I follow the same elaborate ritual whenever I’m trying to hide the fact that I’ve been smoking from my wife, Lisa. Before I leave the office, I stop in the bathroom and scrub my hands like a surgeon, from fingers to elbows. I wash my face, too, and just to be safe, rub a little hand sanitizer onto my cheeks. On the way home, I chew a quarter-pack of heavy-duty gum, the kind that tastes like licorice and motor oil.
It works, but only for a while.
Inevitably, after months of fending off my wife’s questions about why my beard smells like aloe, she’ll startle me out of the blue: “So, where do you keep the cigarettes?” There’s always a tipoff — a scattered pile of ashes I forgot to clean off the front porch steps or a lighter left in the laundry. First I apologize, then I promise to quit again soon and then, on cue, I hand Lisa one of my cigarettes. By now, we have an understanding.
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Some history: I’ve quit smoking at least seven times. Shortly before Lisa became pregnant with our son, Archie, we agreed, like many expectant parents, that I would kick the habit once and for all, primarily for health reasons. I’d been a smoker since the summer after grade 10; Lisa only ever smoked when she was with me. But we both felt that the idea of our son watching us smoke was gross — and worse, he might try it out himself. (Kids are impressionable: When I was three, my Scottish mother found me in our living room, having lit up one of her Matinées. “I’m just having a wee fag,” I said, according to family lore.)
So a few months before the positive pregnancy test, I stood on the front porch and smoked a ceremonial last cigarette. But my vow to abstain didn’t really stick. By the time Archie was six months old, I was back to my clandestine daily smoke breaks. I was working long hours at a new job, and receiving multiple text messages a day from Lisa about how Archie had projectile vomited all over the floor at a moms’ group, or how he had screamed for three hours straight in the mall. Our spirited young lad was making it impossible for her to get a minute of peace. One evening as I stepped in the door after a long day, she reached a breaking point. “Give Archie a bath — I’ll be in the backyard,” she said. “And where have you hidden the cigarettes?”
As I bathed my son in the sink that night, I watched my wife through the kitchen window. She lit up, sat down with a book, and looked relaxed — perhaps for the first time since Archie took our house by storm. While I know smoking is in no way healthy, it occurred to me that in a way, at that moment, it sort of was.
For the rest of the summer, we had a new ritual: I would come home, handle bathtime and get Archie ready for bed, while Lisa would retire to the backyard for some alone time. Sometimes, after the baby was asleep, we would sneak out onto the porch together with glasses of whisky, and we’d share a cigarette. Yes, we were smoking again, but it didn’t feel wrong. We were learning how to ignore our stresses and enjoy that little bit of peace together. It’s probably not a coincidence that Archie started sleeping better around that time, too.
As of today, I haven’t had a cigarette in a full month. I was getting concerned that if I didn’t quit (again) now, I’d be bumming smokes from my son one day. Lisa and I miss those quiet nights on the porch, but now that I’ve officially gone public with my secret, I’m hoping the confession will help me snuff out smoking for good.
David Fielding is executive editor of Canadian Business. He’s glad his days of freezing winter smoke breaks are over.
A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline “Growing Up in Smoke,” p. 35.