how love smells

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I washed my hands in the restroom of a doctors’ office the other day and smelled it instantly. It lingered on my hands even after they were dry. The smell of that particular kind of medical antimicrobial soap, I will know it forever.

In a flash, for a moment, it is 7 years ago and I am back at the big sink outside the NICU, the one whose water flow is controlled by foot pedals. Or the sink inside, right next to my daughter’s tiny bed. The one only nurses are supposed to use, but which they let me use as well. That same soap. That same smell.

For a while it unsettled me to encounter it. Just over a year after my baby died in that hospital, I found myself at the sink in the bathroom of another children’s hospital in a city 2500 miles away. I had just interviewed for a job managing a research project in their NICU, and before returning to my car in the parking garage, there I was washing my hands and that smell… I almost collapsed as I watched the tears flow down my face in my reflection. In a daze I found my car, and I sat privately and cried, doubting that I was ready to be working in such a hauntingly familiar environment. Wondering if my desire to create meaning from the loss of my baby girl would be overpowered by the raw emotion of having so recently lost her. I didn’t get the job, and perhaps it was for the best. I would have been so good at it though. Good for the right reasons.

Then one day that same smell surprised me – in the moment that it went from being unsettling to comforting. It was February 2011 and I had come to the hospital to deliver the twins who had stopped growing mid-pregnancy inside me. They gave me – the grieving-mother-to-be – the largest room, the nicest room, and also the room furthest away from the other mothers (those giving birth to living children) in Labor & Delivery. I went to wash my hands at the big hospital sink and there it was… that smell. With tears in my eyes I said to my husband, “It’s the same soap.” And I just stood there and smelled it. I washed my hands at that sink many times that night, and the smell remained the strangest kind of comfort throughout.

The smell doesn’t haunt me now. Whenever I am in a medical office, I smell the soap to see if it is the same one. When I encounter it, I take the time to smell it, and I travel back for a moment and return to a time and place where my daughter is still alive. Where the possibility of her survival still exists. Where my entire purpose each day after washing my hands up to the elbows is to sit by her side and love her.

****

I keep my baby daughter’s things in a wooden chest in our home. It’s amazing what accumulates from such a short life. Not just things she touched but things that came afterwards. Like the little shrine I made in her memory for Dia de los Muertos that first fall, with three friends who had also lost their babies. Like pictures her sister drew as she navigated her own grief. Like the shirt I wore at Tikva’s blessing way when I was still pregnant, the sweater that kept me warm throughout the second half of my pregnancy, and the nightgown I wore when I delivered her.

The tiny blanket that lay over her during those weeks is in a jar, along with the hat that covered her head when we took her outside to breathe her final breaths. The stuffed lamb and the stuffed duck that lay against her fragile body are in another jar. I open those jars sometimes and take a deep inhale. The smell is the same, a little musty but so familiar. Perhaps it’s not exactly her smell, and whatever it is has replaced the familiar in my memory because I would open those jars to smell it so frequently in the months immediately after she died. Like the soap, it brings me a tiny bit closer across the divide between the living and the dead.

****

It’s been more than 7 years since she lived and died. That’s a long time. And yet there have been times during those years when her loss feels especially present. There is no rhyme or reason to why and when that happens, it usually catches me by surprise. The loss of her is very present for me right now. It’s not a stabbing pain, more like a dull gnawing to remind me. I said to my older daughter the other day, “What do you think life would be like right now if Tikva had lived?” She replied that we probably wouldn’t have my son, her brother. She’s right. We always wanted two children and Tikva would have been the second. So this little being who came and went so fast and will forever remain a baby, she will eventually come to represent something to the little boy who came afterwards, her brother.

After Tikva died, on one of the nights of our shiva, as friends and family filled our home with love and food to share in our mourning, three amazing women came through our door. Two of them had been the midwives we’d worked with during my first pregnancy with my older daughter, and it had been years since we’d seen each other. The third was an acquaintance from many years before whom I’d gotten reacquainted with when I donated some of my breast milk for her baby. I had freezers filled with my pumped milk from the two months of Tikva’s life, more milk than she was able to drink through her feeding tube, and I wanted it to go to babies who needed it. This woman who came to our shiva with our midwives was one of them. It’s hard to explain the connection you have with someone who was able to nourish her baby with the milk you pumped for your own baby who is no longer living.

She walked into our home carrying a basket of warm muffins wrapped in a beautiful napkin, and I hugged her with tears in my eyes. She did not take her basket and napkin with her when she left, and they have followed us in the 7 years since. This little basket that is perfect for small corn tortillas, and this beautiful single cloth napkin.

And you know what? It is my son’s favorite napkin. He calls it “My Napkin” and it is the only one he will use, even when it is filthy and needs washing. He throws a fit if anyone else picks it up.

And I love that. I love how it is all connected – this baby who came and went too fast, this mother I reconnected with whose baby drank my milk, this napkin that has followed us from that time and which didn’t end up in the trunk of Tikva’s things, but instead fell into the hands of my son, the one who came into our lives as the culmination of everything that began when Tikva left us.

The connection between them all is love. It’s that same connection I feel when I smell that hospital soap. It’s in the musty smell inside the jars in Tikva’s trunk. It’s the connection to love – my love, the ones I love, the love from others. The smell and the feel of love.

 

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meeting myself in time

Journey

(Artwork from the book, Journey, by Aaron Becker)

I just got back from a trip through time to my teenage years. I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my book club, and as I’ve read, my mind has jumped back to being on stage in my high school auditorium, performing in the play as Miss Maudie Atkinson my senior year. Even with my bit part, the experience made a significant imprint in my psyche – I remember feeling like I was a part of something. After four years in high school theater, I felt like this show was IT, the one with meaning, the one that everybody came to see (even the jocks), the one that moved people. I was telling my daughter about it a few weeks ago, trying to remember the names of some of my classmates who had also been in the play. This led me downstairs to one of the endless plastic bins in our basement – this one held my yearbooks and my high school and college diplomas. I brought my senior yearbook upstairs and it’s been floating around the house since. I can’t seem to get myself to bring it back downstairs.

“Look Mommy! You’re on the first page of the senior photos. You look so pretty Mommy!” my daughter said to me as she looked carefully through each portrait.

Really? I thought. That’s when I had already started gaining weight after my mom left. And my eyebrows are so bushy. I didn’t say this aloud, but it was the first thing that went through my mind when I saw myself again. I also noticed that I looked kind of sad. She said it several times over the next few weeks as she picked up the yearbook again: “You look so pretty, Mommy.” I know she meant it completely – she isn’t the type to say things she doesn’t mean.

“Take that in,” my husband said to me when he heard her say it the second time.

I sat with my yearbook over the next few days, reading the notes people had written inside its covers and pages. It’s been years, possibly decades, since I’ve reread them, and I tried to put myself in my almost-18 year old shoes to remember how they affected me then.

The words of my best friend, surprisingly unsentimental. But then again, we had only known each other for 8 years then. (That felt like centuries, 8 years, when we were not even 18.) Now all these years later, she has stood by my side and held my hand for 34 years. She knows me like only someone who has been consistently present for 34 years can know you.

Then this jumps out unexpectedly: A single message from a guy I remember knowing only barely, who nailed me probably most perfectly. I’m sure it made me uncomfortable to read at the time. Or maybe it made me feel seen. However it felt then – understanding my younger self as I do now, with the perspective of all the years that followed – he got it. The essence of his words was, You are such a giver, you care so much about others. I hope you will let them give back to you. I hope they will.

I kept reading and found this several times in the words others had written: Never lose your optimism and idealism. They are the most special thing about you. 

I sat at the dining room table with tears in my eyes. I felt as if I were sitting with almost-18 year old me, getting to know her again. Discovering how much she already was so completely the person she could only dream of becoming.

Already I was exactly who I am still. 

****

This past week I read a work of fiction written by someone who had known my father shortly after my parents divorced. They had known each other well for several years, and kept in touch in the years that followed. She had known our family during a difficult time of enormous transition, and she had known that same teenage me I had just become reacquainted with through my yearbook.

While her work was fiction, there were some familiar pieces in her story. And it took me back. Back to how it felt to be figuring out what it meant to be a family after one-fourth of our family had disappeared. Back to driving my little white VW Rabbit – anywhere that was away from home – to get some space from what felt heavy. Back to finding a home in theater, a place that gave me meaning, community, confidence. Back to eating Ben & Jerry’s at 11 o’clock at night watching reruns of Welcome Back Kotter.

But there was also this: The perspective of someone who had known not only my father, but also his daughters. She had had her own experience of me as a teenager, her own view of that younger me. Hers was another lens through which I could revisit myself, another impression of the person I had been. Just like the words of those kids in my yearbook. I was seeing me as they had seen me.

****

I felt warm towards her, that teenage me, but I didn’t feel sorry for her. Already then, she was mighty. Already then, she was finding resilience, she was finding joy and meaning amid loss and sorrow. Even then, she was unescapably hopeful. Even when she felt alone in her heart, she continued to care for those around her.

I think we can choose how we tell our stories. I have told mine in many different ways, but I don’t like the version of the abandoned daughter anymore. That one doesn’t serve me, it hasn’t for years. Neither does the one about the girl who never felt cool enough, the one who was always overly self-conscious and insecure. And the story about the girl who got fat from grief, and then overcame that anger and sadness and released the weight? That one doesn’t really speak to me anymore either. There is no victory in overcoming our pain – only the important experience of letting ourselves truly feel it, and the peace that comes out of that.

They have all been my stories, though. Even if I no longer tell them the same way, I have told them, and they remain a part of me. 

I used to feel regretful that I had wasted so much time in all those self-pitying places my soul has taken me. But I know now that this is where I needed to go. That entire sophomore year in college that I spent on the rooftop of my apartment building, feet soaking in the hot tub, writing furiously about my sorrows and my rage in a dozen journals? I had to go there too. Those journals – however depressing and endlessly circular – are also a part of my story.

What comforts me now, all these years later – here where I am surrounded by the love  of others, blessed by family and home and a life of great meaning that I dreamed into being – is knowing that she was there already, that much younger me, even when she thought she had barely begun being herself. I don’t know that we are here to become ourselves, so much as  our journey is about returning to our essence.

Maybe she is the one who traveled through time to see me. Maybe she doesn’t need me to go back in time to comfort her and tell her she will get there. Instead, perhaps she is the one with the message for me:

You are already there. You are already you. Your destination is inside you and you have been carrying it all this time.