I once saw a woman blow up a sheep's lung. It was 1980; I was in the third grade and the woman was the mother of a girl in my class named Shawnie. I watched the woman put her lips to a hole in the sheep's lung, watched her inhale deeply and then blow, blow, the bubblegum flesh of the lung expanding like a slick-sacked lopsided balloon. I remember hearing the collective eeews of the kids, and I glanced over at Shawnie and felt terribly, deeply sorry for her. I knew she would never be able to live it down, how her mother had put her bare science-lady lips to a dead sheep lung in front of the entire class. And from that day forward Shawnie was branded with the faint mark of childhood ick, like a guppy growing mold. As if somehow sensing that fateful day in the third grade, Shawnie's body quickly grew too tall, her brain too smart, her hair styled in a Dorothy Hamill haircut long past socially acceptable. The girl whose mother blew up a sheep's lung.
It was part of the Just Say No to Tobacco program of the early 80's when classroom blinds were drawn and we counted down the 3, 2, 1 of the crackly projector to watch film reels of black lung and a cowboy singing campfire songs through a trach tube. We were impressionable and they knew it. After school I would go home and write messages to my mother on tiny scraps of paper and slip them into her many packs of Marlboros: Please don't die! I don't want you to get emphysema! You stink! At first she generously asked me more about what they had taught me at school, but soon she was telling me to knock it off.
I smoked one cigarette in high school. Mad at my parents, I stole one from the kitchen counter and sat outside by our pool. All would have been right and addictive if I had just known how to hold it. But I didn't, and at 16 it's funny how even inanimate objects can mock you. The shrubs snickered, a chaise stared at me haughtily, one slightly deflated raft floated gently past me in the water and rolled its sun-bloated eyes in my general direction. I was no longer deterred by cancerous growth and arterial plaque so much as the fact that I felt like a total fucktard.
This weekend my mother stayed at my house. She let Zoey use her dark lipstick, picked California poppies with her and put them in a juice glass filled with water. (I grew up thinking it was illegal to pick poppies, that the minute my hand touched one I would hear sirens.) Later, Zoey and my mom took a bath together and my mother laughed as Zoey tried to scrub the palm tree tattoo off her butt. When we got home from taking my mom back to her house, Zoey turned to me and said, "I'll be right back, Mama. I'm going to go smoke a cigarette."
And I nearly died.
Hearing those words--that word, in my girl's tiny little voice. I thought of that cowboy with the trach tube, the Indian crying in the PSA from my childhood. Give a Hoot! Don't Pollute! I thought of Nancy Reagan and Shawnie. Is she still too tall? Too smart? Her hair a wedge of misfortune? Are her lungs still pliable and pink and young? And then for some reason I thought of the Kool Aid Pitcher bursting through wooden fences and into backyards, spilling that sticky red shit everywhere. It must have been in the same commercial break. Oh, I know I have a few years before anyone lets Zoey bum a cigarette off them. A few years of me drilling it into her that smoking is bad, dangerous, gross, stinky. And yes, there was a small part of me that thought that maybe it was very slightly funny, my not-quite three year old announcing a nicotine break. But there is an even larger part of me that wonders just how badly the lung of a dead sheep would taste on my lips. Photo by Sally Mann.