I suppose my fate was written in the stars from that summer night at the Los Gatos Youth Center when the two big high school car clubs threw a dance to which, for some reason, eighth graders were invited. It was 1953 and I was thirteen. I remember sitting on an iron bench outside the youth center with Eric Magalby on one side and Jimmy Nissen on the other, passing a Pall Mall back and forth. My first cigarette, as I recall. I think it was a year or two before filter tips. After that I was a Marlboro smoker, always.

In those early years, there were two reasons to smoke. On the one hand, it made me look cool, like I knew my way around the world. For years I’d been watching movie stars smoke. I had learned the moves from Judy Garland and Susan Hayward. How to lean toward the lighted match and then look up and catch the boy’s glance. How to toss my hair back and say, “I’ve been dying for a cigarette.” What the lace fan was to a Restoration coquette, the cigarette was to me at thirteen.

In a coil of cigarette smoke, I could hide my terrible selfconsciousness. I was just beginning to understand the power my body gave me. I liked this power but it was too terrifying to completely enjoy. I knew the facts of life, I’d been well educated by my mother who was hoping that education equaled protection although in my case it also equaled curiosity. I recall a line from a song of that time: when you take me in your arms and drive me slowly out of my mind. Well, I wasn’t sure what that meant but there were breathless moments. Cigarettes, ironically, gave me time and space to breathe.

Cigarettes were also social. In high school my friends and I met at a diner before school and stayed up late on Sunday nights at the Burger Pit. We drank coffee and talked about everything from boys and sex through ambitions – to be an architect, an author, an archeologist – to God and the meaning of life. At Lake Tahoe, shiny with baby oil, we lay on the beach and browned ourselves like sides of beef, smoked and talked. We never got tired of talking. Late into the night we played Oh, Hell¸ sang and talked some more in front of the fire. Smoking, always smoking.

As the years passed, I found that conversation, writing and reading, tears, disappointment and depression and avoiding reality: they all went well with cigarettes. Eventually there wasn’t a moment that didn’t call for a cigarette. That’s the way it is with addiction. Something begins as a pleasure, an enhancement, the flourish at the end of a gesture and ends up being a necessity.

When my boys were young I finally quit though to this day I can hardly believe I mustered the will to do it. That was thirty five years ago. The craving never went away completely.

Now here I am with lung cancer, facing the biggest challenge of my life. Where do I find the courage and determination for the time ahead of me? At the end of this essay, it’s the right time to say that I regret being a smoker, but I can’t. Of course, I wish I’d never taken that first drag off a Pall Mall. Having inescapably done so, I choose to remember the good times associated with cigarettes. For me there’s strength in those memories. I was a girl in love with life, full of daring and determination. I need those qualities more than ever now.

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10 Responses to “Smoking”

  1. Susan Hewman says:


    Though we’ve not seen one another or even been in touch for a long time, I’ve been thinking about you daily, and wishing for you strength and grace as you face the daunting challenge ahead..

    I get it about the cigarettes. I quit only 13 years ago and have been waiting for the other shoe to drop!

    I will be sending lots of positive vibes your way,

    With love,


  2. Andrea Johnson says:

    I am wishing you the best. Our youngest daughter started smoking when she was in high school, and when she was thirty five, she was diagnosed with cancer in her right lung. She had all three lobes removed, and that was sixteen years ago, and she is doing fine. She works in an ICU in a hospital. She said alkaline water and turmeric help.

  3. Judy Reeves says:

    Ah the memories, Dru. I’m glad you said you dont regret being a smoker; nor do I. It was of the time. As I know and love and admire you, the vigor and determination and full-on participation you’ve always met life with is how you’ll continue with whatever comes at you.
    Thanks for this blog post. Beautifully written and like everything you write, blessedly honest.

  4. Jessica North says:

    I loved smoking Dru. Every photo taken of me, every frame of celluloid , there it is the ‘cancer stick’ we called it eventually. With a glass of scotch or white wine. That Winstoon became a part of my hand. Staying up late into the night, talking deep truths about life, politics, world affairs, as though I was some brilliant thinker of budding broadcast genius.

    My thirteen year old grandson, the love of my heart is here for his bliss filled La Jolla surfing summer vacation. He’s sneaking cigarettes. The heartbreaks continues. And, your diagnosis is a part of that. You are loved and cherished by many.

  5. Laurel Corona says:

    I also am surprised that I regret so little, even of the stupid things. My biggest regrets are those times when a little more courage might have reaped huge experiential rewards. Well, too late for that, and I was dealt such a marvelous hand in life as is.

  6. Doug Jacobs says:

    Camus called it…
    the fraternity of the cigarette.
    I quit July 11, 1999 (and counting.)
    This Friday, it will be 15 years since I stopped.
    I’m glad it’s gone but still treasure the ritual,
    like a religion I no longer believe in or practice,
    but still love. And you’re right,
    it is a meditation that gives
    “time and space to breathe.”
    x o x o

  7. Peggy Lang says:

    How I cringe for those tender young lungs that gave you life during the coming-of-age you describe so touchingly. You’re being so beautifully philosophical about this, but I’m still hating the marauding evil villains you mentioned in your other blog. Just lividly hating them. I thank the writer who came up with the image because it provided a focal point for inner tantrums.

    I haven’t let myself get more than minimally involved with social media and blogs, but I’ll be reading your posts from now on–feeling stupid that I saw them as being there indefinitely, ready for when I had more time. Keep writing, dear Dru.

    Love you.

  8. Kathryn says:

    Looks like a lot of us found comfort hiding behind that smoke screen in those awkward adolescent years …. Love!

  9. Allison H says:

    Daring yes, but fierce too. That’s how I’ve always thought of you. Hang tough, my dear friend. I’m shooting daggers at those cancer cells.

  10. Vicki Beck says:

    Dru, We don’t know each other, but I’ve been following your blog the past month or so because your books are such powerful examples of what I want to achieve as a new writer. Two in particular, Bone Lake and The Good Sister, are eerily relevant to my two unpublished novels. I take inspiration from your courage, honesty, and tenacious lust for life. I wish you sunshine and strength to bolster your irresistible spirt.