Inspired by: “Cigarette” (1997) from the Ben Folds Five album Ben Folds Five
How old were you when you first realized that your parents were human? That they weren’t some weird, bigger version of you that seemingly knew everything somehow and that they existed before you did and had flaws and struggles and long-term trials to be the best version of themselves that they could be?
This realization comes early for a lot of kids. It doesn’t take much to pierce that image honestly. I can’t pinpoint an exact date myself, but I’m sure it happened long before the incident I’m going to talk about in this blog. Like the first time that I “outscored” my dad in out nightly Jeopardy! watch. Or I came to him with AP Calculus homework that I didn’t understand and he had to read my textbook to refresh his memory how to do what I was asking. Or our struggles with poverty growing up, though a lot of that was pretty well shielded from us kids growing up until we got a little older and realized just how poor we were.
But the day that I fully realized my dad was truly human occurred sometime in 2005, when I learned something that managed to shock me in such a way I collapsed to the floor crying in my sisters’ apartment and ultimately led me to finally leave the Mormon church. It was the night I found out that my dad was a smoker.
Shocking right? It took me 24 years on this Earth to learn that my father was a smoker. It came up relatively benign in conversation. I was back in Utah visiting my family for some reason (I was living in Connecticut at the time), and I was getting up to speed with everything back home. My parents had had a new bishop named to their ward and all that, and I made the offhand comment that I was surprised that Dad hadn’t been picked after so many faithful years of service as leader of the high priests or whatever, and my sister told me that it was because he was a smoker. And she was shocked that I didn’t know.
Apparently it was a huge deal for a long time. My mother knew, as did my older brother. It was a habit that my dad had picked up in the Army in the 1960s and something that had stuck with him almost to the end of his life. He had stopped at various points along the way at my mother’s urging, usually to get a temple recommend or to get called on their mission, but it was something that he had hid pretty well from the younger kids for most of our lives.
In hindsight, the signs were all there. The weird smell of the cars that belonged to his work, the random cigarettes we’d find that he’d claim were his co-workers. Taking 20 minutes to run down the holiday on the corner for his Pepsi, or taking ten minutes too long to come back from picking up pizza or whatever for dinner. Going for walks after driving for a while, or not actually taking us kids to Bryce Canyon when he was delivering his souvenirs there. Always just stealing time for himself so he could smoke a cigarette in private, because of the shame instilled by the Church.
Thing is, had I known, I think I would have been okay with it? My friends’ parents smoked like chimneys, and at least he wasn’t doing that around us. It was a vice he had problems dealing with for over 50 years. And raising five kids on like $20,000 a year can be pretty stressful, so I wouldn’t have begrudged him his alone time to deal with that stress. In the realm of smokers, he didn’t smoke a lot, and I know that it is super unhealthy and all that, but it would have been better than living with the shame of hiding it.
And I call it shame because that’s what the Church did to him. It shamed him, blaming his smoking on most of his kids leaving the Church and becoming apostates. As if me deciding that the Church was bad at 16 was because he hid his shame from us! Ha! Maybe the bishop that told him that should have kept a more watchful eye on his daughter as she was getting pregnant with her missionary boyfriend’s child mere weeks before he left for the MTC. Or other bishops that regularly abused their families to continue to prove how righteous they were. Yeah, those people are getting into the Celestial Kingdom… <eye roll emoji>
As part of the “treatment” that the Church made my dad go through (some Mormon version of Narcotics Anonymous or some such shit), he revealed pretty hurtful things about my younger siblings that didn’t need to be said, but he was made to say them as part of the “healing” process. The things he said to get well enough back in the good graces of his church so he could help them! Do things that a lot of people didn’t want to do. But he was their loyal and faithful servant for years, and they tossed him aside because he was “flawed.” They even briefly mentioned it in his eulogy, though not specifically, but it was still in there.
I know my dad wasn’t perfect. Nobody is afterall. We all have flaws, and some are worse than others. It pains me that my dad felt like he was letting us down all those years because some other old man felt fit to judge him because of a call they received from Salt Lake City. I was never let down. I was always loved. I was always taken care of. Sure, we didn’t have the fanciest lives or have fancy things, but my parents have always been there for me, whether it was replacing a clutch (or two) in a piece of shit Volkswagen or helping me move across the country multiple times, or making sure my kid has diapers or food or anything else.
This isn’t a post to bash the Church, even though I’ve been removed from their rolls almost longer than I was a “member.” I don’t hate the Church. I hate certain people in it, for sure, because of what they put my dad through. He was trying his best and instead of offering a hand to help, they smacked it away because of stupid arbitrary things. Any leader that uses shame as a tactic to help should not be a leader of anyone. My dad deserved better, as do the hundreds of thousands of other people that have likely been similarly abused.
I regret that I never told my dad that I forgave him for his perceived flaws. I didn’t need long to do it obviously, but I should have told him. I feel like he knew somehow, and I’ve told him numerous times since in the random dreams he visits me in.
I don’t know how to end this post, really, especially since it feels like something I’ve written before. But when I hear “Cigarette,” not only do I think about “Fred Jones, Part 2,” but I also think about my dad. All those hidden cigarettes for no good reason. Part of me thanks him for sparing us the second-hand smore (though I got it plenty of other places as a kid), but the other part just wishes he would have been able to live his life how he wanted without shame or guilt or fear of being found out.