As most every young kid does, I truly loved my mother. I did. Still, as time progressed and my observations grew sharper, there were some things about Dakota Swinton that I did not particularly like. It went beyond her deceptions, her mind-games, and even her hoarding of secrets. What I liked least about her was the sum of her weaknesses. The weakest thing about her was the lack of willpower it took to ever quit her nastiest habit: smoking. She smoked entirely too much. She’d had asthma since she was a child. She’d never gotten over it, never outgrew it, and still she smoked. It’s like she was slowly trying her best to commit suicide, and if she killed the rest of us in the process, well, that would just be a bonus.
She smoked like some minor demon, roasting in Hell, and I hated it!
This had long ago become her lifestyle, and her shackle. She was a pack-a-day smoker when Gig first met her. While Gig blew smoke so coolly from his horn, Dakota blew smoke from her Kools. Maybe back then she didn’t know the harm, or that cigarettes were so dangerous, but she smoked obsessively when she was pregnant. It seemed that nothing, not even the fear of miscarrying… could stop her from inhaling all those damned toxins.
To make matters worse, she smoked obsessively whenever she became upset. She smoked when she was nervous. She smoked the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. She smoked when she was pissed at Gig; smoked during and after their fights, and she smoked after they’d kissed and made up. She smoked after every meal, and then she smoked in between. The woman was clearly a fiend for nicotine.
She smoked even more when she was sketching— oh, most especially then. Gulping steady cups of java and hits of nicotine awakened the creativity sleeping in her brain. It wasn’t her greatest sin, but it was a telling sign of her inner weakness and how it manifested outwardly. It was hard to picture Dakota without a lit cig nearby. It would have been like a street bum without his trusty brown paper bag, because in many ways, those smokes provided her with a much-needed crutch.
But the woman had asthma, and still she smoked…most days, most nights, much times too much.
As a kid, you can’t stand the stink of it. You hate hearing that harsh rattling sound in her throat as your mother began coughing, sometimes uncontrollably. You hate it with all your heart, and yet there is little you can do about it. You just become an inhaling prisoner of it. Still, even death-row prisoners eventually get used to their surroundings.
You get used to the foul smell of cigarettes and the odor they leave in the smoker’s wake. You get used to the reek in the hallway coming home from school, and the lingering stench in each one of the rooms. You get used to it being like another presence in your home, in the curtains, on the furniture, and even in your hair and in clothes. It was never pleasant, but you get used to it.
Dakota smoked, as if it didn’t really matter that she had asthma. It was crazy. I worried about her. Addy did too. Gig smoked only occasionally and even then just to be seen as cool amongst the other players. He was never in the same league as Dakota.
She had asthma and she smoked. Wasn’t that a recipe for very bad things?
In addition to her long-lasting affair with nicotine, there were all kinds of pills and potions in our bathroom cabinet. The one bottle that stood out contained something called Betamethasone. She must have taken it for most of her life because it had been prescribed to treat her chronic asthma. But a lifetime intake of this steroid, I later discovered, only led to her bouts with chronic depression.
No one, much less we family members, seemed to understand that her despair was caused by this medication which had been prescribed for her. We just thought Dakota was peculiar, moody and sometimes deeply, most profoundly melancholy.
Then came that one traumatic day, when I arrived home from school to find the spinning red beams of a police car and two ambulances parked outside our building. There were all these curious gossips and people milling about the street. Some were peering out from their fire escapes, and others were looking out of their windows. I didn’t know what had happened or which one of our neighbors was in distress.
I didn’t sense much fear or much of anything else, until Miss Lola emerged from the building, looking shaken, and visibly disturbed. It appeared as if she’d been crying. I knew Miss Lola loved a crowd, so she was either trying to gain attention by over-dramatizing some minor situation, or else there was something seriously wrong. And then her eyes widened when she saw me.
She spoke softly to one of the emergency attendants but it was loud enough for me to hear: “Oh my God! That’s her son.”
Suddenly, I was overtaken by an intense kind of dread and it filled me with a fear like none I’d ever known.
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From Like Litter in the Wind Now available on amazon.com