page contents

If It Wasn't For Winston, I Wouldn't Smoke by Juliet Barney

At 10:45am, Facebook notifies me that my mother has a tumor. It was given to her by the first cigarette that settled on her lips in the summer of 1965.

“See that building?” she asked me as we drove by.

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s where I bought my first cigarettes when I was twelve. I would buy two for a nickel.”

I was seventeen then.

She tells me not to worry about the tumor because she isn’t worried. My sister tells me not to worry because our mother isn’t worried. It’s the Internet that tells me to be afraid.

“I’m not worried because the doctor told me they don’t usually do chemo or radiation for bladder cancer. As long as I don’t have to have chemo, I’m happy.”

“Do they think the tumor is cancerous?”

“They didn’t say.”

The Internet tells me that benign tumors just get removed. They vanish with the swoosh of a scalpel. The Internet says that cancerous bladder tumors are commonly found in smokers. Smokers are three times as likely to get bladder cancer than non-smokers. The cigarettes invade the blood, travel to the kidneys, and infiltrate the bladder.

The Internet tells me my mom has bad blood.

A Winston’s ad from 1975 reads, I demand two things from my cigarette. I want a cigarette with low tar and nicotine. But, I also want taste.

My mom chose Winston’s because of their smell. She told me her aunt used to smoke them in the car and she envied the smell.

“I don’t like them anymore,” my mom said. “But I don’t have a choice. I’m a creature of habit.”

When I was nineteen, Facebook notified me that my parents put my favorite dog to sleep. I read statuses from my sister and my niece that told Gus to Rest in Peace. He was such a good dog, they said.

I texted my mom, asking if it was true.

My mother said, “I was waiting for the right time.”

That wasn’t it.

She calls me a month before she finds out about the tumor, which seems out of place. We never talk on the phone. We talk on Facebook, or not at all.

She calls to tell me she has blood in her urine. She says it doesn’t hurt, but it’s scary. She says the doctors pushed her appointment back four weeks. She says if they aren’t worried, she’s not worried.

I assume it’s not big news. Big news is shared on Facebook.

When I was twenty, I borrowed my mom’s car to visit a friend. She thought mine wouldn’t make the hour-long drive.

My friend sat in the passenger seat and we jammed out to heavy metal. He rummaged in the glove compartment for a CD.

“Look,” he said. He had a Winston 100 hanging out of his mouth. “I’m Mama Barney.”

I laughed.

He lit it.

Message boards say that Winston’s are the closest a person can get to an unfiltered cigarette that actually has a filter. This note is listed with a picture of a 1974 ad that says, I smoke for one reason. I don’t smoke a brand to be like everybody else. I smoke because I enjoy it…Real taste—and real pleasure—are what smoking’s all about. Winston is for real.

I wonder if they know what “real” is. Real is having a mother who might have cancer. Real is her fear of being buried alive and her fear of fire. Real is your mother requesting to be Saran-wrapped in her recliner with a cigarette in her hand to preserve her legacy.

That what’s real about Winston’s.

My parents have been married for forty-ish years, all of which my mom has been with the same brand of cigarettes. Only a few years ago, my dad was sent on a cigarette run. Instead of Winston’s, he came back with Marlboro Red’s. They are still sitting, untouched, on top of the refrigerator.

In the 1960’s, cigarette ads often featured women with black eyes, saying they would rather fight than switch brands of cigarettes. The Winston ad featuring this woman read, Me and my Winstons, we got a real good thing. She looks more like a battered woman than a happy smoker.

This ad makes me think smoking is like Stockholm Syndrome.

The night before I hear about the tumor, I have a dream. In the dream, I get a call from my sister. She tells me one of our parents is in the hospital. She doesn’t specify whether it was our mom or our dad, but I had that dream feeling where you see a certain image or idea, but associate it with something else. The hospitalized parent isn’t just one parent, but a combination of both. It doesn’t matter which.

I can feel that I’m losing them both.

“I’ve never smoked pot before,” she said on our drive to Plattsburgh.

“I have.” I was twenty-one and old enough to see my mother as a friend. “I used to smoke every time I was at Babettes’s house.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t like you going there.”

“You did not know.”

“I didn’t know exactly what you were doing, but I knew her mother was no good.” She pulled out her transparent, pink lighter and sparked up a cigarette.

“Right,” I said.

“Whatever,” she said. “It’s only pot.” She simultaneously exhaled and cracked the window.

“You used to tell me that if I was ever caught doing drugs, you would throw me in jail yourself.”

“Yeah, well, pot’s never killed anyone.”

When my mom was growing up, smoking was considered cool. It was on TV and in the movies. Kids were smoking. Adults were smoking. You wanted to be someone who had a cigarette. They weren’t concerned about their health, just their ‘cool factor’.

A woman posing in a news ad, was quoted while promoting Winston’s in 1976. She claimed, If it wasn’t for Winston, I wouldn’t smoke. Taste isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. I smoke for pleasure. That’s spelled T-A-S-T-E. That means Winston. Winston won’t give you a new image.  All Winston will ever give me is taste.

Until it gives you a tumor.

In December of 2010, my mom joined Facebook, one month before my twenty-first birthday.

She started out as a spectator. She lurked, sometimes liked, hardly ever commented. Then she got hooked on Candy Crush and other games. She harassed everyone with invites and demands for lives until she discovered that she could send messages to her friends. That’s when it started.

She would use Facebook to ask me to like the pictures she was posting. She would get on Facebook to ask me about school and work. She would use Facebook to send me important notes and numbers—which she didn’t understand was a bad idea.

She’s had her credit card number stolen eight times.

I told her to stop buying more Candy Crush lives.

My sister once told me that when I was two-years-old, she walked out of her bedroom and saw me sitting in my mom’s recliner which a cigarette butt hanging out of my mouth. She said she laughed and took a picture. She doesn’t know where it is now.

When I was fourteen, my mother got her gallbladder removed. She was in the hospital for a few days, and had to continuously blow air into a plastic tube at a steady rate, keeping the blue ball between the lines, to check her lung pressure.

“See? I can do it just fine,” she said. “Now can I go out and have a cigarette?

“You know,” my sister said. “You should really quit smoking.”

“Yeah, well, you should really lose weight.”

Ten years later, my sister got gastric bypass surgery and my mom got a tumor.

In a couple weeks, they will remove the tumor. They don’t say when. They say they’ll call. They say they won’t give much warning. They don’t say what they think will happen. They just tell us not to worry.

The Internet says that after surgery, the tumor often comes back, leading to surgery after surgery.  The Internet says that in extreme cases, the entire bladder may need to be removed. The Internet says that during that extreme surgery, the entire bladder and surrounding lymph nodes are removed. Usually, the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, and a small portion of the vagina are removed as well.

If I told her all this, I imagine she would say, “If I’m lucky, Dr. McSteamy will do my reconstructive surgery.”

“But he died in the plane crash episode,” I’ll say. 

I was sixteen when I bought my first pack of cigarettes, but they weren’t for me. I drove over to the Kinney Drugs in town and asked for four packs of Winston 100’s. My mom always bought four at a time.

“For your mom?” Joyce asked me. “How is she?”

“Good,” I say.

“Tell her I said hello.”

I paid for the cigarettes and left. I didn’t even get ID-ed.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving. My cell phone rings. It says it’s my dad. I’m driving, but I answer anyway, but it’s not my dad who answers, it’s my mom.

“I’m cancer-free!” she says.

“That’s great news!” I say. I start to cry. I cry because I was wrong. Because I had let the Internet convince me that my mother was dying. That I needed to believe that she would die so when she wasn’t, I would be surprised. I needed to be surprised.

“Yes, but I have to go. I have things to do on the computer.”

“Okay,” I say, and hang up.

I’m still crying when I check Facebook.

My mom’s active on messenger.

I send her a message. “When’s your next appointment?”

“Not for at least a year,” she replies. “I’ll let you know.”

“I’m not worried,” I tell her. Because if I’m not worried, she’s not worried. 

Juliet Barney is originally from Lake Placid and uses the unfortunate life of small town living to influence her writing. She has a talent for Jenga, movie trivia, tweeting, and not meeting celebrities. 

You can find her publications at TLAA: A Journal of Indigenous Expression and War, Literature, and the Arts.