I can’t think of my mother without thinking of Mahalia Jackson’s recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher”, with its promise of seeing one’s loving mother in heaven, and its crazy-ecstatic refrain, It’ll be always howdy howdy and never goodbye, that makes me just fall apart. The heart-stopping idea is that loss is erased, that it’s just gone from us, in heaven.
My mother died in 1984, when she was 69 years old, of emphysema, in a race with heart disease. Her health was poor; in addition to lifelong asthma from hay fever and allergies, she had crippling osteoporosis and serious circulatory problems. She was also a life-long smoker, and — bless her — an alcoholic who stayed sober for over 25 years before her death. Like the other lucky ones of her generation, having squared themselves with their Higher Power and found sanity and sobriety in A.A., she smoked like a true addict, as Bill Wilson himself is said to have smoked, as if her life depended on it.
I’m my mother’s difficult youngest daughter, and one of her children who got the heritable propensity for addiction. Addiction: the blessing-curse that instructs me each day in who and what I am, as a guest on SOF once said. All by way of saying that having spent much of my childhood complaining loudly about my parents’ cigarette smoke and begging them to roll down the windows of our crowded Chevy station wagon to let some air in, I became a smoker in my late teens, and stayed a serious smoker long past the time most people had quit.
A year ago today, just as Krista Tippett and I were about to embark on the tour for publication of the hard cover Speaking of Faith, I too quit, using a smoking cessation medication called Chantix. Unbelievably, it worked.
It seems obvious to say I had no idea what I had been doing to myself with my cigarette habit, but it is sadly — even pathetically — true. And I don’t mean just the awareness that I was contributing to the threat of early death or ill health. I mean that once we lose our freedom, it’s almost impossible to know what it is to be free. Living life on a short leash didn’t seem odd, or unusual. It seemed like life. That’s one of the reasons so many of us, who in one form or another have had to come to terms with addiction, are actually grateful for it. As I am, today, marking 365 consecutive days of freedom, in memory of Marva Maxwell, my mom.