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Charleen Sibanda was brought up to grieve in silence. After her dad’s death, she found solace in strangers who smoked his preferred brand of cigarette. (Wendy Martinez/CBC; Photo: Shutterstock)

This First Person column is the experience of Charleen Sibanda, a Zimbabwean-born lawyer who lives in Vancouver. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Thick red dust sifted into his sandals as he strode heavily down the dirt road, adorning his large feet with a pair of natural auburn socks. Like a hawk, I watched as he carefully pulled a cigarette from behind his ear and roughly patted his trouser pockets for a box of matches. Eyes squinted, he took a long drag on the cigarette and, from the corner of his mouth, let out a thick cloud of smoke that rushed at me.

My nostrils flared slightly as my lungs drew in the familiar scent; it was Berkeley! This stranger of large stature and black hue was smoking my father’s favourite brand of cigarettes.

A year and some months had passed since we’d laid Dad to rest at a  cemetery in our hometown of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, but pieces of my 15-year-old heart were still scattered everywhere, searching for fragments of him in the land of the living.

A smiling man in a suit sits on a chair.
Sibanda’s dad, Paulo Sibanda, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in the 1990s. (Submitted by Charleen Sibanda)

His clothes were tucked away in the fitted wardrobe, too painful for Mama to look at, or worse, to give away. I dared not go near that wardrobe. The living room walls were scraped bare of family pictures and only an old amateur painting of The Last Supper remained. The everyday and the mundane was devoid of any expression of our sorrow. With death being a taboo subject in Zimbabwean society, my longing to be asked how I was coping remained just that — a longing. After the big gathering for the wake and the funeral, Mama, my siblings, and I each suffered in silence as we stoically maintained the culturally imposed integrity of solitary grief.

But now, after many months of searching, I had finally found a piece of Dad — the treasure left unburied — and I sheepishly followed the stranger past the grocery store where Mama had sent me. I deliberately inhaled each puff of second-hand smoke, and wished his cigarette would burn forever.

Before then, I didn’t appreciate the smell of cigarettes and Mama always had a strict outdoor smoking rule for Dad. However, that moment altered my perception. Berkeley’s aroma had subtle hints of smoky and woody undertones that accentuated the distinct scent of pure tobacco. The smooth, velvety texture of the fragrance lingered in the air, providing a luxurious and indulgent sensory experience for my nose. But more than that, it reminded me of Dad.

A man in a suit walks across a lawn while holding a cigarette to his lips.
Sibanda’s dad preferred to smoke Berkeleys. (Submitted by Charleen Sibanda)

From that point forward, a sense of quiet joy and calm would embody the remainder of my teenage years whenever I found a smoker. Berkeley smokers became my favourites and I sought them out whenever I left the house. It was always an adventure, and each find was a hallelujah moment; no other feeling came close.

I later learned that our sense of smell is closely tied to our memories, as a single nostalgic scent can evoke a particular memory or intense emotion and transport us back in time. Catching a whiff of a Berkeley could trigger a happy or sad memory, or both, for me.

One of my favourite memories of Dad was of our family road trips to the countryside in Gwanda, where my grandmother lived. Dad was always the driver, one hand on the wheel, the other dangling loosely outside the window and holding a lit cigarette between his thumb and index,  and his favourite band, Soul Brothers, playing on repeat in the cassette player. We always belted out the tunes in unison — never missing a beat, never mixing the lyrics.

But over the years, this habit that had brought me indescribable comfort inadvertently evolved into an addiction. My family was in the dark, and I chose to maintain their ignorance to safeguard that cherished connection with a father whom I missed dearly. Shame became a constant shadow each time I snuck out of the house, desperate to catch a whiff of Berkeley smoke. I frequented the local bars and the tuck shops, as they guaranteed a smoker or five lurking in the vicinity. It was now long past a fun adventure; it was a need — a harmful, secret need.

Lady Luck didn’t always favour me, however. In the darkest nights of my soul, where weeks would have passed without getting my fix, an overwhelming temptation to purchase a Berkeley cigarette from a street vendor would engulf me. My only desire? To light it up and feel the crisp tickle of tobacco smoke flutter past my nostrils. Yet sadly, l lived in a communal society where Mama had eyes and ears everywhere, and I wasn’t yet ready to join my ancestors in the after-life.

A smiling couple in a garden.
Sibanda’s parents, Paulo, left, and Lucy in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1972. (Submitted by Charleen Sibanda)
Five smiling children sitting closely together on a sofa.
Sibanda, second from the left, with her siblings in Bulawayo in 1995. (Submitted by Charleen Sibanda)

Cold turkey.

Ridiculous as it sounds, that is how I quit. On the cusp of adulthood, life took me to Calgary in 2009 where Berkeleys were non-existent. Coincidentally, a year after I arrived, I worked as a survey conductor for different brands of cigarettes, where I spent hours interviewing chain smokers and giving away free boxes of cigarettes. All their smells were foreign to me. It completely purged my desire for second-hand smoke.

My grief hadn’t ended; it had just evolved into something else.

The cloak of shame eventually fell off when I finally embraced the truth that grief is a universal human emotion and, much like our fingerprints, is distinctive and unique to each individual. I know now that there is nothing shameful about how I grieved my father. As American memoirist Glennon Doyle Melton put it, “grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here is my proof that I paid the price.”

Even so, there was nothing noble with the solitary grief I was forced to carry as a child; freedom to express one’s feelings is essential to healing.

It took my family several years to unlearn that and to fully grasp the significance of emotional expression in the grieving process. We are all better for it.

Twenty years have passed since we lost Dad, and while the scent of a lit cigarette no longer triggers my nostrils, the music of the Soul Brothers continues to play on repeat, reminding me of the memories, love and legacy my father left behind.

Source: I found solace in the smell of cigarettes after my father’s death | CBC News