Papaw turned fifty-three the day his doctor told him to quit smoking. I was in sixth grade. And I remember cause it was the same day my teacher, Ms. Amy, told our class the story about what her daddy did after the doctor told him he needed to quit smoking.

Quit now, her daddy’s doctor said, Tonight, ok? Last drag. And you’ll probably be fine. Or, you got maybe 7-10 years to live.

My teacher said her daddy came home that day after he saw the doctor, and he did everything normal like he used to—kissed her momma, changed out of his work clothes, help set the table for dinner—but when he went out to smoke before the meal like he always did, he never came back. He stayed outside and smoked pack after pack. He smoked all the way through dinner, she said, and then the evening news, and even her bedtime which he always helped with.

He must’ve smoked a thousand cigarettes, Ms. Amy said, And after that, never again.

She said after that, he still went out at the same time he always went out for a smoke, but instead of smoking, he’d just stand there, hands in his pockets, coughing, spitting. Kickin at stones. Catchin what glimpses he could of stars between the clouds, between retching.

It was like, she said, He was un-smoking every cigarette he’d ever smoked.

He did that for like seven-ten years. She couldn’t remember how long. She was just a kid. And one day, she said, he just stopped. Quit. No more hawkin loogies. Growlin to clear his throat. God-damnin his existence. Instead, he started takin deep breaths.


Ms. Amy told us she would always remember that day because her daddy came inside from his usual smoke time, but he wasn’t wiping his face with his hairy forearms, and he wasn’t sniffing and groaning. Staring off like he was distracted or confused.

He smiled. And, I couldn’t ever remember seeing him smile before that, she said.

A cough cracked out of her throat.

And then he picked me up and hugged me. Said he didn’t ever want to go outside alone again.

Ms. Amy quit tellin the story there and wiped her face, said she was sorry, joked that she hoped she didn’t get fired for showing emotion like that. She didn’t even know why she was sayin all that in an English class. But we knew what she meant by it. At least, I did. She was just feeling happy about her story. Happy about how her daddy loved her for whatever reason. That was it. And she was trying to tell us about that love and about not getting hooked on any kind of substances, and she was trying to say we can win our battles sometimes, if we keep showin up.


Mom was on the phone to Papaw when I came home from school that day. She had it on speaker.

He’s here, Mom said.

What? I said.

How’s my grandson, Papaw said.

Something rattled in his throat.

I told him I was great. How was he?

Good. Well, he said, I’m just tellin everyone my doctor says I gotta quit smokin. Today. Or, I’m gonna die in 7-10 years.

I closed my eyes. Imagined my teacher’s daddy taking all those deep breaths outside, felt my lips stuck together when I wanted them to open. I wanted to blurt out to Papaw that I just heard this story about Ms. Amy’s daddy who was told the exact same thing a long time ago. And, I wanted to say he had a tough time, especially since, like my teacher said, he was basically un-smoking all the cigarettes he ever smoked, which was a lot, and it sucked, and he did like a ton of coughing and hacking for what felt like forever, and he almost puked some nights, but after a while it stopped.

It stopped, Papaw. He got better. Took real deep breaths. Smiled again. And he’s still alive.

But I didn’t say any of that. Just stared at the phone on the counter. Asked him to promise he’d quit.

His breath rasped in his throat.

I’ll quit, he said through some phlegm, I’ll quit.


Ms. Amy and her daddy were at the grocery store a few months later. Me and Mom saw him ridin one of them motorized carts pointin up at whatever he needed on the shelves. Ms. Amy was fetchin cans and boxes for him, making sure they matched the coupons he had danglin out his hands. I told Mom I was goin to look for something in another aisle, so I could follow them.

He didn’t look as old as Papaw. And Papaw could still walk. He didn’t have his hair still like Papaw either. He had patches and strings fallin off his head. Ms. Amy’s daddy wasn’t even toting around cans of oxygen like Papaw had been lately. Even though he smoked all those years. His nose wasn’t stuffed with tubes. He was just hunched, wrinkly, splotched. Overdressed in a button-up and pleated pants. Wearing them thick black shoes old people wear. Smilin, too. And that ain’t how I expected him to look even though I didn’t know how I expected him to look.

Maybe that’d be me one day—helpin Papaw in his scooter get some groceries. Maybe I’d get to visit soon and we’d go fishin again, hike down from the holler to the spillway together. Maybe he’d put his arm around my shoulder like he used to do, tell me he couldn’t ask for a better grandson, find a few dollars behind my ears, and then tell me stories about him and his friends and all the silly shit they did when they was growing up. Maybe I’d get to hug him. Tell him that story.

I followed them to the register. And Ms. Amy saw me when she was unloadin his things onto the belt. She said hi and waved. I glanced up, waved back but then kept starin at her daddy, the back of his greasy head, as he flapped a stack of money at the cashier.

Then I walked away.


For about seven months, the whole family rallied behind Papaw, helped him celebrate milestones, cheered him on whenever he wasn’t feeling well. Which was most of the time. Seemed like he was always sick without his cigarettes.

Every time I called to check in, he confessed he was thinkin about giving up quittin, but he didn’t know if he was going to or not because he didn’t want to upset me and make me feel sad. That’s always how he said it. After a while, I couldn’t hardly listen to him, always trying to get me to say that I wasn’t gonna be angry if he decided to quit living. And I wasn’t gonna. Because I was gonna say what I wanted to say which was that it might be hard now, but it got better, and I knew it got better because Ms. Amy said…

But I couldn’t.


There was one day where I got all worked up and ran home from school so I could call him and tell him that story, and I picked up the phone first thing when I walked in, balled up a fist, bit a knuckle to steady my lips. Ignored my burning eyes while I punched the numbers.

But he didn’t pick up. And, I didn’t leave a message. He never called me back.


At almost ten months after he said he was gonna quit, Papaw called, and with a smile in his voice, said he’d given up quittin cigarettes. Then he laughed ‘till he choked.

I kept wonderin when he might say somethin like sorry to me. Maybe tell me he shouldn’t have said he’d quit in the first place. Tell me it was all silly. Everything was ok.

But he never said anything. Just laughed and retched.

And everyone in the family went on livin like Papaw hadn’t pronounced himself dead.


We went to visit because we got a call sayin Papaw was in the hospital. When we got the nurse’s station, I was all hands and questions.

Where was he? What was happening? Was he going to be ok? Where should I go?

Mom told me she wanted to go in first. Alone.

Wait out here, the nurses said, You’ll be able to see him soon.

I paced the halls like I needed to find a way out and quick, wondering what happened and what was next, until Mom came out of his room hiding her eyes.

Your turn, she said and buried her face in my chest.


The nurses walked me to Papaw’s room. It was almost silent—only the whining whir of the ventilation machine pumping oxygen through a big tube stuffed into his lungs. And he was laying there—plastic-wrapped like an old sandwich. Mouth wide like he was a zombie.

Papaw. Papaw.

A blanket had been pulled over his chest. His hands were underneath it. Tucked in to his sides. And even though I could see him, I knew I wasn’t with him. Whoever he was had gone already. And what was left was something warm to listen to me to vomit all the things I wanted to say but swallowed instead, stuffed into the shadows of my chest. Like a bunch of fuckin cigarettes.

I pulled up a chair, reached under the blanket and grabbed his wet hand, and then told him the story I’d been wantin to tell him before he died. And, I told it the same way Ms. Amy told it. Said how the doctor told her daddy to quit smokin. How he’d only live 7-10 years. How he smoked a thousand last cigarettes. How he quit after that. Coughed. Hacked. Breathed. How that was a lifetime ago, and he was still alive. Kickin’.

I kept that story in the whole time you was trying to quit. And, I said, I’m sorry.

He twitched. Squeezed my hand. Then went to ice.

I ripped the tube from his face. Pressed my forehead to his. Let my tears run down his frozen eyelids.


About the Author

Garrett Mostowski’s (Insta/Threads: @gmostowskiwriter) work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Barren, The Porch, Olney Mag, Unstamatic, The Galway Review, and others. His debut collection of poems Lunations came out in Fall of 2023 from Wipf&Stock. He lives and works in Detroit, Michigan.


Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash