Monday, January 4, 2010

Overwhelmed by Olfactory Hues

I have a disability. There. Now you know. But, as far as I can tell, this disability doesn't get much press coverage, and it certainly is not mentioned in the Americans With Disabilities Act. My disability is minor, but I confess that it leaves me feeling a bit—a very little bit—helpless.

Imagine your life without color or without music, and you will doubtless imagine your life deprived of some of its greatest joys. Imagine yourself with no sense of touch—that sandpaper and silk are both alike against your fingertips. Imagine that your sense of taste dissolved, making salt and sugar indistinguishable on your tongue. And now imagine yourself unable to smell; the scents of garlic and cinnamon, dumpsters and roses are nothing but empty air. Every breath, whether fair or foul, is the same.

This is the pitifully odorless world I currently inhabit. I can't smell a thing. (Don't laugh. It's rude to laugh at people with disabilities.)

Help, I am glad to know, is available in this country for people with many forms of disability. For those unable to walk, we have designated parking places and motorized wheelchairs. For those who cannot hear we have specialized classes and closed-captioned sitcoms. For those without their sense of sight we have beeping pedestrian signals and braille textbooks. All these forms of assistance are terrific, and I'm encouraged that new efforts are constantly being made to allow every American to live as well as possible. Even I, who can both see and hear, have made use of the closed captioning on more than a few occasions when the dishwasher was running and kids were hollering; and I've been brought back to attention (after staring absently out the airport windows) by that soothing female voice informing me in three languages that I am "approaching the end of the moving sidewalk." Gratitude is due to the folks who make these services available. I do mean that. But what about people like me? What federal funding has been provided for those who suffer from bouts of smell-lessness caused by differently abled noses?

Today, as I drove through the rain (And it is rain rather than snow.), I listened to Annie Dillard's descriptions of people who, following cataract surgery, had been given the gift of sight for the first time. Their reactions are varied: some are disturbed by the relentless barrage of light and color and shade, and keep their eyes shut against it. Many are bewildered by the sudden awareness of things and people beyond arm's reach—of the enormous space and size and depth they experience on every side. Others are struck dumb, enchanted by the spectacle of white and blue and green light dancing, too beautiful to be expressed in words, among the leaves of the trees overhead. But in every case, these newly sighted people were overwhelmed by the mere fact of sight. And it made me wonder what I would experience if, after a lifetime without smell, I were suddenly given that sense as an adult. Would I be repelled like the girl with her eyes shut? Or would I, like the child staring at the trees, be enthralled, inhaling breath after breath of violet-tinted air until I hyperventilated from the sheer glory of the smell?

The first time I lost my sense of smell was while I was living in our Dallas apartment. I realized one morning that I could not smell my shampoo. And then, while making breakfast, the cinnamon rolls might just as well have been water for all the aroma they conveyed to my brain. I started to panic. Thinking nerve damage must have occurred in the night, I raced through the rooms trying to smell the most pungent items I could find. Onion? Nothing. Bleach? Nada. Vinegar? Zilch. The baby's trash can? A breath of fresh air. My ability to smell was more important than I had ever realized or appreciated. And now it was gone.

Smell is surely the unsung sense. We revel in our sense of sight. Hearing is a delight that requires little explanation. A sense of touch is the livelihood of massage therapists everywhere. Taste is the subject of many a cookbook and magazine. But smell? Who really cares?

Well, I, for one, do care. The old adage, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone," is quite true. And what your high school biology teacher told you about taste being largely experienced via smell? That is true as well. When cinnamon coffee cake is merely crumbly and vaguely sweet in your mouth, you know you've been deprived of something marvelous. When salsa is reduced to a chunky, salty-sour concoction, you know that something great is gone. The scented candle burning in the kitchen yields nothing but flame. The pizza sauce simmering on the stove is only so much wet red stuff. The world is a paler place without the olfactory hues it once had. That coffee breath does not offend me, and that bottom-shelf wine now tastes the same as the good stuff is small consolation.

The sense of smell, you see, is more than merely aesthetic; it has practical value as well. When my three-year-old has to inform me that the toddler on my lap needs a diaper change, I know I've lost something useful. If the bacon is burning, I smell no smoke. To discern if the milk's gone bad, I look for chunks. My house could have a natural gas leak right this minute, and I, unable to detect it, might carelessly light a match and blow us sky high. Kaboom. My fellow Americans, is this not a true—and potentially life-threatening—disability?

I don't ask for pity (although I am thinking of starting a fund for the silently suffering smell-less population.) That I have differently abled sinuses is nothing cry about, and I'm thankful to report that my condition has, so far, been temporary. But this lamentable situation does confront me (on average) three times year. Sometimes it lasts a day. Sometimes, as now, it lasts for two or three days. Or more. Always it happens at the end of a head cold; following a week or so of sinus congestion I can breathe freely again, but I can still smell nothing. And nothing, my friends, is a terrible thing to smell.

After a day or two, I expect I'll be stopping to smell the roses once again. But in case I'm not, I suppose I'll be visiting our family doctor for his professional opinion. (And if you're reading this, dear family doctor, when you see my name on your appointment schedule, you'll now know why it's there.)

The bright side of all this is that, as a consequence of these episodes, I've come to genuinely love this underappreciated sense. Smell, like the other four senses, is a wonderful gift, worth giving thanks for daily. I can stand in the kitchen where bread is baking and find joy in simply breathing. The woodsy scent of Christmas tree needles wooshing into my vacuum cleaner gives me chills. Nutmeg makes me giddy. Even the foul odors are a blessing to me now, because the truth is, after days of smelling nothing, nothing stinks.


Carissalayla said...

well I wear contacts and I am getting my ears checked next week , my hands always have eczema so I can't feel well, but I can smell like a police dog, it freaks my husband out, I wish I could share with you!

personnel said...

I must say you write as well as anyone I've ever read. You have talent.

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