Monday, February 27, 2017

1981: Terror in a smoke filled room

In 1980 most people didn't think twice about smoking in front of others, let alone asthmatic kids like me. My family was no different.

I want it to be clear this is simply my version of events on this particular evening, and that this is not meant to be a knock on members of my family who smoked.

I had an Alupent inhaler, but it was at home. If you have asthma, you know the drill, "If you forget it, you will need it." So, this was probably my first experience with asthma anxiety caused by not having my inhaler.

Grandpa was sitting on the day bed of his sitting room, a cigarette dangling between two fingers. I watched as the smoke swirled above his hand, polluting the air. In a way I enjoyed the smell of cigarette smoke, but my lungs hated it. My throat burned. My head ached. My chest was tight.

Someone flatuated, and grandpa laughed. I watched as his body bobbed up and down as he did so, and then he put the cigarette to his lips, inhaled, and blew his smoke across the room where it lingered in the stale air. No one seemed to notice this but me.

I heard a smack, and I turned and saw that Uncle Tad, who was sitting on a bench by the window with baby Jody on his lap, was cringing away from his wife, who sat next to him. She was blushing. He was laughing. I assumed she smacked him.

Uncle Timmy was sitting in a faded leather chair facing away from me, and all I could see of him was his foot as it dangled over the thick arm of the chair. I could hear his laughing over the laughter of the others.

I was standing in the doorway trying to breathe air from the hallway that was barely fresher than that in the room. My shoulders were high. I was calm. I was breathing slowly, but with difficulty. I did not want anyone to know I was in distress. I was ten-years-old.

Aunt Mary, who had been curled on the floor near her brother Tad, stumbled across the room and darted past me into the hallway, laughing the whole way. I could hear her laughing all the way down the stairs, only to cease with the slamming of a distant door.

My Great Aunt Dolly, who was sitting on the tile in front of the crackling fire in the fireplace, was rolling side to side with laughter. Aunt Tossi was sitting on the floor between the leather chair her
brother Timmy was slouching in and the TV, was laughing so hard she fell over onto her side.

My dad and mom were sitting on the bed to the right and left of grandpa. Mom had a smile on her face, but she wasn't laughing. I was hoping she had had enough of the foolishness of dad's siblings and would want to go home. They were a fun family, but I wasn't in the mood for fun: I just wanted to get home to my Tedral. I had not been introduced to Alupent yet. That introduction would come later in the year.

Despite my hopes, mom made no effort to move. She looked comfortable wrapped in one of grandma's afghans, and more than likely was in no hurry to go back out into the blizzard that was raging outside.

I wanted her to look at me at least and notice I was miserable, but she didn't do that either. I was on my own.

You are probably wondering: why didn't you just ask for help? Well, for one thing, the last time we went to grandmas I told mom I couldn't breathe, and we all had to leave. My brothers seemed annoyed about this. So, this time, I didn't want to ruin everyone's fun. Worded another way, I was shy.

After the laughter boiled down, there was silence in the room for several long minutes. Dad spoke, breaking the silence. He said, "You should have seen dad in action today," he was smiling cheek to cheek, peering at his dad, who chuckled, and puffed on his cigarette.

I heard a bang from down the hall, and turned and saw my brother David rush from a room. "Come
on, John. We're gonna play hide and seek downstairs."

"I can't." I whispered, hoping no adult heard me. The last thing I wanted to do was explain why I didn't want to play. I turned back around, and saw that none of the adults I could see were paying attention to me anyway. They were all looking at dad. This was fine with me.

"So anyway," dad said, "We had a light green Gremlin with an orange hockey-stick stripe down the side. Dad and I were checking it out. He said, 'Isn't that the God Damned ugliest car you'd ever seen?'"

He cowered as mom reached around grandpa and made to slap him. Grandpa, it seemed anyway, pretended not to notice.

"Watch your mouth, Bob!" She meant business. There was no swearing when mom was around.

I watched as grandpa dumped the butt of his cigarette in his beer can, and I felt a moment of joy because, I assumed, the air would be fresh now for a while. Then I heard the flicker of a match, and smoke billowed into the air where Aunt Tossi was sitting. She blew out the match and a new cloud of smoke wafted up to mingle with the cigarette smoke. For a brief moment the sulfurous incense of the match seemed to mask that of the cigarette smoke.

She set the wasted match into an ashtray and tossed the match book to Aunt Dolly, who proceeded to pluck a Marlboro from a basket, and then she handed the same match book to my dad, who buried it in his grasp. I took a difficult breath of hallway air, but couldn't prevent myself from breathing in some of the smoke that was now lingering thick and fog-like in the room.

Dad said, "And dad said, 'Son, ain't that the the God damned ugliest car you'd ever seen?' and I laughed because that's exactly what I was just thinking. And here it we had just parked it in the middle of the showroom." He plucked a cigarette from a pack in his breast pocket, and stuffed it into his mouth.

I heard a another bang behind me, turned, and watched as my brothers rushed from a room, down the stairs. "Come on, John!" The shout of one of my brothers reverberated through the house.

"Anyway, it wasn't five minutes later," dad continued, talking with the unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, "and this costumer came in. Dad," he paused, seemed to snicker off a laugh, and lit a match. "Dad walked this guy over to that ugly Gremlin and said, 'Now, ain't that the most beautiful car you'd ever seen."

Slow breath in through the mouth and out the mouth. It was very thick air, so it seemed. My chest burned as I inhaled. The breath only went about half way into my lungs. I had to work hard to fight off the anxiety. I had to stay calm so I didn't ruin my family's fun.

Laughter filled the room.

Dad cooly chuckled as he lit his cigarette, took in a deep breath, and blew smoke across the room. He chuckled again, then added, "He sold that car less than an hour later." Even mom joined in the laughter this time. But not dad and grandpa; they were too cool to laugh. They both smiled as they puffed on their respective cigarettes.

Time passed. Listening to the stories of the adults made me forget my conundrum, if not for a short while. Then it all came back to me as I heard mom's voice.

"Do you want to sit up here," mom said to Aunt Dolly, who was sitting Indian-style on the floor. Yes, get up mom, and come over by me

"No," Aunt Dolly said, "I'm doing just fine here on the floor. Besides, it feels good by the fire." Oh, she just wants to sit by the fire. Come on mom! Look over here! I felt a sting through my arm as I hit the door frame with my fist.

I heard grandma's voice from the part of the room I couldn't see from where I stood, and then watched as she walked around the leather chair, past me and down the hall. I heard a door shut.

I felt a breeze as David rushed into the room. He had a fresh beer for grandpa. Kr-chick went the beer tap. Grandpa tossed a quarter into the air and it plopped onto the floor. Devin bent to pick it up. Grandpa took a swig of his beer. Moments later my older brother Bobby popped into the room with more beers, and handed them out to the men in exchange for quarters.

"No running!" I heard grandma say from behind me as Devin rushed past me again and down the stairs. Grandma came into the room with a box. She sat on the floor and set the box next to her and removed the lid. She started handing out pictures.

Oh, come one, I thought as mom took a pile of pictures and slowly flipped through them, I just want to go home. Come on! Can we just go! COME ON!

Once she was done handing out pictures, grandma came and stood by me. "Why aren't you playing with your brothers?" Then, as though she had come up with an answer to her own question, she said, "Come with me."

I followed her through the room, over legs and around chairs, to a connecting room where her bed was. My cousin Timmy and Tyler were playing with something on the other side of the bed, giggling all the while. On this side of the bed were cousins Julie and Jennifer lying on the floor coloring in a Bugs Bunny coloring book.

Grandma walked me around the bed, and moved a few things around the top of an antique dresser (the same one I now have in my basement, decorated as my shrine to grandma). She was looking for something, and now she found it. She picked up the object and proffered it to me. It was a wooden puzzle. “I picked this up at a yard sale the other day," she said, "I was thinking of you.”

She told me I could sit on her bed and play with it. However, she had already told all the other kids they were not allowed on the bed. That was her rule.

You're letting me on your bed because you feel sorry for me, I thought, and opted to not get on the bed. You know something is wrong with me. But you don't know what. She doesn't know that I can't breath. Or does she? 

"Go ahead, John, it's a fun puzzle." Grandma said.

Knowing I had no other options, I hopped onto the bed and pretended to play with the puzzle. It was hard to feign interest at this point. It was getting really hard not to let everyone know I couldn't breathe. I did it though, just like so many other times.

As soon as grandma was back in the other part of the room I heard a boom, a rush of laughter, and noticed Uncle Tom was rolling around the floor wresting with Torri. At first I thought they were really fighting, but then I realized they were both holding their guts. They were laughing.

I started playing with the puzzle, but stopped as my brothers rushed into the room in a loud furry and jumped onto the bed.

“You can’t be on here,” I said. They didn’t listen. A moment later all the boys were on the bed, and I was sitting on the floor. My chest was now itchy tight, and I could feel the wheezes. I really had to work at making them not audible. I sat leaning against the wall behind the leather chair.

I could smell the smoke over the smell of antiques, and I could feel my throat burning. I made to wipe snot away from my nose, wiping it on my sleeve, eyeing grandma as I did so, knowing she'd say something if she noticed. My nose burned.

I poked my head around the leather chair hoping no one would notice me, and listened to the lighthearted conversations and the laughter. I didn't care about that stuff. What I was interested in most was my mom. I knew she usually would get to the point she'd want to leave and would hint to dad it was time. Usually she would do this and nobody else would want to go.

This day, when I really wanted to leave, she didn't say anything. She just continued looking at grandmas pictures.

"You want to look at these?" I looked to my right and saw Tossi was holding the stack of pictures to me.

"No thanks," I half grunted. I wanted to, boy did I want to look at pictures, but I wanted to go home even more. I thought if I were home I'd be able to breathe fine.

I was wrong.
On the way home I sat in the backseat, with Bobby and David on either side. I concentrated hard not to letting on that I couldn't breathe. I would be fine if I could just get to my Alupent inhaler. I will have it soon. I will use it soon.

Only one problem: it was close to being empty. I had never had this experience before. I had been short of breath many times, had mom or dad take me to the emergency room many times, but I never had an experience where I had my own rescue medicine. I also never had experienced before having such a rescue inhaler and it being empty. Okay. So, you can imagine my stress.

In retrospect, I should have just said something. In retrospect, the fact that i had gone through my inhaler so fast was a sign I should have sought help. In retrospect, mom should have kept charge of dosing my inhaler to me.

Think of it this way. Most kids should have died in the 1980s. We played on slides that were a mile high. We ran in front of huge torpedo swings made of metal. We never wore seat belts. We never even heard of bike helmets. And, to add to this, kids were in charge of their own asthma rescue medicine. Okay.

Some kids probably didn't survive this decade. Most kids, including me, did. Somehow.

I would scratch and claw my way through the night. I would open one of the two windows in my room and inhale some of the cool outdoor air. I would pile up my pillows and blankets so I could lean on them. Sometimes I'd fall asleep out of pure exhaustion, only to wake up to audible wheezing. My chest would feel heavy. My inhalations would only go half way in. The panic set in.

I would use my inhaler sparingly. I would try to spread it out. However, at some point, there was no mist. I would run it under hot water. I would finally give in and wake up mom.

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