Photo Art by Michael Dooley
It was the smells I thought I could never forget. The deeply awful smell of her house those last years. My beautiful, fastidious mother didn't always dwell in a house of pong. It crept up on her as insidiously as the dementia it rode in on.
Through the decades, her house smelled of baking bread, of her peonies and roses, of Tide detergent and Ivory soap, of mint meringues and brisket, of the lipstick and soft leather coat she wore. So intent was I on preserving the independence and privacy she treasured to the point of desperation, I missed the sly, sinister creep of her final illness. By the time I became undeniably aware of how craftily the stink had usurped all the other smells and taken ownership of her home, it was too late.
She would not allow me to do even the simplest cleaning for her, and only at my insistence did she allow someone to come in to clean every three weeks. When, at wits' end, I baldly asked how the house could smell so bad if someone was coming in to clean, she retorted she had asked, and her housecleaner said she didn't smell anything. What else would she say to the nice old lady who employed her when her cleaning skills appeared to be so limited? Mom intimated she only kept Janet on because Janet needed the money, and to silence me. Mom did not like having someone come in to clean. "I have to clean up all the clutter just so she can clean," and "I don't like having someone in the house for three hours." It slowly dawned on me that Janet may not have lacked skill, but like me, the will to break Mom's resistance.
On the day the smell became too much for me, I put my foot down, almost through the floor. I would clean the half-bathroom off her bedroom. She was furious. Her rage shocked me; we had never exchanged a single cross word. She was a devout peacekeeper whose mantra was, "Life is too short to be little." As I gathered cleaning supplies, I wondered whether I was about to inflict mortal damage on a lifelong ideal mother-daughter relationship. It made me unspeakably sad, and it seemed unspeakably unfair. I did it anyway. I could not do otherwise.
The privacy of my parents' bedroom had been sacrosanct since my earliest memories. They went so far as to post a sign: No One Under 21 Admitted. My father was gone 15 years and I was closing in on three times 21 when I breached that doorway with a can of Comet and bottle of Windex.
I'd not been in that bathroom in decades. The stench shoved me back a few steps. What I saw sent me reeling with incredulity. My mother? My mother? My MOTHER? There on the floor, resting on the heat vent, lay several Depends. Used. Put there to dry, and presumably reuse. My practical, frugal, never-waste-a-penny mother, gone to an unimaginable extreme.
What to do? I wanted to scold her within an inch of her life, but of course I wouldn't. Anything I tried had to be based on preserving her dignity. I scrubbed the bathroom top to bottom while she fumed in the kitchen. My eyes smarted from the ammonia that seemed intent on strangling me, from the cleaners and from the ossified Depends. It fingered its way into my stomach, and I thought briefly what a good thing I was already leaning over a toilet. How, how had we come to this? And too late the lesson: I could not apply it again. I could only lose my mother once. But dementia would ensure a very long goodbye, taking her one brain cell at a time.
I went to the store, bought enough economy-size packs of Depends to last a year, and stashed them in a cubby only inches from the toilet. "Use these," I said. "Once. Once. Okay? Money is not an issue."
More silent glaring. Surely I was allowed to lose it, for a fleeting three seconds? "You're busted," I hissed, implying there'd be more inspections, then turned away and re-stowed the cleaning supplies. When I turned back, I was able to soften enough to say, "Really, Mom. Use them just once. Promise me. I don't ask anything of you." That seemed to hit a chord, at least in the moment. Not too much later, the director of nursing at the care facility we chose told me that what Mom had done was common behavior among those raised during the Depression.
But the house continued to stink. She finally agreed to let a plumber in, who pronounced the smell was coming from sewer gas in a bathroom no one had bathed or showered in for years. For a short while after, Mom would run the water in the bathtub every day. It made little difference other than holding me off for a few more weeks. Eventually, inevitably, she fell, broke an ankle, went into rehab that illuminated the need for 24/7 care, and never returned to her home again. And then the rest of it all fell to me.
The miasma of an old, airless house permeated the walls and the carpets and the upholstery, mattresses and bedding. The closets stuffed with every dress she'd worn in the last 40 years and some long before that. Sixty pairs of nearly-identical shoes and their decades of foot tang in a resigned heap. Shelves of cloth-covered books unopened since the 1940s. Drawers stuffed with plastic bags and padded mailers, ankle-deep when emptied and smelling of their long-ago contents. The moldering soap slivers, the petrified cosmetics. Fifty-seven years of musty check registers. Through the year it took me to clear the house for sale, I sometimes thought I would die of the smell. I couldn't stay in it for more than a few hours at a time. It made me ill in both body and soul. The sense of smell is the gateway to the sense of taste. It warns of danger, or poison or rot, of things you should not put in your mouth. I couldn't smell those overpowering odors without tasting them, gagging on them.
You cannot live in stench like that for a year and not feel despair and resentment. Not feel it eat part of your life, in the moment and in your what-used-to-be happy memories. You can be as understanding as can be of old age and dementia and loss, the losses accumulated during a lifetime, but the stink will have its way with you sooner or later. My thriving career dwindled to near-nothing. A dangerous distance opened up between my husband and me. I avoided friends who never had and never would spend a single day caring for an aging parent; the depth of what they didn't understand became unnavigable. I wrote about myself as an old air mattress with a slow leak I couldn't pinpoint.
On Dad's last December on earth, he'd just been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would kill him. He was on morphine, could not drive, could not be left alone. He could not go out and buy my mother a birthday present. He asked me to buy a bottle of her favorite perfume, Shalimar, so he could give her a gift. I pointed out she already had a half-full bottle. He couldn't think of anything else. Or did he know it would be something of him she could keep the rest of her life? He begged me to do it. I did. I could not do otherwise.
As I was clearing out the second-to-last room she lived in, at the care facility that had been home for four years, I had to downsize even that small private space to move her to a shared space with a higher level of care. I had to get rid of most of her clothes, wall decor, even an accumulation of stuff in her one desk drawer distastefully reminiscent of what I'd gone through cleaning out her house. How had she managed to do it again, accumulate so much crap, even in a nursing home? I swept unopened birthday cards, dried-out exercise bands, crusted pens, an old coin purse, all into the trash. The now-20-year-old bottle of Shalimar was there, a scant half-inch of liquid still left in the bottom. I doubted the bottle had been opened in many years. My hand moved toward it, prepared to toss it out with the other trash. But I hesitated.
I lifted the pretty bottle, as familiar to me as my hand itself. Mom had these bottles of Shalimar on her dresser my whole life, the only fragrance she ever wore. I tugged on the cap; it resisted a bit, but gave in, arthritically. The scent filled the air, taking my whole face gently in its embrace.
It smelled like my real mom, the one I wanted to remember. The stylish mom in the raspberry sweater sets, the beautiful mom of the red Helene Bishop lipstick playing Ivanovici's "Waves of the Danube" on her beloved spinet piano. The adored-grandmother-of-my-children mom.
I turned to the immensely kind nurse who was helping me clear the room.
"I'm not ready to give this up," I said.
She nodded, noting that smell can be a powerful trigger of memories—bad and good.
When Mom dies just a few months later, I clear out her living space for the final time. Throw out more stuff. Give away all her clothes. I'll bring home her photos and artwork and little else.
Ninety-one years of life, ending in a double room in a nursing home where her roommate slept through the whole thing.
But that bottle. I'm still not ready to give it up.
Because that bottle, that fragrance, will be what finally heals me from the trauma of all those other smells.
I wedge the bottle into the cupholder of my car's console. I thumb the stopper off. The essence of Shalimar, bergamot and iris and vanilla, rises to join the sunshine pouring through the windshield. On this, the first motherless day of my life, she rides home with me.