Scents and Sensibility

When my ability to smell breaks down, I feel dislocated, like someone moving through a parallel but paupered universe

One morning, a few months ago, I woke up and smelled the coffee.

That is not a metaphor.

And it's worth noting because there have been long periods in the past 15 years when I could not smell the coffee, or the onions caramelizing in the pan, or the yeasty bloom of rising bread.

I have anosmia. It's a plumbing problem: when I get a bad cold that escalates into a sinus infection, polyps populate my nasal passages so thoroughly that even the tiniest olfactory neuron can't wiggle through.

There's a solution for this: I can gulp a two-week course of oral steroids that make me jumpy and flushed, and that require a small spreadsheet to manage the dosage—two pills thrice on day one, one pill twice on day seven, etc.

The prednisone works; within a few days, my nasal corridors are open for business. Odor storms back in all its redolent glory: ginger and basil, chocolate and lemon rind, chlorinated mist rising over the hot tub at the gym, sour plume of garbage as the truck rumbles up my street.

For a while—a few weeks, a few months, or longer, if I'm diligent with my regimen of nightly nasal rinses and lucky enough to escape another bad cold—I ride a wave of gratitude for everything that has a scent. I uncap the cinnamon, the Tahitian vanilla, the Pinot Noir, and take deep, blissful draughts.

I savor the ebullient pop of a peeled Cara Cara orange—it smells like Florida—and let the scent linger in my palm. I pause outside the bakery, loving its warm, sweet wheatiness, and stop to drink in the dusky perfume of patchouli as I pass the import shop.

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I smell our back yard lilacs, and smell them again, just because I can. And because I know this loveliness won't last. The next bout of congestion—sniffles, sinus infection, allergic reaction to April—might slam the door on smell.

When that happens, there's no way to jack up the volume. I manage my middle-aged presbyopia with a pair of $10 reading glasses; I can dial up the sound on Netflix or ask someone to speak a bit louder. But smell is a binary toggle—on or off, a teeming, scented world or a blank, odorless page.

With my olfactory disability comes dependence: I rely on my partner to sniff the soy milk (and my T-shirt) for freshness; I set a timer on the tray of granola, because my nose will not tell me when it's crisped. I double-check to see that I've turned off the burners, because we could all asphyxiate before I'd smell a gassy leak.

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Get ready: What's happening to me will happen to you, to all of us, if we live long enough. The senses dim. The tender knobs of the inner ear grow less acute; it's harder to tease the conversation from the background buzz. Pupils shrink in size. Taste buds die off—which explains why my Pop-pop, in his 80s, doused his food, shrimp as well as scrambled eggs, with blobs of ketchup. Age, frailty, reliance: it's not another country, just the next street over, the neighborhood where we fear to tread.

Is that why my mother, whose age I am not permitted to mention, says, after visiting the "independent living" facility, "I don't want to live with a bunch of old people!" Is that why we tease ourselves that "60 is the new 40"? And when the next scheduled round of drugs—perhaps this summer, before a long-awaited trip to Japan—scrubs out those nasal passages, will I remember, as I inhale the umami scents of fresh soba and hot sake—that I am the same person who, just a week earlier, couldn't smell a thing?

When olfaction breaks down, I feel dislocated, like a person moving through a parallel but paupered universe. Everyone else at the street fair is gushing over grilled corn and honey-roasted nuts, while I detect … nothing. And unlike the blind woman with her white-tipped cane, or the hard-of-hearing man with flesh-colored nubs tucked into each ear, my anosmia is invisible.

"It smells so good in here!" a friend says, arriving just as the challah is about to come out of the oven. "Mmm … that smells great," remarks my housemate as I sauté ginger and broccoli in the cast-iron pan. It's easier, sometimes, to pretend—"yeah, doesn't it?"—rather than remind myself of the yawning chasm where scent used to live.

When smell leaves, it drags suitcases of memory with it. And when the steroid regimen works, those bags return, unzipped and spilling with particulars: elementary school, purple mimeos, sawdust sprinkled in the hallway to mask the curdle of a child's vomit. College, with its greasy pizza, sheepskin condoms and scorched coffee. The vial of essential oil called Portland Rain that, with a single sniff, can catapult me back to the women's bookstore where I learned to say "lesbian" out loud.

Where do those memories live, during the times when I cannot smell? Are they tucked into the mille-feuille of me, a layering of every previous age and experience? My daughter loves to disavow her former self—"I never liked that stupid TV show," she'll declare about the comedy she binge-watched at age ten. But I believe the child who counted "fourteen, fifteen … nexteen" and called our kitchen "the chicken" is still tucked in there somewhere, beneath the eyeliner and the skinny jeans.

Recently, because of a typographical discrepancy—a hyphen mistakenly inserted in her last name—my daughter had to complete a "one and the same" form, attesting (with a bank officer's signature) that, hyphen or not, she was a single, intact individual. Nowhere in the fine print did it note the whiplashing changes of the teenaged years, the experiments in identity and skirt length, the mornings when I barely recognize the person who clatters down the stairs.

Walt Whitman got it. "I am large; I contain multitudes," he wrote in 1855. "People aren't just one thing," said the actress Taryn Manning ("Orange Is the New Black") in an interview 160 years later. Of course. So why do we have such a hard time embracing all the different iterations of ourselves—including those yet to emerge?

When I came out as a lesbian, my mother wept because she feared she'd lost me. I tried to convince her that I was the same person I'd been before my declaration, before I kissed a woman for the first time. It was true. And it was a lie: I felt transformed, all atilt with clarity and desire. I am one and the same; I am changing, every second. Who knows what deficits and gains will up-end my sense of self in the decades that remain?

My ebb-and-flow olfaction may be good practice for the rest of my life: a minor loss (but a loss just the same) that hones my gratitude for what I can still grasp. An unpredictability that bold-faces the reminder to savor the moment, this moment: my head on the pillow, birdtweet in the maple tree, the smell of coffee—earth, caramel, chocolate suede—in the ropy darkness before dawn.

Tags: well being