Samantha Cavallo

“Secondhand smoke is a serious health hazard causing more than 41,000 deaths per year. It can cause or make worse a wide range of damaging health effects in children and adults, including lung cancer, respiratory infections and asthma.”

-American Lung Association


“Secondhand smoke is also defined as: my biggest fear.”



Lazy tendrils of smoke dance through every room of the house and the smell hurts my nose. It clings to your clothes and your skin and even after a thirty minute shower, I swear I can still smell the smoke in my hair. Smoke hangs heavy in the air, pushing a weight down on my shoulders. It feels wrong to breathe. Quick inhale and deep exhale, trying to avoid the heavy taste of smoke in the air around me. 

In school, they teach you about how bad smoking is, how it blackens your lungs and constricts your arteries. But if I understood that at age nine, why didn’t my grandmother?

“Habit,” she’d say. And then she’d tell me not to do it. 



My grandmother had already done a few rounds of chemotherapy when she asked me to cut her hair. It’s falling out anyway, who cares if you mess up. The scissors shook in my uncertain hands as she sat at the kitchen table. I wasn’t as skilled as she was when she used to cut my hair, but my lines were straight enough. The only sounds came from the snipping of my scissors and the steady hiss of her oxygen machine. Within a few weeks, though, the haircut had seemed pointless. She wore a scarf around her newly buzzed hair, embarrassed to be seen without it. We told her she looked just as beautiful as always. She didn’t believe us, but we meant it. 


She drove a 2002 Toyota Highlander, which she left to me in the will, giving me a car before I could even legally drive one. It’s dented and scraped and the engine makes a weird noise when it starts that no mechanic can seem to identify. And though it’s been years now, I swear the faint scent of cigarettes lingers. I don’t think any amount of air fresheners will ever make it truly go away. I think maybe it’s just in my head. 


I’ve cleaned every inch of that car, and despite the fact that I’m not deeply religious, I just can’t bring myself to throw out the prayer cards in the glovebox. 

She used to tell me stories about my dad growing up. And it didn’t make sense to me, when she’d point to that picture on her wall, a smiling woman holding two smiling boys. Maybe it was because I had a hard time imagining she had a whole life before being my grandmother. Besides the rare comment about my grandfather, I never heard a word about her ex-husbands, including the fact that they existed, but from what I’ve learned since her passing, there were a number of them. 

As we packed away her house, I found there was a lot I didn’t know about her. And I started to wonder if I really knew her at all, because everything I knew I learned secondhand.

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