The scent of grieving

Labrador retriever
This is Kayla, who—with her person Marie—goes to the hospital and gives doggie love to nurses, doctors, and students. She’s not part of the blog post, except that many times I have sat on the office floor petting Kayla, and I know how generous a dog can be when you need love.

If I were a dog, I’d be a Labrador retriever. I live by my nose; I smell things that are apparently invisible to other humans. From my perspective as a hyper-smeller, the rest of humanity’s noses are blind. I see with my eyes, but I orient by my nose. Scent has color, form, description.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into my parents’ house after two weeks away was that I could no longer smell her.

When my mom was alive, the house always smelled like somebody was baking something yummy—apples, cookies, pie, cake—even after her illness forced her out of the kitchen and she stopped cooking. While she was alive there was a clean vanilla scent to the house, even when I marked the sour yellow of infection in her blood; even when her breath gave away how ill she was (although she masked how bad she felt with smiles); even when, at the end of her life, the sickly sweet purple smell of the poppy told a story of pain. The dominant scent in her home was of vanilla, butter and sugar.

In her life, she wore no manufactured scent (we’re all allergic) other than her soaps and lotions and creams (all scentless). The apple pie smell was simply her scent, a soft buff orange-pink color, a scent with a coral hue

Now, a month after she left us, the house smelled like my dad. It wasn’t a bad smell. It was just different. Masculine, sharp, more pungent. A brown and green scent. It makes sense. He’s filling space that her death left empty.

My home was built on the architecture of my parents, two pillars that held up my childhood and to be honest, much of my adulthood. Now my father is the only thing holding up home; he’s trying his best, but it’s new to him. He grieves mightily, and to assuage some of his pain, he made a space in the house where he can’t see her traces and tracks all the time. Her shampoos and crème rinses and lotions disappeared from the shower. Her magazines: recycled. Her bottles and bottles of medicines: gone. He moved her clothes from their bedroom to the guest bedroom.

That first night back, I couldn’t fall asleep in the echo. In the guest room I ranged like a dog, searching for her scent, whiffling desperately in the closet where her clothes hang. I felt that if I looked hard enough, I could track her, find her and bring her home. But all I found was the lingering faint scent on her clothes, and like some kind of crazed junkie, I tried to huff mom.

Insomnia drove me outside; when the panic of grief squeezes my innards, being outside under the sky calms me. The night was warm; the streets shone from recent rain, and mist halos webbed together streetlights under arching elm branches. In the distance I could hear a train—sound carries when the air is damp—and the white noise of the far away freeway.

I inhaled, slowly settling the wet, heavy vapor in the back of my throat, and I smelled…something. Not her. But yes, her.

Like sound, scent carries on damp air, makes it easier to sort the threads of odor that skein and yarn in the world. I smelled these things: the charcoal blue bass of wet pavement, the maroon sigh of wet earth, the green trace of snails in wet grass, the faint pale greenish-yellow tang of cats, a paisley crumple of crushed geranium leaves, and over the top of it all, the cream-colored layer of February flowers blooming. It didn’t smell exactly like her, but there was enough there that was like her, that smell of being, of quiet, of stillness and the grace she brought to our lives.

I’m not going to lie and say that I stopped crying in the dark. I’m not going to make this a tidy blog post with a neat transformation at the end. Because grief isn’t like that. At least not for me. But I will say that, just for a few moments—the span of time it takes for a bird to sing itself back to sleep in its nest—I was able to find some kind of comfort in the warp and weft of odors woven into this place where I grew up, a tapestry that smelled, ever so briefly, like home.

Enduring loss: Love letters to my mom

tree in snow
Lone trees bracing against the snow

There are days when my grief is too big for the house to contain.  So I rush outside before grief expands, and I try to cast it away into the dome of the sky.

Last Monday was one of those days, when I felt like the house was strangling me. I raced to get outside. We’d had a storm, and I stepped into fresh snow and a world that had gone all white. Ten inches of wet snow smoothed the landscape, cloaked the trees, and softened hard edges. The mountains were invisible; fog silvered the middle distance.

Snow fell and I reveled in the fast, fat white flakes. I’m a Bay Area girl, new to living in snow; I still think it’s magic. Once outside, I crunched and scrunched down the road and across paths and lawns ; I kicked white gouts of powder in front of me, made funny footprints, hurled snowballs that flew apart into sprays of crystals. I laughed. And then I started to cry.

One of the curious things about grief is how  closely joy and sadness are entwined. Tears often follow moments of happiness, as if joy opens a valve to a spillway and grief gouts out, rolling in sticky tears over my face.

Water through snow, with green
Water through snow, with green. Grief flows like water, surging against ice and earth.

I wandered for hours in the storm, snapped pictures while tears soaked my face (it’s a wonder they didn’t freeze!). Sometimes I bawled my head off in the silent isolation of the storm. And at some point during my long hike, I thought, these pictures will be love letter to my mom.

The images in this post are things I want to share with her, pictures that would make her laugh, or say “oh my.”  I don’t know if the dead can see the internet, but Momma, if any part of you still drifts in the ether and can see into cyberspace, these are for you.

Trees in snow
A portal of red dead trees looks out over a green pond

A cheery snowman made me laugh through my tears.

Deer statue
Garden ornament in the snow looks into the storm.

Water in spillway
Water at the spillway, waiting to rush into Angels Creek.


red bird house
My mother’s favorite color was red. She would have loved this bird house, bright scarlet against green and white.