When I was a kid, I would tell people my favourite colour was blue. Blue was not my favourite colour. I don’t think I have ever really had a favourite colour. I told people it was blue because that was my dad’s favorite colour, and my dad was always right. If there was ever a homework question I couldn’t solve, or some elementary school drama I couldn’t get out of, my dad would always have the answer. So yeah, my favorite colour was blue.
When I was in high school, I started smoking because my dad smoked. It wasn’t that I got the same pleasure out of cigarettes as I did when I got the blue game piece whilst playing Mexican Train, it was that I wanted to understand what he liked about cigarettes so much that he couldn’t quit them. I didn’t get any pleasure out of cigarettes at all. Confusion was the only thing I gained by adding nicotine to my already burning, fireball-coated throat. I’d stand around the bonfire at the Friday night bush party, having conversations with no depth with peers I had no connection to, and still not have any answers by the time my cigarette was completely ashed-out. I’d go home smelling of smoke, the type you choke on, and fall asleep only to wake up to the sound of my dad going out the backdoor in the morning for his first cigarette of the day.
My dad grew up on a farm. He grew up on a farm with a harsh father who smoked from a tobacco pipe for every waking moment of his life. He grew up with a Mum who thought blowing cigarette smoke into an aching ear would cure it. When he’d wake up at 5:30, before putting on his hole-y sneakers and hand-me-downs and grabbing his plain sandwich for school, he’d have to take care of his chores in the barn. My dad has never been able to quit the habit of waking up before the sun, just like how he has never been able to quit his smoking habit.
“Dad, how do you know?” I’d say after he’d respond to yet another question which would satisfy my curiosity, temporarily.
“Because I’m the Supreme Ruler, and the Supreme Ruler knows all,” he’d say.
What was so good about this poisonous vice that my dad could not quit it, not even for me? If he was the Supreme Ruler, how did he not know that this silly habit of his could lead to me walking down the aisle alone at my own wedding, or my future children never having their young and curious questions answered by the Supreme Ruler?
He did know, and I didn’t understand how he continued to smoke regardless.
As I grew older and learnt more about the effects of smoking in health class and heard him repeat the same New Year’s resolution year after year, I started to hesitate before telling people my favourite colour was blue.
When I was about fourteen, my mum and I were going to the grocery store. As we got into the car, my mum told me to go close the gate to the backyard. Leaving that gate open was an open invitation for our golden retriever to pursue one of her famous escapes. I sighed and got out of the car, skipped down the red-brick lane to the back, and was about to wheel the gate shut when I saw my dad.
He was standing in the backyard on a business call, smoking a cigarette, thinking he had the house to himself. One of the only times I’ve ever seen my dad look afraid was when he turned around and saw me standing behind the open gate. He hadn’t been given enough of a warning to hide the toxic prop behind his back.
I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t just that I was confused — since I was under the impression he hadn’t smoked for several months — it was the actual sight of my dad holding a cigarette had shocked me. I can count the amount of times my dad has accidently let me see him smoking on one hand. He has smoked thousands of cigarettes, but the number of ones I’ve seen, held delicately in his hand, is a single digit.
I closed the gate and walked back to the car. My dad could not try to defend himself right then and there because of his business call (which, perhaps was causing the stress that lead to this cigarette). My mum and I went to the grocery store and as I helped Mum gather the healthy foods we nourished our bodies with, I thought about the irony in that. I thought about how I felt betrayed. My dad always knew the answers. His answers were always right. I’d never received a red “X” next to a homework question he’d helped me on. His answers were always the truth, and he’d lied to me.
This was the day I decided to stop nagging him about quitting. The day I’d stop holding my breath when he’d be in my proximity while reeking of his most recent relapse. The day I’d stop pretending like he was just going out with my Aunt Laurie at family dinners while she had a cigarette to keep her company. The day I realized that my dad was not the Supreme Ruler.
Over the following years, I would occasionally ask my mum if he’d slowed down at all. She’d either apologetically say, “He’s got a lot going on with work, Char,” or, “He really does try.” Some days, I’d ask out of curiosity and take whatever answer she gave me. Other days, I’d take my frustration out on her and ask things like whether he understood how much money he was spending on something that’s killing him. After all, you could use simple algebra to find that number. I’d ask if she’d heard the scary rasp in his coughs or how his breathing sounds forced, not flowing from his lungs. My mum would say that I needed to say these things to him, that her talking to him about it wouldn’t do anything.
“I’m tired of trying to make him stop. I can’t make him stop. It’s up to him to quit smoking and I’m tired of putting energy into this and just ending up disappointed,” I’d say. Or sometimes, in my most angsty teenage phases, I’d say something along the lines of, “Whatever, I don’t care anyway.”
My only signs of protest turned into things like hoping he would smell the lingering fume of smoke on my jacket from the cigarette my unanswered questions had forced me to smoke the night before. I thought maybe I would inhale and the reason my Dad was such a slave to cigarettes would seep into my brain as the smoke filled my lungs. Or on family movie nights when we would all resume our usual spots on the couch, I would leave mine if he sat down next to me smelling like anything other than himself. Smelling like that substance made me not understand him to the point of making him feel as foreign as a stranger.
Something changed over the past couple years in the small part of my heart that resented my dad for not quitting. I started to notice how in almost every photograph of my dad as a child with his mum or dad, tobacco was always a third presence. I started to empathize with the amount of work my dad does to support our family. I experienced an addiction of my own, and realized that no one chooses to be an addict. I started to notice that his hair is no longer black like it is in photos of him as a kid, but it’s peppered-look now consists of more grey than black. I noticed the yellow tinge of his straight teeth that he used to get complimented on. Everytime I get to see him, I notice new wrinkles, in the spots that indicate stress. When I compare my dad to the little boy in the photos buried in scrapbooks, stained brown from the smoke in the air of the house they came from, he’s almost unrecognizable. However, one quality about him remains the same and will never change: the striking (and my favourite) shade of blue that’s held in his eyes.
This year Mum, Dad, and I spent New Year’s together at our small cabin in northern Ontario. It was so cold that you could see your breathe so clearly in front of you — it was like your lungs were sending you a message.
On New Year’s Day, my dad and I went for a walk on the lake. Without even having to ask him what his resolution was, Dad turned to me and said, “This is really going to be the year, Char.”
“I think you’re right, Dad.”
I grew up with a dad that walks around the block just to have a cigarette. It’s not just so his daughter doesn’t see him. It’s so that she doesn’t grow up surrounded by smoke that curses her future with an addiction she doesn’t want. He doesn’t do it because he wants to. Him doing it doesn’t mean he loves me any less.
It also doesn’t mean that I’ll ever stop answering what my favorite colour with anything other than, “It’s blue. Just like my dad’s.”