Mychal Wilmes: In life, the motto is 'do no harm'

By Mychal Wilmes

With shaky hands he lights a cigarette and takes a big drag. It was hist first one in 40 days, and as the smoke fills his lungs, he coughs and shakes. It seems too much like death's rattle.

He says he's OK, so I leave him there beside the car to enjoy a couple more cigarettes before church starts.

Life hasn't been easy. Born close by, he became a merchant marine, sailed the world and saw things that most of us will never see. That world ended when he got hit by a car while walking home from the bar. It was, he says, a lucky break because it changed his life for the better.


Church over, he waits beside the car, with a cigarette clutched between his fingers. The wind carries the smoke away but not the smell. We have purchased a new lighter today, a long one that is more easily grasped. He puts the remainder of the pack in the door pocket and tells me that he needs two more packs — preferably king-sized and filtered.

The wheelchair is loaded in the trunk for the ride to where he lives. He likes to watch the History Channel and the farmers who work in their fields. He goes outside sometimes when the weather is nice. He thanks us for bringing him home and wishes a good week. Beyond that, he isn't a much of a sociable fellow.


I'm not unaware of my own moral culpability in this matter. I buy his cigarettes. Although he insists he's not addicted to nicotine, the habit must be fed, and I am the supplier. A man pushing his 60s, and anyone for that matter, shouldn't smoke. Enjoyment, even if it leads to bodily destruction, isn't easily found.

Kathy insists that I'm doing him wrong. Cigarettes kill. Worse, she says, I send a terrible message to the children. Allowing him to smoke might convince them that cigarettes aren't all that bad.

I thought it might have the opposite effect.

I was convinced of that until we cleaned Sarah's room after she left for college. A half-empty pack was found in the middle dresser drawer. She might have carried it from the car because it seems improbable she would make that kind of mistake. I called her, and she denied it. Later, she fessed up and smoked between basketball and softball seasons during her senior year. She has, evidence suggests, smoked off and on since.

How can anyone be stupid?


If only it was a matter of intelligence. Cigarette demand boomed during War World II when manufacturers provided millions of troops cartoons for free. Smoking became cool, and handsome models in Western garb pushed brands from billboards and on TV and radio. The surgeon general issued a scathing report on cigarettes in the mid-1960s. A warning label was added to each pack, and eventually advertising was banned on public airwaves.

People make their choice not by weighing the pros and cons but based on a mix of emotions.

Sarah's dad is no small hypocrite when preaching about such matters.

He disappears behind the door, and the trunk's lid is pulled down.

"Do you think he's happy,'' Sam asks.

We agree that he's had an interesting life and admit that it would be fascinating to see Hong Kong and other ports of call.

"Have you had an interesting life,'' Sam asks.

In youth, determination exists to change the world. Now, it is enough to do no harm.


Those among us adrift without destination search for inspiration in our mundane routines. There is nothing wrong with that, given that we have grown comfortable with ourselves.

What are you doing?

We're back home now. Bits and pieces of litter are scattered across the lawn. We've got to clean it up.

"It's a disgrace,'' I say, to no one in particular.

I'm back to April 1970, when the high school held its first Earth Day. We learned about plastic and landfills and pollution that threatened our water supply. We picked up trash along the road and agreed that Mother Earth was in grave danger because of our carelessness.

We do what we can, but certainly not enough.

Do no harm. My conscience suggests that in some instances I haven't managed to live up to that standard.

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