Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Dick Geary
Guest Columnist 

Return, recovery and independent smoking


The trip from Sao Paulo to Orlando, Fla. was the ultimate misery.

My feet were swollen and wept and burned the entire ten hours of the trip. Every seat on the plane had a TV screen where the passengers could watch a small icon of the plane as it traveled over the entirety of Brazil and the Caribbean. The icon didn't seem to move and I avoided looking at because I didn't need any more frustration. But a lady in front of me watched it constantly. Every time I came out of my stupor, the first thing I saw was the screen and a figure of an airplane that seemed to be motionless. This made the trip seem much longer as the fluid from my weeping feet ran into my pant legs.

When I finally got to the ER in Missoula, my pants were stuck to my calves and had to be peeled off. A superficial layer of skin came with the slipper socks I was using, leaving bloody streaks and droplets of clear body fluid behind.

The docs got me stable and I spent a night or two in the ER, and then a night in the hospital. I could walk a little, so the next day they sent me to a retirement home for rehab.

The home was a nice place – and interesting. I had only been there for a few days when a fellow tenant remarked that I was getting the retirement home look. She explained that I had assumed the demeanor of considering myself to be unseen.

No one makes eye contact there. The attendants are so busy that they have to ignore many of the minor requests forced on them, so they avoid superficial eye contact and walk by you as if you didn't exist. In cases of genuine need, they were very caring and capable. I was impressed every day with the sincerity of their concern.

The employees were attentive and honestly caring, but there was only so much they could do for a population of elderly, most of whom were confined to wheel chairs or walkers.

In Brazil the nurses would promise some little thing, then disappear for a day or two, but the people in Missoula stayed to the task they promised, no matter how minor.

The main rituals of the day were, of course, meals which were surprisingly good, although there were always complaints of some sort. The most important ceremonies of the day were the smoking interludes – 30 minutes each, twice a day.

A few minutes before the marked time the wheel chairs and walkers would roll and shuffle to a designated area on the patio, and the people would wait silently. There was no light hearted banter, just quiet anticipation.

Finally, the attendant would come out with a plastic box of cigarettes. Each patron had their own small box, with a plastic lighter. The cigarettes were handed out two at a time (two being the limit), and those that were careless with their smoking habit each received a large canvas bib so they didn't set themselves on fire.

And so we smoked our allotment silently, most of us with our elbows on our knees, looking down at our precious cigarette as it burned itself away. After the two cigarettes were gone, the attendant was called, and she took the lighter and the two used butts from us. The routine took about thirty minutes, then we were all herded back into the building to wait for the afternoon's tobacco session.

There were some rules that went with smoking privileges: you never borrowed a cigarette, and you never gave a cigarette. These rules were written in stone and monitored by everyone. Getting caught meant ten days on suspension, with no cigarettes at all. They were serious about that.

Because I was ambulatory and cognizant of my surroundings, I was lucky, and after only one day was selected to be an "independent smoker," which put me among the very elite.

As an independent smoker I could smoke any time I got the urge. I only had to hobble down to the nurses' station and ask for my two cigarettes (only two). After an invisible few moments of waiting, I received my cigarettes and a lighter with my name written on it. The lighter had to be returned or things got complicated, and it turned into an intricate conversation to talk them out of another one. I learned this quickly, and paid attention after the first time I misplaced mine.

The physical therapy personnel got me walking reasonably well after a week so I had no reason to stay.

Except for the lack of conversation, it wasn't a bad place. It would have been easy to become institutionalized, but only as an independent smoker. That was special.


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