciative of it.
When my Mum’s cancer went into remission and she was finally discharged, we were all sitting around the dining table. The topic of him quitting surfaced. Sparks flew, and my father turned defensive. Things became heated once again.
“Why are you and your sister always picking on me?” Dad asked.
“We just want what’s best for you Dad! We’ve seen you smoke for years but we never say anything hor. Your cigarette smell has been wafting into my room for months and I only brought it up once!”
“Whatever lah!” he responded and stomped off.
Then I discovered that my younger sister had picked up smoking 5-6 years ago. She had been trying to hide her habit from my family (and me) but got found out. While that made me angrier, it jolted my Dad even more. Something cracked in his logic after this double whammy of family events. He finally took my sister aside and opened up. It was so unlike our father to do that.
He spoke about his regret for not trying harder to quit, and why smoking is harmful and addictive. If I could hazard a guess, he probably blamed himself for what was happening to my sister. He didn’t want her to go down the same road he did. Thankfully, she eventually quit.
What got me thinking was why he finally opened up about his struggles with his smoking addiction. I know my Dad, and I know it wasn’t easy for him to confess like that. It was a maturity in him I never expected.
While my sister was able to wean off her addiction, my father’s road to quitting wasn’t going to be as easy. We’re talking about flushing out 40+ years of nicotine addiction from his system.
Being the older sibling, I researched the prospect of alternatives to smoking. I asked my sister to broach the subject with our father, since they spoke about his addiction. I asked her to talk about Nicorette for instance (since we don’t have chewing gum in Singapore anyways).
“Huh? Nicorette? What’s that?” my sister asked me.
“Aiya, it’s a nicotine replacement lah. In chewing gum or patch form. It’s an easier way to wean off addiction. Better than see him go cold turkey right?”
She agreed to be the point person. I was ready to be her wingman, just not physically present but WhatsApp-able. After what felt like a gruelling one hour wait, she texted me back.
“He said he’ll think about it.” That was her message. I was about to scream inside when she followed up with a second text. “But he also said he’ll need our help.”
The fact that my dad was willing to open up to my sister about his smoking habit and listen to us after my mum’s illness was the first step. It brought a smile of relief to my face. Finally, the good news is that we’re making progress and his journey will need all of our support.
Together with our mum, my sister and I agreed we’ll be there for him every step of the way. We’ve tolerated his smoking for close to 30 years, my mum probably more. It felt great to learn (through my sister), that he’s willing to go on a Quit Journey and be receptive to a smoking cessation aid like Nicorette.
Maybe someday, I’ll muster enough courage to sit down with Dad and have a serious and honest conversation about his addiction and his journey to quit. It would be like when I was in primary school and our light-hearted banter now held greater weight and concern.
I want to tell him I will support him no matter how difficult the journey gets. I don’t want it to be this deep, dark family secret we all know of but don’t discuss openly, not even at the dinner table.
This Father’s Day, I want to look him in his eyes and tell him I love him for doing this with us, despite it being difficult for him. Because that’s what family does. We stick together like chewing gum.
This article is brought to you by Nicorette.
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The journey to a cigarette-free lifestyle is hard, but when it’s done with someone they love, the burden is shared, and the rewards truly greater.