I don’t like to brag, but I am a gifted smeller. I can tell you which shelf in the fridge is harboring the dead thing before taking a single item out. When I pass a smoker outside a building, puffing away in their restricted pen, I know right away if they are smoking Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra Gold Lights, my mom and gram’s brand. And I always knew when the babies needed changing, way before my husband. Though thinking about it, that’s probably not the win I think it is.
In the hospital, there is a collision of smells. You wouldn’t think saline has a smell, but it does. Not good, not bad, just watered down slightly salty and medicinal. I smell orangey industrial soap, and the buttered popcorn we brought from home because it’s my daughter’s go-to snack right now. I bring it, but she won’t eat it here, she’s afraid she’ll eat it and throw up, and consequently ruin this current favorite food and never like it again. I should know all that by now, but I pack it anyway, just in case things change and I can get her to eat something while she’s here. Some foods, like the chicken Caesar wrap on the cafeteria menu are completely off limits. That’s her rule, not mine. But I comply and I get it. I let her be the boss of my lunch pick. She can’t be expected to deal with cancer and that smell.
On overnight stays, I can smell the chemo on her. I can smell it protruding from her pores. It’s metallic and harsh. It smells like some strong alloy that’s been heated hot and still smolders. When we come for an overnight infusion, I’ll smell the chemo all night to the point where I feel like I can taste it. I hate it. It must feel as harsh going through her body as it smells. But we don’t talk about the harshness. I’m afraid she will worry about what it’s doing inside of her besides attacking her cancer. You see, giftedness runs in the family. My daughter is a gifted worrier.
She looks frailer here than at home. She’s wearing a tank top and her purple panda pajama pants. She has her robe on, the one with the foxes wearing glasses and her tie-dye slipper boots. She forgoes her hat. At home, her hat is part of her uniform, but I guess she feels safer here. Or maybe apathetic. Or a little of both. Her eyes, always chameleon-like, are green today because of the colors in her robe. Her freckles poke through her pale skin. She’s feeling up to it, so to break the monotony and selfishly for me to score a bonus new smell, we take a walk around the hospital floor. I push her IV pole with one hand and hold her hand in my other.
As we walk, I smell Mexican food wafting in the hall. A patient’s family has brought home cooked food for their son. I’ve seen their containers in the communal fridge. As we pass the nurses station, Nurse Diana is holding an infant. Diana soothes the baby. I smell Diana’s perfume ever so slightly as we walk by. It’s pretty, just like her.
We pass the dad pushing his toddler son in the wagon that holds the IV pole. The wagons are custom made in animal shapes and are a big deal to little kids on the floor. This boy scored the frog wagon. I swear they’ve walked by our door 40 times today. I’m sure the dad’s ultimate motive is a nap, but only one of them looks tired, and it’s not the boy. I bet their room smells like baby wipes and apple juice.
We walk, maybe 2 laps, and go back to our room then finally, the chemo runs through, and fluids after that, and it’s our time to go home. For as much care as I took packing to come here, now I just hastily stuff our bags. I sniff her robe before it goes in. It doesn’t smell like home anymore, not one bit. Now, it only smells like the hospital. When we get home, I’m going to wash the hospital out of everything. I’ll wash it out of our clothes and blankets, and out of my hair. I’ll help my daughter shower. I’ll wash it all out, except for out of my memory.
Amy Graver currently works in the corporate world, and is a writer, a wife, and mom of four. Her daughter Lauren was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma at age 7. Amy’s writing chronicles the journey on which cancer has taken her family. Lauren’s cancer diagnosis imposed a new reality and a new perspective on life. She is dedicated to making the cancer experience better for future families. Amy is an enthusiast of US presidential history, she aspires to be a professional seashell collector, and is absurdly competitive about things that don’t matter.