When I was a little girl and in the scouts, whenever we went camping in the fields in our village there were always stray dogs wondering around. I used to be terrified of them whenever they got near me. I couldn’t help it. My leaders at the time used to warn me to not let them see or smell my fear. They said animals have a strong sense of smell and they can smell fear and that makes it worse.
Smell! Of all the senses we possess I think smell is the one that we most associate with certain feelings and memories. When I was a teenager, and living on campus during my University years, the whole country was ravaged by civil war. On the nights when there was bombing and gunfire nearby, and people were screaming and shouting and it was too scary for me to go to sleep I used to dream of home. I used to wonder what my parents and my siblings were doing at the time. More specifically in my mind I used to try and smell my mom’s cooking and guess what the house could have smelled of. That would sort of calm my nerves a bit.
Later on when I got married and had my own family the only way I would know that my cooking was as good as my mom’s was if the food I cooked smelled the same way as my mom’s had done years ago.
But sometimes some smells upset me so much so that I still get shivers whenever I remember, especially the smell of hospitals. Now I don’t why or how it started. But again in University when on some days the food in our cafeteria on campus was almost inedible, my friends would suggest eating in the hospital’s cafeteria across the road. Because it was cleaner and tasted better. At times I went along with them. But there was something about those long and empty corridors, the quiet rooms and the people inside, and the way they smelled.
Years and years later when I had to accompany my husband to the hospital for his treatments I would again feel disturbed in much the same way. I would wonder what these patients thought and how they felt. Whether or not they knew they were dying and what they dreamt of and wished for. And I would have goose bumps.
The day came when we were in the hospital and the doctor told me that my husband had only days to live since his liver was failing. And I don’t know what happened at that moment. All I remember is that I could not breathe and found myself out in the parking lot. It was freezing out there, but it was better than the smell of medicine and the heat inside. I stood and watched people arrive and leave. What a dreadful, horrid place.
Inside in his room, I don’t know what I thought or how I felt before those hours passed. I can’t remember, I was numb. The only thing I remember is my trembling hands, the lump in my throat and the smell of his clothes before putting them in his backpack to bring home with me. The smell of hospitals, of strong medicine, of death.
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.” Marcel Proust