March 25, 2008


This afternoon at work, as I walked by the coffee pots, I smelled something. Something different and not at all office-like. It wasn’t the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Or that of a steaming hot mug of Earl Grey tea, or hot chocolate with a dozen miniscule marshmallows bobbing about. I can’t completely describe what the smell was, only that it was familiar. And unpleasant.

Yes. The smell. That smell. Of stale coffee, microwaved Cup-O-Noodles and anti-bacterial hand soap combined with the stench of uneaten hospital food, freezer-burned ice cubes for making ice chips, and pink plastic pitchers. And suddenly I was there. At the oncology floor of Stanford University Hospital in 2002. In an instant I was transported to the kitchen, where caregivers would come to grab a popsicle for their father, mother, sibling or their not-really-a-boyfriend-but-I’m-sticking-by-him-through-this-because-I-love-him. Where caregivers could escape the rhythmic inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale sounds of the pump as it dripped a toxic but necessary concoction into their loved one’s veins. Sometimes I would come into this haven and want to cry. But I never did. Someone might see me and my reputation as “a rock” would be shattered. And we couldn’t have that, could we?

Depending on that day’s menu, I’d often inspect the neglected food trays to see if anyone left their Oreo brownie. (Nearly every day, I’d have nothing to eat but a Nuts Over Chocolate Luna Bar and a grande nonfat latte.) Most of the time I came up empty in my quest for the bland chocolate squares. But the Jello cup was still there. (How is it that hospitals can even make Jello taste worse?) And maybe there would be some mashed potatoes, or a wilted salad left on the plate. No thank you. I avoided the anti-microbial and liquid diet entrees. Nothing exciting on those trays. On the rare occasion that I did find an Oreo brownie or two, I horded them like a Chipmunk storing nuts for the winter. I never ate them though.

Since I had the 6 pm to 7 am shift, my caregiver uniform was a pair of pajamas. The pants were covered in a tiny leopard print and the black tank top had a cat appliqué made of the same print. I shuffled across miles of that plain white linoleum tile in my puffy leopard Dearfoam slippers. Rawr. Caregiver disguised as fierce feline. Oh, and that fashionable pilly gray fleece I wore. Why are hospitals so cold? How many times I asked that.

Some nights, if he was allowed, I would bring him food from the Outback. A baked potato couldn’t hurt, but stay away from the skin. Most of these fancy Outback dinners, barely picked at, wound up in the fridge on our very own shelf. Inevitably the square Styrofoam boxes wound up in a pile in the garbage can because of his vanishing appetite. But popcorn was always welcome. And it went nicely with American Idol. Some nights were 2 baggers.

For a second today I remembered the feel of the stiff white sheets on my makeshift bed (which was no more than a pink vinyl chair that collapsed flat). I felt the coldness against my shoulders. The unforgiving “mattress” that made slumber nearly impossible was more like a box spring. Those sleepless nights are long gone.

Those days were a lifetime ago. And I have worked to lock these memories in a part of my mind where I am safe from them. But today I was back there. Back in those dark days, all because of my keen sense of smell.

9 people have roominated about “Olfaction”

  • Dagny says:

    Smell is the strongest of sensory memories. Or so I have been told.

  • Saj says:

    I think that there is a “hospital” smell. Nothing to do with the food, but just a smell that is forever burned into my brain. Never mind that I’m in a hospital 2-4 days a week! Sometimes I feel like I’m oozing the smell. Ick.

  • mil says:

    back in the “olden days,” i went home for lunch every day. and nothing makes me think of my home and says “mom loves me” more than the smell of tomato soup. oh, and fresh home-made rolls. i am 10 all over again.

  • Laurel says:

    What a lush–if sad–memory. Thanks for describing it so wonderfully.

  • sizzle says:

    This was beautifully written. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Annie says:

    I’ve been in that place. Not a nice one, but I know that your special someone appreciated you being there.

  • I too, hold a list of caregiving smells inside me.

    Hospital disinfectant, the plasticy aroma that wafted from an opened medical supply tub, the metally smell of Betadyne. My mother was in an out of the hospital (Parkinson’s, heart disease, and finally, Alzheimer’s).

    At home, I tried to counteract those smells–open windows with curtains flowing back and forth, pinesol when needed, homemade chicken dumplings, a gardenia in a water glass…

    Our smells define us. Remind us.

    My mother will forever be White Shoulders.

    Thank you for your post and all it conjured.

    ~Carol D. O’Dell
    Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir,
    available on Amazon

  • Mandy Lou says:

    It’s a powerful sense – the smell of my grandmother’s “care facility” still haunts me. Nice post.

  • 180/360 says:

    I have super olfactory powers, too. I’ve spent my life associating smells with moments. I could definitely smell the hospital while reading this. They hold such a bevy of unpleasant scents.

    I bet you were a fierce caregiver.

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