As she lies in her sickbed, day after day, night after night, knowing she will never leave it, Audrey Ghizzoni spends hours thinking about what she'll miss.
Her husband, John, of course. Her daughter Maura and son Jack. Maura's adorable 3-year-old son, Noah. The cats. The political life of Northern Virginia. A favorite good-luck doll who watches over her from her night table. A favorite dress.
"I think about having a cigarette every day," says Audrey. "I enjoyed smoking. I would give anything to have one right this minute."
This from a woman whose life is about to end because of cigarettes. This from a woman who knows "intellectually I never should have smoked for 43 years." This from a woman who is a lawyer (and therefore usually logical), and who is 61 years old (and therefore well aware of the dangers of smoking).
"I know it sounds nuts," says Audrey. "But I don't lie here and regret every cigarette I ever smoked. I don't regret any cigarette I ever smoked."
Even though it has cut 20 years off your life?
"Even though it has cut 20 years off my life."
She has absolutely no regrets?
"No, I can't say I do."
Audrey Ghizzoni is dying of emphysema. She has been told she has several months to live, at most. Since May, I have been visiting the Ghizzoni family regularly at their home in North Arlington to report on how they are handling Audrey's condition.
The family's hope -- and mine -- is that by telling Audrey's story fully and honestly, other families in terminal illness situations can learn to cope and (in Audrey's phrase) "maybe even smile once in a while."
The smile is certainly wide on Audrey's face as she recalls her first cigarette.
Audrey attended a small women's college in upstate New York. Only one other student in her class had also been a classmate at her high school in Philadelphia. Shortly after the beginning of freshman year, Audrey overheard her girlhood friend gossiping about her to a group of fellow freshmen.
"Her name was Bernadette, and she was saying, 'Audrey was always such a goody two-shoes in high school,' " Audrey recalled.
"So I said to myself, 'I'll show her.' I went and borrowed a cigarette from somebody."
Cigarettes soon wove their way into Audrey's life "for all the reasons you've heard a million times. It was a way to be sophisticated. It was a way to seem older. It was a way to do something a little naughty."
During her career as an attorney for the Patent Office, and a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women, "I was the sort of person who couldn't work without one going in the ashtray all the time."
But beginning 2 1/2 years ago, Audrey began to develop the first symptoms of emphysema -- back pains and shortness of breath. Her health has declined steadily ever since, even though she quit smoking along the way, in May of 1984.
But she admits she didn't want to quit and never would have chosen to quit.
"I quit only because I couldn't smoke and breathe at the same time," she says.
I suggest to Audrey that her no-regrets attitude is a reflex to blunt the pain of it all. Or perhaps she's like a murderer sentenced to death, who has become so used to the imminence of his own demise that he can say with complete honesty that he has made peace, that he has no regrets. Or perhaps Audrey Ghizzoni simply believes that death comes to each person in its own way and its own time -- that if she didn't die of emphysema one day two, three, six months from now, she might be killed in a car accident on the same day.
"It's none of those things," Audrey replies, with her customary firmness. "I liked to smoke. I would do it again."
John Ghizzoni quit smoking cigarettes in 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General's famous report was issued, although he occasionally dabbles in cigars or pipes. Audrey thought about quitting at that time, she says, "but I wasn't exactly sure he was right" about reporting a clear correlation between smoking and fatal lung disease.
But there is still a cigarette smoker in the household: Jack Ghizzoni, a 25-year-old recent graduate of Guilford College in North Carolina.
Jack takes care of his mother by day and writes short stories in his upstairs bedroom at night. He has been a cigarette smoker for several years.
Does "no regrets" apply to Jack, too?
"I figure it's his life," says his mother.
But doesn't Audrey worry that Jack may someday end up where she is, clicking through the TV channels and waiting for the oxygen man to deliver a new canister?
"I'm at the point where I can't worry about that any more," says Audrey Ghizzoni.