I have a birthday coming up next month. That is not completely accurate. My lungs have a birthday of sorts coming up next month and the rest of me, from the depth of my soul to the top of my head, will be celebrating with them.
In March, it will be ten years since I smoked my last cigarette.
The rest of my body parts will join my lungs to start the celebration on March 5. I will be running the stairs of the Chase Tower in Indianapolis at the American Lung Association’s Annual Fight For Air Climb.
These climbs have been held in prominent skyscrapers and other buildings across the country for more than a decade, giving participants the opportunity to join the cause as they climb the stairs of the building to the top. The event has raised more than $40 million to support the mission of the American Lung Association.
Now, I spent part of my youth in southwest Virginia, where on a typical bike ride I might pass half a dozen small tobacco farms. Both of my parents were cigarette smokers, and of their seven children, six of us became smokers as well. It was all very normal to us.
The first semester of my freshman year in college was when I did the dumbest thing of my life. Many of us can say that. In my case, the nominees for that prize would be awesome, hilarious and terrifying to review thirty years later. I regularly thank God that my generation was not completely armed with cameras and video equipment like today’s young people. But even with the epic nature of my immortal approach to life back then, nothing compares to the moronic choice to start smoking. And I won’t do anything dumber for as long as I live.
I was a slave to cigarettes for twenty years, finally putting them away for good at the age of 38. Most of the people in my life who know me as the 48 year old man I am today have a hard time even imagining the smoker I once was. Good. Sometimes I even have the same trouble.
This 48 year old could beat the hell out of the 38, and even the 28 year old version of me. I admit enjoying thinking about that in a bit of graphic detail from time to time.
But beating the addiction was not the only battle in my journey to a healthier and happier life. Three years into smoke free living for me, which also included a committed exercise regimen, the damage smoking had done to my right lung showed up. The “blebs” or blisters that smoking had left there began to pop and the leaks caused my lung to collapse several different times.
By the time 2009 was over, I had spent a month in Methodist Hospital, had seven bullet-hole-looking scars on the right side of my torso, and one particularly attractive machete scar under my right shoulder blade. The last one came from the thorachotomy in which my lung was surgically attached to my lung cavity for good. The procedure is called mechanical pleurodesis. I don’t recommend it.
I have often hoped that a stranger at the pool or the beach would ask me about my scars. I have several versions of an elaborate gun and knife fight story to tell in which I overcame unbeatable odds to fight back the forces of evil in heroic fashion. Sadly, no stranger who might buy my creative lie has cared enough to give me an opening by asking.
These days I go to yoga classes, a lot. I am told by my class instructors as part of every class to just breathe. Every once in a while I giggle to myself about that advice. Like everybody else, I take breathing for granted all too often. It’s so simple. And it heals so many things without us even realizing it.
I am planning on celebrating my ability to breathe more. We all should.
Cancer didn’t get me. But my life was threatened in an uncommon way by carelessly living as if my lungs could take any stupid obstacle I threw at them. The next dumbest thing I could do is act like it didn’t happen. Winning the Fight For Air Climb is a good start.
I get to win this fight just by showing up. Even though I made showing up a lot harder than it had to be, I will be there.