There was a boy I knew back in school. I was shy and reserved – the kind of person who habitually assumes she will be picked last for any team activity, and is sincerely shocked when she isn’t. He was always one of the ones doing the picking in such scenarios. Over the course of a few days, he befriended me and treated me like family. His energy was infectious. The greatest thing about him, though, was that he could make me laugh at the drop of a tear to the point of more tears, happy tears. We were best friends for eleven solid years, before his smoking a pack a day wrenched us apart. At the age of 26, he developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). He passed away of a sudden cardiac arrest in 2015, and was counted as one among 8 lakh citizens who died of smoking-related COPD in India that year.
My grandfather was the frontrunner of the most famous canteen in Delhi. What started off as a humble means to an end soon transformed into a community kitchen, serving over 1,000 homeless people on the daily. He was a simple man with the temperament of an American Pit Bull Terrier: intelligent, stable, and as loving as his mounting duties would allow him to be. My father still vividly remembers the first time he witnessed him cough so nastily that he spat a few drops of blood on the white handkerchief. He still remembers being utterly petrified, recognizing even as a fourteen-year-old that this was an anomaly. He remembers being held in his mother’s arms and reassured that it is only a dry cough and nothing more. He remembers craving the same reassurance from his father, who was desperately attempting to curb the coughing by taking deep breaths of tobacco-flavored air. Fortunately, the coughing stopped – about twenty-two years after that day. Unfortunately, so did his father’s lungs. 1,000 people slept with a grumbling stomach in the city that night. A national survey released in 1986 stated that 86,000 men died of some form of lung cancer that year, out of which more than 60 percent were at least 65 years old. My grandfather was 62.
In 2012, I used to work night shifts at a call center. I had no choice. My college fees were swelling into a tension-sized mound and I lived in a strange city, all on my own. The only thing that kept me going was a client who got into the habit of calling at my station every night. He had a strange, almost robotic voice that sounded quite appealing to my ears. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that that wasn’t his real voice – he was, in fact, using an electrolarynx, which is a medical device used to produce clear speech by people who have lost their voicebox to laryngeal cancer. Did you know that only 3.1 per 100,000 men and women are diagnosed with that disease every year? He was a jovial man with endless stories to tell. Yet, he was nearing the end of his life.
You’re probably wondering why I am sharing these stories with you today. You might even have guessed already. I value you too much to let you become just another number in my life. I do not want to remember you as the man who smoked five death sticks every day for so-and-so years. I want to remember you as the man I chose to become friends with because of how much he drove me to chase after my dreams and not stop until I have fallen so hard that it is impossible to stand up again.
Don’t become the smoke you casually leave behind.
Don’t get blown away into the gentle breeze.
Don't become another statistic.