Remembering Smell

A life devoid of smell lacks more than odor.

In the fall of 2005, my sense of smell was brutally destroyed by a silvery glob of zinc gluconate, the active ingredient in an over-the-counter, homeopathic cold remedy called Zicam. It has since been recalled by the Food and Drug Administration—a story that would have been all over the media had it involved a product that caused people to go deaf or blind. But while smell gives food its flavor and perfumes the air in spring, somehow most of us regard it as unimportant, even superfluous. Until it goes haywire.

I learned from personal experience how the brain feels about smell. Traumatized by this mortal blow to the nose, my frontal cortex unleashed its own tortured facsimile of smell: the odor of rotting corpses, burning rubber, and rotten eggs—olfactory hallucinations akin to phantom-limb pain.

My phantosmia, as the syndrome is called, lasted two months before submitting to another powerful (and again mysterious) drug that tricked my brain into thinking smell had been restored and all was well. One morning I woke up, and my head was clear. Shockingly clear. I smelled…nothing. Sipping tasteless coffee, I collected my broom, bucket, and rags, and went to work on the house. Routine chores would keep my body busy while my brain reeled with the awful implications of this new reality—this life devoid of smell of any kind, even lemon Pledge.

I’d never before considered how the drudgery of housework is redeemed and enriched by smells, their effect more subliminal but just as powerful as the tunes coming from the iPod attached to my ears. I remembered those precious moments when the smell of my great-grandfather’s books (I live in the house he built in 1880) would entice me to pluck one of them from the shelf, how I’d lighten my touch to dust the cracked leather bindings and still raise the odor of old glue and leather and paper.

Such moments were not rare, though I’d never deconstructed them before I lost my sense of smell. I sank into my great-grandfather’s wing chair, closed my eyes, and tried to summon its odor by sniffing. The chair had sat beside the fireplace for as long as anyone could remember. It had absorbed the odors of slow-burning oak and silver birch that went up like parch­ment. The smells of countless inciner­ations had seeped into the pores of its upholstery, into the feathers inside the cushion, and into the springs, and the heavy-timbered frame that sat on four clawed feet.

The wing chair was a sponge for smells. Over the years, it had acquired the slightly oily aroma of the cat hair hiding under the dilapidated cushion, now as limp as a flat tire. It still held the smell of Sweetie, our black standard poodle, when she reeked of cancer and could barely get up into the chair she used to leap into with the grace of a fawn, lounging there with her long black paws hanging over the edge of the cushion like a pair of slender silk tassels and her long elegant nose resting daintily on the soiled arm. The chair captured and held these moments, though none of them could be seen. Only smelled.

I opened my eyes. The smells, such as they were, vanished. What would my home be like now? This room stripped of its layers of fragrance was a barren cell. It would no longer delight my eye, its physical beauty having been formed by the smell of it. What did this room smell like now? How do you describe what isn’t there? Especially something that is off-limits even to memory, trapped forever in some shuttered chamber deep within the most ancient region of the brain. Like Sleeping Beauty, who can only be awakened by a certain kiss from a special prince, smell and all its attendant emotional connections lie dormant until triggered by smell itself.

This requires a working nose. Without smell, my house was a stranger to me, its visual presence mocking the richness of what it had once been. It was like the photograph of someone you love who has died. Wouldn’t you rather, until the pain has dulled a bit, put the picture away?

St. Paul writer Bonnie Blodgett is the author of the newly published book, Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing—and Discovering—the Primal Sense.