Sunday Lifestyle

Birds and lung cancer?

FROM MY HEART - Barbara Gonzalez-Ventura - The Philippine Star

When you have gotten as old as I, your daily schedule follows a pattern. Every morning you wake up, wash your face then sit with your husband for a while. You ask how he’s feeling. He says, “Okay,” then goes back to sleep. Maybe my presence makes him feel safe.

His caregiver sleeps late to make up for attending to my husband’s night needs. I wait for him to rise then get dressed and sit down to make rosaries. It’s one of the things I enjoy doing myself. Someone suggested I hire an assistant. I thought much about that. I would have to find one who has worked with jewelry, teach her how to make rosaries and live with her many errors. When she finally learned how to do things right, she would resign. No, I’d rather do it myself.

I sit down at my worktable. Designing takes a bit of time. But after that, assembling the decades doesn’t need much concentration anymore. That’s when thoughts weave in and out of my head. Something always starts it. Sometimes it’s a color. Yellow once reminded me of Blondie, my grandmother’s male canary who sang in a lovely voice. That inspired her to have canaries as pets.

Come to think of it, Lola — that’s what we call our grandmas here — always loved birds. I remember when I was younger she had a big birdcage built with chicken wire. She took care of pigeons. I have no recollection of how long that lasted or why she got tired of it. She just did. After a while she ventured into pet canaries. She was always trying to breed them but was never successful. Many years later my grandmother, who never smoked a cigarette in her life, passed away from lung cancer. I was 22 years old when she died.

Time and life passed. When I was in my early 50s, I was named president of a medium-sized advertising agency. We handled cigarettes then. This was in the 1990s when democracy was newly reinstated here. There was a lot of brouhaha over cigarettes, their taxation and their advertising. We were deeply involved in all that. There was the negative side — we had to go to Congress a lot and speak to a body of people who never seemed to be listening. But there was also a positive side. Every now and then our clients would bring in a group of scientists from abroad to lecture us on facts about cigarettes.

I remember one group that talked to us about cigarettes and lung cancer. There are four causes of lung cancer, they said. Two of them are related to cigarettes but the other two are not. These are 1) drinking very hot liquid like tea or soup and 2) the care of birds. The care of birds means keeping them as pets, changing the lining of their cages, feeding them. Birds seem to emanate something into the air that people inhale. It gives them lung cancer.

That gave me pause. I remembered my grandmother’s pet birds, mainly her canaries, because they were in the room with her. Every morning she would fuss over them, change the newspaper that she lined their cages with, checked if they had laid eggs. She would play with them. I wondered if they had given her lung cancer.

Back at the office a few days later, the company’s chief finance officer (CFO) and I were having lunch. I told him about the lecture I had received the day before. He had once invited us for lunch at his house where he had an atrium in the middle of the house and it was full of pretty birds. “Better be careful with your birds,” I said, “you don’t want them giving your family lung cancer.” The next time we were invited to his house, the birds were gone.

“What happened to your birds?” I asked with a smile.

“You scared me,” he said. “I set them free.” A few years ago our CFO passed away, not from lung cancer but from a heart condition.

I never took care of birds or drank very hot liquid but I started smoking when it was fashionable, when Julie London, a very sexy singer, did a commercial for filtered cigarettes. I saw that when I was around 10 years old then taught myself to smoke at 17, when I was sent to school abroad. I was away from home. I was free.

I choked, got headaches, nausea but I really wanted to smoke. So I learned and smoked steadily until I was 57, retired, and just decided one day it was time to stop. I had smoked for 40 years. That was 20 years ago. Am still alive. I don’t think I have lung cancer.

Now I just take care of my husband then sit down, make rosaries, and think about whatever glides through my mind.

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