“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousand of miles and all the years you have lived.” -Helen Keller
The first time I saw the white flowers spilling over the fence, I was a child. They invited me over. As I got closer, their fragrance swirled in the breeze. After my first hello, I stood on my toes and took them in deeper, burying my face in the blossoms. My deepest rib-expanding breaths of the sweet fragrance filled me and lifted my spirit until I felt I was floating in the air. That was the first time I remember smelling anything wonderful, and that honeysuckle is magical.
I wanted to be covered in honeysuckle flowers. I wanted to weave a long chain of flowers to wear around my neck. I wanted to transform them into a perfume I could put in a beautiful bottle and spritz on myself several times a day.
They didn’t taste like honey, but there was a curious pleasure in it as it lay on my tongue. I feel like I can still remember the texture as I crushed it between my teeth. I’d pull them apart and look at the intricacies of each tiny flower: the white tendril and yellow tips. Like many beautiful things in this world, they were not without their dangers. The wasps loved them, too. I got stung, but after the initial shock of it, I still loved honeysuckle.
I never spoke about them. It wasn’t a secret; I was five or six — I didn’t have the words for my feelings. Now, many years later, I use honeysuckle scented dish soap and cleaner, and it takes me right back to those flowers that crept over the fence. The scent makes me happy. It takes me home to my childhood and a time when nothing bad had ever happened, and everything was beautiful.
Every day for the last year of this pandemic, I have been noticing scents in a new way. The post-stage of this pandemic is probably another few years out of reach, but every day I can smell. I am grateful that I probably don’t have Covid, and now, that the vaccine is continuing to protect me.
While not everyone who gets Covid loses their sense of smell, I find scents more important. They have changed me. I take deeper breaths. I wear perfume more often. I have experimented with aromatherapy and essential oils. There is this life-affirming drive I have to take to take in scents — to smell my coffee in the morning or my dog’s breath as she licks my face or pay attention to the way she smells when I give her a hearty petting.
One day, on one of those blurry who knows how many days into lockdown it was kind of days, I thought about the worst smells I ever encountered. I couldn’t figure out why they were all human smells. I immediately thought of this one man I met who was un-homed. I interviewed him for work. It took almost two hours. We were in a small conference room of an office building where the air conditioning had broken down. It was the end of July. He was hard of hearing. I had to lean in. He was hard to understand because he had so many missing teeth. I had to ask him to repeat himself, even though I didn’t want to. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he was some mother’s son. I wondered how he got to that point. He had sad, sweet eyes, but whatever compassion I felt for him, it didn’t lessen my repulsion at the odors with which he decorated the room. He struck so many of my senses. Even so, I thought I would rather have been in a room with him again than sick with Covid.
I found I am more afraid of death than I realized I would be. But more than my fear of dying, I have been fearful of long-Covid. During my last semester in college and for ten years after that, I struggled with my health. That made life difficult at best, just out of reach, at worst. They gave me the proper medications for the wrong conditions. Each five-minute HMO-doctor visit made me feel worse and more hopeless.
I was told it was stress. When it was much talked about and very new, I was told I had chronic fatigue syndrome, and then I was told that maybe it was fibromyalgia. They were controversial, actual conditions no one had to bother to treat, and which I didn’t have. I was told I would have to live with it. It took over a dozen doctors and a couple of surgeries to fix me well enough so that I could start doing my own research, demand more tests, and finally get really better.
I still remember, though not as well as I would like, the first day I felt really healthy again. I was in my mid-thirties. It was a great feeling. I was joyful. It was a relief. I felt myself again and it felt very new. I hope all those that have or might develop long-Covid will experience that day when health returns.
When I take a deep breath and smell whatever scent, I’m wearing or using to wash my dishes, I am relieved. Sure, the anxiety that I won’t be able to appreciate my honeysuckle dish soap or my lemon verbena hand soap lingers in the background, but at least not when I’m in the moment. And yet, there’s still that other shoe suspended in mid-air. For all our science, what can we count on? Will we be ready for the next twist of this pandemic or waves of pandemics? There’s only one thing we can do — treasure each day and take care of ourselves.
© 2021, A. Breslin. All Rights Reserved.