I have always had a special feeling towards smoking; I both hate and love it at the same time. I have never understood this feeling. Smoking was always connected to the people who took care of me as a child – my parents and my uncle and aunt. The smell of cigarette smoke was always familiar, almost comforting, making me feel safe when I smelt it. Strangely perhaps, I personally never felt the urge to smoke, I just enjoyed the smell of tobacco. Occasionally, I felt left out, because many of the real discussions and agreements are made outside of meetings, by the smokers during their cigarette breaks.
Yesterday, I asked my mother how long she has been smoking for and the answer was unexpected. She said that she had hated smoking all her life. When she was younger, she didn’t even allow my father to be close to her when he smoked – she would make him wash his hands after smoking and before coming near her. When I was three years old, due to my disability, my parents took me all over Europe - and what at that time was the Soviet Union - to try and find a doctor who could cure me. The last doctor I saw was in Spain, and he recommended that I stay there for treatment. My parents decided that they would leave me in Madrid with my uncle and aunt, my father’s brother and his wife, and my parents would return home to Syria, because they had three other children to look after. The last time they left me at the hospital before leaving for Syria, my mother was crying.
The same day, my parents were invited to dinner. Since leaving me for the last time at the hospital, my mother had not stopped crying. She couldn’t console herself with leaving her child behind. The restaurant they went to for dinner was a high profile one, apparently one of Franco’s haunts during his time. At dinner, my mother refused to eat anything. Everyone was trying to convince her to eat something, but she couldn’t stop crying. My uncle offered her a cigarette, suggesting it might help her calm down, and my mother accepted it. At that time, this was quite shocking, because it was socially unacceptable for a Kurdish woman to smoke, and less so in public. The act of being offered a cigarette by her brother-in-law was all the more scandalous. But my mother wanted to stop crying so she accepted it, and it made her feel more relaxed from the first drag. The smoke entering her body was helping extinguish the pain inside her.
Since that day, the cigarette has been my mother’s meditation and she still smokes to this day. She has never thought for a second about quitting. After hearing her story, although I am concerned for her health, I don’t feel that I can ask her to stop. I have always known that my disability has been a burden for her, but now I also feel guilty because I was the reason that she began smoking in the first place. At the same time, I am happy for her if she enjoys it and it gives her comfort.
Learning of the story behind the familiar smell of my mother’s cigarettes came as a complete surprise. I have known her all my life – if there is a person in this world I thought I knew, it is certainly my mother – and yet here is an important fact that concerns both our lives, of which I was completely unaware. Ultimately then, what we know of other people – or believe we know – is only driftwood floating on the surface of a deep sea that we can never fathom. Their reactions, behaviours and habits may have reasons that we could not even imagine.
My mother’s story - and realising I know so little about her - has in a way actually made me feel closer to her. I understand that I cannot take anything for granted, and that I need to meet her anew in every moment, with a clean slate, leaving any assumptions aside. Her story has also made reassess everything I thought I knew about other people who are close to me, as well as about the strangers I might only meet once. Of course, I will surely continue to read between the lines, imagining the reasons for what people say or do, and I cannot liberate myself from speculating about how any situation might develop. Still, I can now take a step back, and realise that whatever I observe or think about the world around me, are just assumptions. My assumptions might be correct, but may just as well be wrong, or only showing a small part of the bigger picture. In any event, I will be reminding myself not to judge a person or a situation on appearances. If this is true for the past and stories that happened many decades ago, it is even more relevant for the future.
So as this year draws to a close, the most important lesson I have learnt is the realisation of how many hidden stories people carry with them, and that the future is yet untold. Leaving a lifetime of certainties and preconceived assumptions behind has suddenly made me feel lighter and brighter. I will be welcoming 2022 with an open mind and invite you to do the same. My new year’s resolution is to leave space for the unexpected. Experience can protect us, and there are certainly situations where being naïve will lead straight to disaster. Yet at the end of the day, whatever happened this past year, or in the years that preceded it, each moment ahead of us will be uncharted territory, with something new to discover where we least expect it.