She smells different.
It isn’t a bad smell. It’s not foul or unpleasant. But it isn’t her.
When you live with someone, sleep with someone, share space with someone for 20 years you know their smell. You know what they smell like after a shower and you know what they smell like when they are sweaty and underlying both you know their basic odor and you respond to it on a monkey brain level It’s the olfactory equivalent of being able to pick out someone you know by sight in a crowd.
Now suddenly the chemicals in her body have changed things. The battle that is being waged inside her has changed her chemistry, as it is changing her physiology. I smell a different person when I am near her and it sends confusing signals. There is a little olfactory jolt as the scent hits my nostrils and something far back in the processing part of the brain sends up a red flag. Just for an instant neurons get crossed and conflicting signals get sent to the higher centers of the brain. Something isn’t matching expectations and gets flagged for scrutiny and it feels like a little electric jolt when a little alarm goes off in my head saying “Something’s not right – this needs conscious scrutiny!”
It’s easy enough for the conscious me to figure out, but the precocious continues to get caught by surprise. The pathways of that particular scent, unique and cherished, have been worn as smooth and rounded as pebbles in a stream over the years and the back brain doesn’t quite know what to make of it, so I have to think about the way she smells, identify the odor and connect it to her, actually pay attention to matching scent to person.
In the middle of the night when I come back to bed, the smell of her used to be one of the things that I enjoyed as I fall back to sleep. Now there is an oddness to it, and after only a couple of weeks I am just not used to it yet. Instead of a comfortable smell, associated with so many, many good memories over the years, it’s as though I come back and find a strange person in my bed and a little part of my brain actually has to wake up in order to figure out who that person is.
It’s not the end of the world, of course. It isn’t a catastrophe. On the scale of things it is very small. But cancer, I’m learning, is like that. At first it seems like it is all blind panic and big decisions concerning treatment and money. But as things progress towards the second treatment cycle the tempo of the disaster slows down, and there is time to notice the smaller changes. Some of these catch you by surprise – like her change of scent. It has no appreciable effect on our lives, but it is a frequent reminder of what is going on, and one more odd little quirk to get used to.
I hope that maybe someday others may read the saga of Lump, and that it might be helpful or informative to someone else. So I try to document the big and the little, because they can both be surprising, and surprises are the last thing that anyone supporting a cancer patient needs to be dealing with. For me this is a little thing… but a little thing that is big, potentially huge. That comforting scent, mine for so many years, taken from me now when it would be such a balm.
Sometimes the smallest things are the hardest to lose.