Chewing gum can fix it

"Do you mind if I smoke?"

Hearing a voice close to me jars me out of a book I'm reading on a park bench. I look up at the speaker — a middle-aged fellow who had sat down on the other end of the bench. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he repeats.

"Yes, I do mind. Sorry," I respond. "Oh, that's OK, ma'am," he says. "I'll just go over there," pointing to a tree about 25 feet away. "Thank you," I say.

He keeps talking: "You know, I've had two bouts of lung cancer. But I just can't quit smoking for good. I'm getting better, though, because this is just my fourth one today and it's already 3:30 p.m.," he says, holding out a fresh cigarette as though it was a beacon of good health on the mountain. "I'll take it over there and smoke, but would you watch my stuff?" he asks, gesturing to the grocery store plastic bag on the bench brimming with personal items. "Yes," I say, "I'll be glad to keep an eye on your belongings. I'm not going anywhere."

"Thanks, lady. Anymore, I get this airport complex. You know — about not leaving bags unattended. Thanks a lot, and I'll be right back." Mr. Smoker strolls away to enjoy his cigarette. I look around and, satisfied that no other persons are close-by to put his items at risk, I return to what I was reading.

It wasn't long and Mr. Smoker was back on the bench. "My girlfriend hates smoking, too," he shares. "She won't let me smoke inside her house so I always go outdoors."

"If you've beaten lung cancer two times, maybe you want it to stay that way. What about chewing gum when you get a craving instead of lighting up?" I offer. "Hmmm, I never thought of doing that and I . . ."

Just then two ladies come by and exclaim, "Ralph, we've been looking all over for you. We're glad you're sitting here and you're safe," they say as they hug him. "Is he bothering you?" they ask me. "No, he's not bothering me," I respond. "We're just talking about a hot topic."

"Yeah, we're just chattin'," Ralph interjects, "and it's been life changing. Thank you."

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati Ohio.]