A scent can be transformative, comforting, transporting, evocative, and in some instances, worrying or off-putting. How many times has a scent taken you back to a specific moment in your life that was pleasing or distressing? A few days ago, my husband and I visited a friend who is in the hospital and as of now, it appears that person’s next destination is likely to be a hospice. When we came home, I headed straight for the bathroom to shower, as all I could smell was the scent of the hospital and the lingering swirls of the industrial strength hand wash that seemed to flit around every inch of me with every move I made.
I couldn’t scrub my hands hard enough while making the temperature of my shower hotter than usual, as a way I suppose to ward off the scent of illness, but surely not as a way to nullify our friend’s predicament. As I scrubbed and washed, I had parallel thoughts about what else could possibly be done to add days and life to our friend, while also contemplating the fragrance I would reach for once I was out of the shower.
This entire action was akin to gasping and grasping for air. I was relying on the scents of the products I was using to battle against, eliminate and prevail over the scents I was seeking to eradicate. I was twelve when we lost my great-grandmother, and there was a specific scent that wafted about the funeral church service. I couldn’t tell if it was the scent of the flowers or the church or the co-mingling of the assorted scents of the attendees. But I do know that every time I come across a scent that remotely reminds me of that day, it instantly transports me back to that harrowing time and also makes me want to run far, far away. It is a scent that I cannot describe yet recognise every single time, reinforcing the fact that my great-grandmother remains gone and fortifies my never to be realised wish for her to have been with us for a much longer time.
It is odd as well that during a specific period of my twenties, my sense of smell had abandoned me temporarily. So much so that I had an MRI to ensure that there was nothing else amiss. Then again, when that happened it was one of the most stressful and desperate times I’d ever experienced and so, the loss of my sense of smell was the defining casualty. I can’t recall when it was that my ability to smell returned but I do know that not being able to smell anything was a thoroughly baffling occurrence.
I mention that loss of scent because it dramatically polarises my recent desire to rely on pleasing scents to eliminate an onslaught of opposing ones I found distressing and wanted to rid myself of. Specifically, the cloying, renk scents that appear to be signalling the end of someone, the conclusion of a life, the transition that happens when one’s time in this realm has faded to nought.
That day in the hospital with our friend continues to hover in my head, demonstrating yet again the fact that we are finite, rather than infinite, at least in this guise. How odd that the scents from that day bother me and stand out so much more than when we’d visited our friend before, maybe because the decline is much more evident now.
I felt a tiny bit better once I exited the shower and applied lotion and fragrance. It’s irrelevant the specific things I reached for, but they managed to clear the fog of loss realised and loss impending, at least to an extent. Thinking back on that day makes me acutely aware of the absolute power of scent in our lives, punctuating our existence while threading through the requisite waves of emotional highs and lows. The ability to smell is a necessity. Not only for whimsical pleasures in relation to perfumes, scented candles, holidays, food and celebration, or for life-affirming beginnings such as weddings and babies. In this instance scent, in and of itself, is channelling an ending or a closing out of sorts.
Humans have been seeking out, blending and using an assortment of scents long before we had words to describe them, long before the advent of fragrance dictionaries and the resurging interest in blending oils and herbs to heal and to calm. Scents accompany us as we go full circle through this existence. The ability to smell is the one closely linked to our catalogue of memories. There are scents to usher us into being born and scents to usher us out when we depart this existence. Scent kept our forebears alive, protected them, warned them of danger. Scent tells us, the offspring of our forebears if something is to be avoided as we walk along a city street and reminds us to check on the stew on the stove. Scent informs us when a woman has entered into or exited a room, and in some instances, laughably warns us about the guy who is wearing far too much cologne. And in some tangled moments, such as the one that prompted me to write this post, scent provides a refuge, a much-needed cove in which to find solace, swathed in a blend of fragrant oils and flowers. So whether you’re into perfumes or not, scent is all around us, infiltrating the crevices of our lives in ways more far more indelible than we reckon.