body grief

The Scent that Never Fades

“Sir, there is nothing more you can do here. Your wife is gone. But here is what you can do,” the nurse said, “I want you to go home and gather up all of your wife’s dirty clothes. I want you to put them in a plastic trash bag and tie it up tightly.”

The first time I heard this story from a doctor colleague I paused, anxiously waiting for the rest of the narrative to be shared.

“And then,” she continued, “One day when your children are aching for their mother, when they can’t stop crying, you are going to untie that bag and take out a piece of their mother’s clothing and let them smell her again.”

It’s the scents that most startle me on the grief warrior path. I delude myself into thinking that I can control the other senses and how I engage with them. But scent? It’s wiley and can sneak it’s way in before I know what’s happening. It’s like waking up from a dream when you were visiting with your dead person(s) and for a brief moment you haven’t yet remembered how your life is now framed by their absence. Scent is a time machine. Today it’s one of the earliest smells that keeps coming up. Perhaps it’s because it’s a scent I knew for such a short time, but I’m in awe of my body’s ability to hold it sacred for so long.

Old man smell.

A mixture of some cologne, maybe Brut aftershave, and another aroma I have never been able to identify beyond “grandpa.” My dad’s dad died when I was five. My only really memories are of sitting in his lap. His smile and warm brown eyes and silver flattop. Oh! And his dentures. I used to scream hysterically as chased me around the house with those pink rimmed teeth in a glass of water. He was ornery in the very best way.

The night he died I stood in my long pink fuzzy nightgown with the frilled edging. Silently, I peered from the dark hallway into the kitchen watching my dad sob into my mom’s neck. I kind of knew what death was, but seeing my dad laid bare like that scared me. The sadness came second.

My brother and I didn’t go to the wake or the funeral. We stayed with the Michaels and played. Again, I remember watching between the wooden bannister as the parents all talked. Something big was happening but I wasn’t allowed to be a part of it.

Most of my memories with Grandpa are anchored by family photos. It gets fuzzy – do I remember this moment or is it just the photo tricking me into thinking I do? In some ways Grandpa has always been an untethered intellectual concept. Then there are times when I  am walking somewhere – in a store or down a street – and he will be right there with me. I can smell him. No yellowing Kodak snapshot playing tricks with my mind. It’s him. I stop and try to identify the source, but never find it. Embodied memories of my grandfather delivered to me via an olfactory time machine. The past suddenly my present. I’m grateful for this fleeting scent that collapses time and transports me to a parallel universe where I am five years old leaning against my grandpa’s chest enveloped by his arms and a scent that signals only warmth, safety, and love.

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