My mother-in-law is a heavy smoker. She smokes in her house, she smokes in her car, she sometimes smokes in her bed before she falls asleep at night and as soon as she wakes up in the morning. She smokes around other people, in large groups or small.
What she doesn't do is smoke in other people's houses, and for that I'm thankful.
But her addiction has caused problems for her family. For those of us who dislike the smell of smoke, it's hard to spend time with her in her house or in her car. Last Christmas, my husband and I visited for a few days, and each morning I was wakened by smoke seeping under the door. Showering didn't help. It was only after we got home and washed our clothes that we got rid of the smell.
For my sister- and brother-in-law, the problem is more difficult. They have a two-year-old daughter, and they'd like to keep her away from cigarette smoke as long as possible. And though my husband and his brother are more tolerant of the smell, having grown up with it, my sister-in-law and I have, at one time or another, made excuses not to visit because of it. And that's a shame. I love my mother-in-law and enjoy her company. It seems absurd that there should be this cloud over our heads. Yet no one has been willing to speak up. Her sons have told her they're concerned about her health.
But no one has ever said, "It's hard for me to come here because of the smoke."
I tell myself it's not my place to say anything - that my husband or brother-in-law have more of a right (and responsibility) to speak up than I do. But I also wonder if, really, any of us have that right. The few times my husband has asked his mother not to smoke when we were all together in her house, she seemed offended, once saying quietly, "I'm a person and I have rights too."
And she does have rights. It's her house, after all. It's her car. And it's her decision about her health. But I can't help thinking that our silence is unfair to her. She sees nothing wrong with smoking, and isn't bothered by it. And if she's not bothered, it might not occur to her that we are.
What would bother her, I know, is to think we've stayed away, or have talked about the situation among ourselves. Maybe if she knew that she would just get angry..
I know that if I chose (or were asked) to talk with her, I would do it with some trepidation. And I still wouldn't be sure I was doing the right thing. But perhaps it should be me. I'm the newest member of the family, with the least history. I, more easily than the others, could say, "I've never told you this before, but it's hard for me to be around cigarette smoke."
At least then she would know. We'd no longer be misleading her by staying quiet. And that would make a difference.
* Suzanne MacLachlan is a Boston-area freelance writer.