I’m not sure why, but my sense of smell is acute. It’s not like I worked at developing it or practiced in the off season to improve. But it’s a part of me that I’ve learned to lean into and enjoy. It helps me in my cooking and management of a kitchen. I could walk through the front door and have an immediate impression that something is wrong. Burnt black beans smell like a cigarette ashtray. I know this from experience. Occasionally if a cook tried to pass off a pot of beans that were scorched, I wouldn’t even have to taste it. I could smell the damage. And a quick spoonful affirmed my suspicions. Staff knew at that point; dump the beans and start over.
This sense might be genetic. My dad always bought mom very nice perfume for Christmas. This practice became his tradition and when I got married, I tried to carry it on with Karen but she was too frugal or shy so she would only wear it on special occasions. I tried convincing her it was paid for, and it can’t be enjoyed in the bottle on the shelf, but she still left a handful of bottles behind.
For what would be our last Christmas, I told her I was going to get her one more perfume. I asked if she would leave the others in the closet and exclusively wear the new. I wanted her to wear it constantly, and she did. Even to the first chemo treatment, I told her I didn’t want to remember the clinical smell of a doctor’s office. I wanted to remember something beautiful.
There weren’t a lot of occasions in the final months where she got dressed to go out, but she would put on a spritz of the new fragrance at home in deference to me, even though she didn’t really want to. “I don’t feel the way this smells” she protested. I defended, “Thank you. You’ve proved my point.”
In the narrative of the Old Testament, incense was used in conjunction with the sacrifices that were made to atone for the sins of the people. This involved the killing of animals, a practice with which I am familiar. Not on an altar as a priest, but as a cook on a butcher block. When an animal is drawn, its insides don’t smell very nice. Blood, gas, fecal matter all come purging out with the intestines and organs. It’s not a pretty sight, but it is a part of the food chain, and it was a part of the Old Testament worship tradition.
To address the stench, the priests would burn an incense. This was not your Nag Champa or any other stick they found at the head shop. It was a proprietary recipe with expensive ingredients that could not be used for any other purpose than the animal sacrifice. It would fill the air and mask the smell of death. When citizens would smell that particular smoke, they knew a sacrifice was being made. It became their Scent of Death. Unauthorized use would result in punishment of death. This aroma was taken very seriously.
When Karen went unconscious in her final six days, I found the bottle of perfume and told her that I was pulling out the $150 air freshener. Daily I would mist the air and her bedsheets. This was my Scent of Death. A beautiful aroma to associate with a sad moment.
Today, I keep that bedroom door closed, but when I need to, I go in and sit on the bed, smell the air and let it trigger memories. And let Grief do its thing.