Maybelle smells like a seven-year-old child. She'll run through the playground and come back with dirty sweat. Sometimes she has an accident, and I have to clean her. When she uses crayons to write her name, I can smell the wax on her fingers. After her bath, she'll let me have a long hug, and I can press into her and smell her sweet body. I love every aroma from her.
But every other week, I'm at the cancer center. I hate the smell. It makes me want to throw up. God, it's repulsive.
I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2009. The tumor has resulted in two surgeries, a cabinet full of medications to be taken daily, radiation treatments, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy. My tumor keeps growing and needing more serious treatments. For the past six months, I've been regularly receiving an intravenous infusion of chemotherapy drugs. They always leave me exhausted. In the minutes and days after, I struggle with nausea and diarrhea.
But what gets to me is the smell.
When I walk into that cancer center, I can't escape the smell. The medical team is kind — always, consistently kind — but they scrub themselves and my body in ways that make me feel sick. When they thrust the large needle into my chest, it's so painful that I gasp. But immediately I can smell the loop of plastic tubing as they insert it. The pain quickly recedes, but the smell remains.
I feel more and more sickened by this process. There's an especially intense odor of cleanliness and antibiotics at the center. It's filled with so many of us, lying on chairs that are supposed to be comfortable, watching TV, sleeping. And as I walk by, each person is being filled with toxic chemicals, just as I am. They each have their own smells. We're all repulsive.
When I walk into the bathroom, rolling my infusion pump behind me, I smell the soap and feel sick. I fill my hands with the liquid by the sink and begin to wash my hands. It turns into an act of rage, rage that covers the sadness. I look in the mirror and think about Maybelle.
In the mornings when I'm preparing for my chemo, I dress in loose jeans, a soft T-shirt, cotton underwear. My clothes are clean — washed, comfortable. After treatment, I go home and immediately take all of those clothes off. I throw them in a corner far away from me. I don't want to be near that smell. If I weren't so exhausted, I'd wash my skin and my hair.
In the middle of the night, hours after I return home from chemotherapy, I'll wake up and go look at Maybelle in bed. I bend over to kiss her and smell her breath. I also notice the scent of my own body, the smells of chemo drifting away. They're so faint I'm the only person who notices them. That smell mixes with Maybelle's. The chemo is there, but Maybelle is there, too. I want her scents to continue.
Maybelle is a seven-year-old girl who has Down syndrome, so speaking is often difficult for her. To make matters worse, I've started having my own struggles with talking. The last time I had chemo, Maybelle and I were reading a book. I was so tired. I began to have trouble reading. She started to guide me through each line, going through the book that she's been taught at school. As the weeks progressed, my troubles have continued.
This is why smell is such a significant part of my life. It is something I can still do. Sometimes it offers something distant and repulsive. Sometimes it offers something comforting, like a growing child who loves to play and get dirty, my Maybelle.
What I want is to have a life with her and her smells. And I want her to have a warm, loving life when mine goes.