Lately the old familiar Biblical quotation has become lodged in my brain, I know not why. It has been nagging me for days, so this morning I decided to look it up and determine whether the wording in my head matched the language in Holy Writ. It does; it comes from the Old Testament, the book of Numbers, Chapter 32, Verse 23.
Like everybody else, I am not without sin, and yes, a few of my sins committed in former years have indeed popped up to embarrass me in later times. But these were all trivial compared to the one that has just confronted me.
From age eighteen till about my fifty-sixth year I smoked cigarettes with what I look back on now as heedless abandon. It was not unusual for me to burn my way through two or three packs a day, sometimes four, and for much of that time I was smoking unfiltered Pall Malls. Later I switched filtered Marlboros, for all the good that did me. I had the usual reasons for smoking— I thought it looked cool, it helped relieve the stress of my high-stress jobs—but for a good part of that time the real reason was that I wanted to die and hoped my smoking would hasten that event. I only quit smoking when I found a reason to live. That reason was Ruth. It still is.
But the other day my doctor gave me a preliminary diagnosis—yet to be absolutely confirmed—of emphysema. Ironic, huh? I smoked in hopes of killing myself, then found a reason to live, and now face the possibility of dying just when I want most to keep going. Of course at age 76 I would have been facing a curtailed future in any case, but to have inflicted such a future on myself by smoking strikes me now as well, funny in a grim sort of way. Except when I think of Ruth, which is all the time. She may well have to pay the price for my youthful folly, and that is poor return on her decision to marry me. I am as deeply sorry for that as I am happy that she took me on.
Of course all this maundering may be no more than melodrama. The diagnosis remains tentative. Maybe I’ll still be tottering along at age ninety. Both my parents were long-lived, and so were most of the members of my dad’s family. But on a recent trip to Colorado I did experience an alarming bout of shortness of breath—due in part, of course, to the altitude—and that lent some additional credibility to the diagnosis. But hell, who knows? The future remains a mystery, and the present still demands that we live in it day by day. I’m going to write and work and love Ruth for as long as I’ve got.