The Red and White Box


Mr. Washington strides into the doctor’s office with a strong, purposeful, soldier-like walk revealing a red and white box in the breast pocket of his crisp shirt.  The very room, the otoscope, the paper-covered examining table, the tongue blades, the cotton swabs all come to order as he enters.  Tawny, with gold fillings and an intense pair of brown eyes he sits himself down and begins with a firm handshake.  His hands express the dry, leathered touch of 80 plus years and a faint odor of cheap cologne greets the nostrils of his doctor.

The red and white box covered in partially split plastic protruding from the pocket of his otherwise perfectly pressed shirt means he is still smoking.  He and his doctor spend ten minutes each visit discussing how important stopping this habit is to his health.  His right leg crossed over his left leg, his deep rich voice and his patterned answers are well-known to his physician.

This time, however, his physician offers hope and this time, as if by way of response, the answer changes.  Out in the open, as if the cover was removed, a tale of his desperation is revealed.  Though like many truth tellers Mr. Washington seems caught unaware of the depth of his revelation.

He begins by telling of taking his jacket to a friend of his who is a dry cleaner.  Later that evening he gets a desperate phone call from his friend.  His friend’s tears leak through the receiver and he can almost feel their salty wetness on his own cheeks.  His friend is begging him to stop smoking.  It seems his friend had smelled the residue of cigarette smoke on his jacket and his friend is overcome with grief.  Both of them had just lost a heavy-smoking friend to lung cancer.  So Mr. Washington lies.  He cannot bear to hurt his friend but he cannot give up his habit either.

Another time in church, he slips his cigarettes into the purse of his sister so his dry-cleaner friend will not catch him in the act of possession.  The red and white box is returned to him later at a distance in the church parking lot.  He takes out one of the long white sticks and strikes a match.  He inhales the soothing flame-burnt tobacco leaves.  He enjoys the fragrance, his only comfort since giving up his alcohol addiction some 40 years ago.  He thinks of his doctor who wants him to stop, he thinks how they shall talk again at the next visit about the dangers of nicotine, how his doctor will express concern about him and his health.  Tucking the red and white box back into his pocket he wonders what he and his doctor would talk about if he were to stop smoking.  He smiles self-satisfied, taps his breast pocket and inhales deeply on the cigarette between his tobacco-stained fingers and strides firmly, confidently across the hard asphalt of the church parking lot, the sound of his freshly polished wing tips scraping the stones, echoing into the night.


James Wendt, MD, Department of Medicine