Smokin’ Oprah

Have you seen this photo of Oprah smoking?

She sent it out by tweet to her gazillion followers, along with this statement:

And THAT’s a Wrap! Terrance Howard and me in our goodbye “love scene”. Thanks Lee Daniels for the great experience. #theButler

Most of the media response to Oprah’s tweet focuses on the fact that in the new movie The Butler, Oprah will have a love scene with Terrance Howard.

Perhaps they all missed the latest news report about women and smoking?

A survey of nearly 1.2 million women in Britain showed that smoking throughout adulthood chopped on average 11 years off life span. Researchers followed these women for a dozen years, one of the most extensive studies into the connection between women and smoking ever conducted.

I know Oprah isn’t a smoker, never has been. She said that when she went to light up a cigarette for that scene she lit the wrong end.

But Oprah is a role-model to millions, particularly to the girls who attend her school. And this photo, this scene, sends the message that women smoking is sexy. A powerful subliminal message to impressionable young girls when that message is being delivered by a woman they respect.

I am, undoubtedly, at a raw place on this subject. Eleven years would put Sullivan, my grandson, in fourth grade. It would mean plenty of Christmases with Great-Grandma Shelby. It would mean that he would know her himself, and not just through story, or the few photos we have of him with her.

Mama is dying.

And doctors have been completely clear about the cause of her dying: Smoking. Lung cancer, spread to the brain, and now the liver.

Mama has been a life-long smoker.

It is, she told me, her shame.

She tried quitting, did quit, a time or two, but it was a demon that would dog her.

One of her doctors (all of whom have been everything you’d ever hope for in a medical professional) pulled me aside one day and said: “Don’t beat yourself up for not getting your mama to quit smoking. There’s a reason they call it an addiction.”

I am hanging on to those words. They are a gift of grace as I watch Mama struggle with her own impending death.

There is absolutely nothing glamorous about dying from lung cancer.

Perhaps Ms. O ought to consider doing a photo op with Mama? Perhaps she can spend a day at Mama’s bedside, drying my mother’s tears when she weeps over the fact that she wants more time with her family.

Cigarettes robbed us of that, too. When you are not a smoker it is difficult to spend time with smokers. There is so much my mother would not do because those activities would require her to not smoke, or to limit her smoking. Going to the movies, attending basketball games, high school graduations, weekend getaways, visits to art galleries, and museums.

So it’s not just that smoking has shortened our mother’s life, although that is hard enough to deal with, it’s that what life she did have was always compromised by her smoking and our ability to tolerate that smoking.

Is there a photo op that shows the tension between a non-smoking daughter and a mother who is addicted?

The last time I begged my mother to quit smoking was about three years ago. “Please, Mama, quit smoking,” I pleaded with her. Then, in desperation, I threatened her: “If you die from smoking I am going to be so very angry with you.”

Mama not only continued to smoke these past few years she smoked more than ever. It was her own desperation and disappointments that led her to that, but that’s a story for another day, a story I won’t write while my mother is living.

So here we are. Mama had several MRIs and a CT scan last week and the results were not good. There was a conference call with the family. Decisions about death and dying. Decisions I never ever wanted to be part of. In some ways I feel like I am serving on a death panel.  Perhaps Ms. O could do a photo op depicting the scene in which adult kids have to struggle with how to help their mother die peacefully?

We will be calling in hospice this week. And despite my threat to the contrary, I am surprisingly not at all angry about any of this.

I am just very, very sad.

Sad for Mama. Sad for all the life she will miss out on. Sad for the life she’s already missed out on. Sad because it’s hard enough to die without feeling ashamed over the reason for that dying, and Mama does feel ashamed that she was so enslaved to smoking. Finding the words to comfort a dying mother when she tells you that smoking is her shame is impossible.

Perhaps, Oprah also missed the recent studies showing that teen smoking is on the rise. That increase is tied directly to the glamorization of smoking in movies.

“Well over a dozen studies have shown that kids who watch movies with smoking are more likely to smoke,” said Dr. DiFranza, a family health and community medicine specialist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “Smoking in movies is more common now than it was in the 1950s and ’60s, whereas smoking among adults is half as common now as it was then. Movie producers are not reflecting real life.”

An estimated 4.5 million teens in the US smoke. An additional 3,000 teenagers under the age of 18 start smoking every single day.

Hollywood, who for a time joined in the anti-smoking campaigns of the 80s & 90s, has once again succumbed to the seduction of the myth that smoking is sexy. And now Hollywood has co-opted one of America’s most-beloved and respected women — the lovely Ms. O — to sell that message to young, impressionable girls.

I, like millions of women, admire and respect Oprah, but it saddens me that she would allow herself to be filmed smoking, and then that she would glamorize that by tweeting such a photo of herself to millions of followers. It’s disappointing and disheartening.

Perhaps others can afford to light one up for R.J. Reynolds.

Me? I have a dying mother to attend to.

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