I quit smoking on Aug. 2, 1988.
My dead mother convinced me it was time.
I had been assigned a piece by the now defunct California Magazine that involved interviewing a self-proclaimed psychic to the stars about where she vacationed. The editor’s assistant, a poised, effective and cheerful woman named Sharon, set up the interview.
When I reached the psychic by phone for the interview, she was friendly and talkative. She didn’t really have the time or money to take vacations, she said, but sometimes she drove to a friend’s cabin in Mammoth for a few days.
I wrote this down and thanked her.
She said: “Would you like me to do a reading over the phone?”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I can’t accept freebies.”
“Oh, I do them for fun all the time,” she said.
She’d say a letter, and I was to say “yes” if it stood for the name of someone I knew, and “no” if it didn’t. The only other thing I could say was “deceased” if that person was dead.
“J,” she said.
I ran through my mental Rolodex. “No.”
“Really? It’s very strong. Whoever J is, they’re going through a tough time and could use a call.”
“I can’t think of any Js,” I said. “Sorry.”
“S,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, thinking of my mother, who had died eight months before of liver cancer. “Deceased.”
“Your mother, Shirley,” she said. “She’s right here. She wants you to know she doesn’t have cancer anymore.”
I began to pace. “Really?”
“She wants to say something else, too. I can’t quite get it.”
I knew: “She wants me to stop smoking.”
“That could be it,” the psychic said.
Although her cancer was not smoking-related, my mother had quit years before and was rabidly anti-cigarette. I’d kept my smoking secret from her.
“Yes,” the psychic murmured. “She definitely wants you to stop smoking.”
Even from the land of the dead, my mother radiated her signature mix of disapproval, helpless concern and impatient, tenacious love.
Back then any mention of how bad smoking was for you made me want to light up. I lit up.
“And J is still having a hard time,” the psychic went on. “So when you remember who that is, they could use a call.”
Reeling, I said goodbye. I believed, a bit, in the paranormal because I had a faint clairvoyant streak. I’d once dreamed about a plane crash before it happened, and just before the phone rang, I often knew who’d be calling. But this had impressed me.
My mother. Free from cancer! And still hectoring me from the great beyond.
As I transcribed my notes, I recalled that my AA sponsor was named Jan. Fifty-five years old, gruff, critical, she was not unlike my mother. Lately, I’d hesitated to phone her. That day, I lit a cigarette and dialed, reaching her voice mail. “Sorry to call you at work,” I said, “but a psychic told me you were having a rough time, so I thought I’d make sure you’re OK and say I’m thinking of you.”
I had started to fix myself dinner — I was smoking and listening to NPR — when I heard that Raymond Carver had died of lung cancer.
I had met Ray a few times and once, back when he was still drinking, he had given me a big old wet kiss on the lips. Hearing of his death, I wept. There wouldn’t be any more Raymond Carver stories. All because he smoked. He was only 50 years old.
Again, I felt my mother close. Although she’d never seen me smoke, she’d sometimes sniffed me and looked pained. (Of course, back then, she also looked pained — at my hair, my clothes, my boyfriends and my freelance life.) Yet we were deeply attached through a shared love of cooking and literature and wilderness. We were (one should not admit this) each other’s favorite family member. Now, even from the land of the dead, she radiated her signature mix of disapproval, helpless concern and impatient, tenacious love.
“OK, Mom,” I said, “you win.” I ran water over the rest of my pack. That was the last cigarette I ever smoked.
Jan phoned that evening. She’d missed my call, she said, because she’d been locked in the bathroom at work, crying. My message, she said, had cheered her up, and reminded her what was important: sobriety and people who cared enough to pick up the phone.
That day was a hinge in my life, what I saw as a magical convergence of fact, phantasm and an undying maternal force that switched off my nicotine addiction permanently.
More recently, however, something else has come to mind, something regarding Sharon, the editor’s assistant.
Once, a restaurateur wanted to send me flowers for a piece I’d written about his restaurant; I had refused to give him my address — no freebies! — but somehow, he charmed it out of Sharon and two dozen peach-colored roses had arrived at my door.
Sharon was charmable. And I had reason to believe she knew my mother’s name.
When my mother died, the magazine had sent me flowers. Who had called the florist with the order; who dictated the card? And who just might have let go a few choice facts about me when chatted up by a voluble, friendly psychic?
For more than 30 years, I believed that my mother had a ghostly hand in making me quit smoking, that she’d just been waiting for any mouthpiece through which she could badger me from the grave. I sometimes thought of consulting another psychic and imagined my mother pleased by my settled life, my kind husband, my books. My 32 years without a cigarette.
But illusions fade, or we outgrow our need for them; today a more realistic explanation of that day I quit — an explanation now involving a compliant secretary and my own internalized maternal voice — has taken hold.
Of course, there is still the matter of J.
Novelist Michelle Huneven is the author, most recently, of “Off Course.”