My father was a gentle man, always flashing easy smiles full of straight teeth. His eyes showcased a glorious blue and brown heterochromia and sparkled when he spoke of galaxies full of stars and planets unexplored. He would go through packs of Marlboro Lights as he told stories of his time as a Marine in Japan, Vietnam, Germany, the world. He was animated and joyful, like a child who knew all the secrets to life and had found the answer to every existential question. He was generous with his time, his words, his love. The soft subtle constant aroma of cigarettes on his skin and clothes became one of comfort, a scent I associated with home and warmth.
Eventually his body began to fail him. The strong and stable man I had grown up knowing was suddenly weak and fragile. The doctors didn’t have anything positive to say, and when I flew home to be with him in his last days our roles shifted and I was the one who got to tell him stories. I would push him in a wheelchair around the hospital and sneak him ice cold Coca-Colas and burning hot Marlboro Lights. We would sit outside holding hands, the smoke curling around us as we savored what we both knew would be the last moments we would have with each other. The smell of that smoke was a comforting and grounding thing in the midst of the chaos, it brought my mind back to the days when everything was still okay, it was a constant in all my memories from past to present with the man I loved more than anything.
It’s been a little over eight years since my father left this world and, appropriately, his body went up in smoke. In the first year after his death I inhaled countless Marlboro Lights, pulling the warmth deep into my lungs, yearning for some sense of closeness and comfort, wrapping myself in the scent of burning tobacco, trying to ground my breaking heart in something familiar and stable. I always felt him in those quiet moments on my porch, those moments where nothing else felt real, those moments where I could almost see his smiling face and sparkling eyes forming in the clouds around my body.
I don’t smoke anymore, I am now a mother and wife, and the more time that passes the more the wound heals. Things don’t hurt as much as they did before, and I’m grateful for that. I can see my father in other things, like my husband’s fascination with space, and my son’s bright blue eyes and childlike wonder. The more I learn about God, the more I understand why my father lived the way he did. He understood undeserved grace and great love. He understood the value of people, and knew that investing in them and caring for them would yield far greater treasures than any high paying job. I don’t smoke anymore, but I feel my father’s presence all around me, an invisible vapor, a warm smoke floating through each day of my life, reminding me to live my life with the same quiet kindness he did, and that’s the most comforting thing of all.
“Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” James 4:14