November 25, 2012

That Smell

That smell. That sour-sweet-earthy smell paired with the bite of the mid-fall wind puts me right there on 52nd street on the north side of town.

Even as I write this, I can smell it: it's October, and I can almost feel crabapples from the Grady’s tree pop with a thud under my feet.

These were all harbingers of winter – the smell, the bite, the pop. It meant things were dying and temporarily ceding their place to make room for blankets of snow.

The dying never bothered me. In fact, I looked forward to the smell and this natural cycle that meant backyard igloos, “face washes” (courtesy of my brother) and snow days off school were on the way.

Two years after mid-October of 1988, that smell was a punch in the gut. Tears started streaming from some internal well unknown to me up until that point.

Evidently, my mom’s diagnosis of liver cancer, her struggling through it for weeks and her death one week before Thanksgiving had tied that smell to that time.

That’s when I started to hate – hate that smell and the natural cycle. So I let that smell beat the heck outta me for about five years. Then I learned to ignore it, and then finally came to live alongside it at that time of year, albeit with a muted dread.

Look, I'm no anomaly. There are plenty of folks struggling with the loss of a parent, child, spouse, marriage, job, you name it. So here’s what I know: The triggers – be it smells or songs or food – sneak up.

They choke out the tears at the most inconvenient times and you may find yourself welling up at a board meeting…or at the mall…or in the car, and before you know it you and the steering wheel have a little secret.

But the triggers also lessen as the years go by because life moves on.

Between working, raising a child to be a decent human being, nurturing a marriage, fighting off the ever-present 800lb pound woman who’s continually trying to claw her way out of me, and figuring out what day I’m supposed to be in what room wearing what clothes, life hasn’t left a lot of time for breathing in that mid-October smell.

And that’s a good thing.

The anniversary of any loss is a hard and rocky road to travel. Holidays can make the road seem even harder. But all roads lead somewhere, whether the loss happened five, ten or even twenty years back.

The road I’ve traveled since losing my mom at nineteen and then my dad in the same year Georgia was born has brought me to a place where I’m healed a little bit more.

Now I can breathe in that smell, and it doesn’t hurt as much, but most importantly, I can appreciate the aroma…and look forward to the natural cycle once again.


  1. That smell you speak of, I know it all too well. It is most pungent between October and December of every year.

    Perhaps it was the smell of my freedom after leaving a corporate job to work independently in October 2008. Perhaps it was the smell of my unbathed body that had been prodded and probed in the hospital for 7 days only one week after that.

    But the smell that I remember most is that of the grilled cheese and tomato soup my friend made me after learning of my illness that left me as an invalid for nearly a month that winter.

    It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since then. I could have allowed myself to whittle away to nothing, but instead I took the tougher road. I chose to live with more courage and brave through every step of the way to reinvent my life.

    “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” – William Ross Wallace

    Thank you Rochelle for writing this beautiful piece. Virtual hugs to you, friend.

    1. Hugs to you too, Berni. Funny how a smell can be a source of pain, but also of strength and renewal.

      Glad you could breathe in both sources...and become a real inspriation for everyone who knows you.

  2. Exactly. Having lost both parents, a close friend and my youngest brother, this time of year is difficult. I take it one step at a time. Do what feels good and have a good cry if needed.

    1. Oh, those are so many painful losses. Yes, you're exactly right: one step at a time, and don't fight the tears when they decide to make an appearance.