As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 16, 2020. Illustration by Emma Walsh.
The last straw was when I couldn’t smell the skunk.
On a warm evening last fall, as a refreshing breeze flowed through the living room while I watched a baseball game on TV, my wife began shutting all the windows. “You don’t smell that?” Deb asked in disbelief, moving briskly to the kitchen.
“Smell what?” I said from the couch.
My sense of smell had been receding for a year or so; now, clearly, it had gone totally dormant.
Made aware of the invading odor, I hustled upstairs to close the second-floor windows. I knew from experience how bad the stink could get; this wasn’t the first time we had been skunk-bombed.
The following morning, Deb informed me that the skunk stench had given way to the heavenly waft of her made-from-scratch chocolate chip cookies, which I could only imagine. When our daughter, home for the weekend, shouted approval from her bedroom – “Cookies for breakfast!” – I felt my smell blindness acutely.
“You have to get that looked at,” Deb said, referring to my non-functioning schnoz as she handed me a warm cookie. I bit into the soft gooiness, and the one-two punch of my affliction hit home. Not only had I lost my sense of smell; I couldn’t taste anything, either.
A month later, I saw an otolaryngologist who, after shining light and shooting spray up my nostrils, prescribed oversized antibiotic pills, plus a six-day regimen of prednisone. The kindly physician assured me the intervention would do the trick, restoring at least some sense of smell in less than a week. I was skeptical; I couldn’t remember the last time I had sniffed a trace of anything pleasant or putrid.
To my astonishment, the doctor was right. Two days later, as I sat in my kitchen listening to the coffee maker’s familiar gurgles and sighs, my nose detected the smoky aroma of a favorite French roast blend. It was like reconnecting with a long-lost friend.
“I can smell the coffee,” I told Deb.
“No!” she said. She grabbed a scented candle from the counter. “How about this?”
I held the jar beneath my nose and inhaled deeply. A rush of lavender filled my head.
It was time to rediscover everyday smells, which now seemed extraordinary – the citrusy sweetness of an orange, the menthol from my aftershave, the comforting fragrance of laundry still warm from the dryer.
Beyond the joys of such here-and-now whiffs, my restored nose was poised to take me back in time, as well. Thanks to human anatomy, smell is the sense most closely related to memory. Incoming scents are processed by the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the hippocampus and amygdala, two areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional processing.
That’s why a gust of diesel fumes transports me to Dublin, Ireland, where almost 40 years ago, I rode double-decker buses to school and the pubs. Similarly, the earthy scent of fresh-cut grass places me outside my family’s yellow beach house in Narragansett in the mid-1960s, safe and happy as my dad pushes a whirring reel mower. And the unmistakable bouquet of New York System hot wieners connects me to midnight munch-outs with true-blue high-school friends by the basketball courts at Nelson Street playground in Providence.
With my sense of smell given back to me just in time for a milestone birthday, I am going to try to heed the words of golfing legend Walter Hagen: “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”
Flowers, yes. And the ocean air. A newborn’s skin. Sizzling bacon. An old baseball glove. Smoldering wood fires. My house when I return from vacation. Even the odious vapors of a skunk, for that matter.
They all remind me not to take the simple things in life for granted.