Anniversary Edition, November 2023
Smoke in my eyes
By Debra J. White
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Despite a debilitating accident, the writer says she has much to be thankful for.
In February 1982, I no longer needed a book of matches. I puffed on my last cigarette. To stay smoke free, I took up jogging. That saved my life until a car accident in 1994 almost ended it.
Back then, smoking was permitted nearly everywhere including airlines, movie theaters, restaurants, hospitals, and college classes. Vending machines sold cigarettes at newsstands alongside candy machines. Pretty young ladies handed out sample packets of cigarettes at busy city intersections.
By the age of 26, I was barely able to walk up a flight of stairs without gasping. A friend bet me I couldn’t last a day without smoking. That wounded my stubborn New York City pride. I’ll show you, I said to myself, doubting that I could take up the challenge. One day led to two and that was it.
To keep from smoking, I chomped on wads of sugarless gum to avoid dental bills. I bought a plastic cigarette to squelch my desires. I pretended that I inhaled, especially in prickly situations like the day I got fired from my managerial job at a major manufacturing company. They downsized and considered me expendable. The audacity of them.
I finally ditched all my pacifying toys. I relied only on jogging. I had packed on about ten pounds. Nicotine must’ve jarred my taste buds because suddenly everything, including white bread and corn flakes, tasted like imported Swiss truffles. Jogging would melt away the post-smoking fat off my fanny.
During that brutal New York City winter, I rose at the crack of dawn and dragged myself up to jog. My lungs pumped over-time, my cheeks were rosy red, my hands were frozen, but I made it home without collapsing from years of smoking. How, I’ll never know.
By late March, I was confident enough to enter my first five-mile race, sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club. The NYRRC oversaw dozens of races in public parks. For a modest fee, runners received a T-shirt and the chance to compete against other runners. That was a healthier option than hanging around a bar with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a routine I had followed for too long.
I straggled near the end of that five-mile race on a cool, overcast morning yet I finished in less than one hour. Nothing could stop me now.
Next up on my agenda was shedding my fast-food connections. I scarfed down my last Big Mac. No more Whoppers with salty limp fries on the side. I never ate another hot dog heaped with fried onions and relish. I quit slurping sugary sodas. I met vegetarians and discovered the health benefits of meatless meals, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Finally, my apartment smelled clean and fresh. Stinky cigarette smoke clings to curtains, carpets and even pets. My breath smelled better too. I welcomed the changes.
I found a stray dog in 1985 and named him Scottie. He was my faithful jogging companion for many years. When he died in 1992, I spread his ashes in Central Park.
In 1986, I ran my first of three NYC marathons. The mammoth race started at 10:40 a.m. always on the first Sunday in November. In yesteryear, marathon entries were handled by mail. Once that much anticipated letter arrived saying you are in the marathon, training began. Each week, I pounded the pavement 30, 40 and 50 miles to whip myself into shape.
The night before the marathon the NYRRC sponsored a huge pasta party. To accommodate everyone, the NYRRC set up hundreds of tents in Central Park. Volunteers dished out free plates of spaghetti, crusty Italian bread and tossed green salad. We runners chowed down hefty plates full of pasta and all the fixings, talking among strangers about the long race ahead of us. I was nervous but eager to run in my first marathon.
Anticipation built around 10 a.m. when the massive sea of runners swarmed to the starting line. The clock ticked away towards the starting time and the air was electrifying. News helicopters hovered overhead with views of nervous bodies jammed together. A canon boomed and off we went.
As throngs of runners from all over streamed across the huge bridge, it swayed back and forth. Always terrified of heights, I picked up my pace, worried that the bridge might cave in. I wanted to reach Brooklyn as quickly as possible. When we rounded the curve and jogged off the bridge onto Fourth Avenue, a main drag, thousands of fans smothered us with cheers and well wishes. School bands played uplifting music along the way. People handed out water and orange slices to thirsty runners. Medical stations were set up to heal us wounded warriors with massages for our aches, pains and blisters. Almost everyone applauded us. I appreciated the support at a time when my hair must’ve been a mess and my skin had to be the color of a cadaver. I was exhausted yet I had miles to go.
How I crossed the finish line still conscious was a miracle. My official time was six hours and nineteen minutes. At the end, I collected my backpack, slipped into my sweats and then realized I had no carfare. What the heck. I just ran 26.2 miles. I walked another two miles to my apartment. I took my dog Scottie out for a brief walk, fed him then soaked in a warm relaxing bath. I skipped dinner. My friends asked me to meet them at the runner’s disco, a tradition put on every year by NYRRC after the marathon at a downtown night club, but I was asleep by 7 p.m.
My third marathon in 1990 would be my last. A careless driver plowed into me on January 6, 1994, while walking my two dogs, leaving me with disabling injuries from brain trauma.
Had that careless driver swerved and missed me, my life would’ve gone on as usual. The accident changed everything. I’ve struggled a lot, both physical and financially. My income level plunged, leaving me reliant on meager Social Security Disability payments that barely covered rent, utilities, food and car insurance. I drive an old car. I water down dish soap and laundry detergent to make them last longer. I shop in thrift stores and buy day old bread. On the other hand, if 1/6/94 was an ordinary day, I would likely never have become a pet therapist and volunteering with homeless children. My job would’ve prevented me from spending so much time as an animal shelter volunteer serving unwanted dogs and cats. The opportunity to answer the phones for former Gov. Janet Napolitano would never have come along. Neither would the opportunity to assist in the English language program for refugees. I also became a published writer. I would’ve missed out on so many volunteer chances that enriched my heart and molded me into a better person. My life is fuller as a result. I have migraines, loss of mobility and a battered short-term memory. Do I regret the accident? No, not at all. I have so much to be thankful for.
A 1994 car accident ended Debra’s career due to a traumatic brain injury. She re-invented herself through volunteer work and writing. Debra wrote for Animal Wellness, Arizona Republic, Social Work, Airports of the World, Psychology Today, and others. She reviewed books, contributed book chapters and wrote a book for TFH Publications. Her website is: www.debrawhite.org