Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Smell of Colors

I once worked with a child who said that he could smell colors; I was intrigued by his claim and asked him to tell me more about it – how he’d first noticed it (“I just did,” he said) and what each color smelled like to him (interestingly, I thought, white smelled like flowers, whereas I thought it would smell like the “fresh cotton” scent of an air freshener).  Some of the other people who worked with this child seemed to think his behavior was bizarre, but I thought it was fascinating.

Obviously I can’t tell other people how a certain color smells, but what I can do is to describe what certain emotions sound like. 

On the first night after we’d gotten to Durham when we took my dad to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke, my sister Jennifer and I lied down to try to sleep on the pull-out couch in the little room that adjoined with the bedroom where my parents were. Dad, who was both exhausted and wound up from the very long, tedious drive there that day and somewhat disoriented about what was going to happen the following day, had finally gotten to sleep, and Jennifer and I had only then realized that all of the pillows and blankets were in the closet of the bedroom.  We didn’t dare go in there for fear of waking Dad up.  We lay there on the thin, spring-violated mattress with a threadbare sheet over us, without pillows for our heads, and suddenly we both started laughing.  Punch-drunk is what I guess it’s called: laughing when essentially nothing is funny - out of fatigue so thick we could hardly think – and stress and terror and so many more things that felt so much more powerful than we were at that moment in time.  We had to keep shushing each other until we finally giggled ourselves to sleep that night, with the laughter somehow helping us to steel ourselves for the next day, which was both Jennifer’s birthday and the first day Dad got chemo.

The metaphor that comes to mind most often when I think about my emotional state during the time Dad was sick is a glass that’s completely full: whenever anything additional was added to what was already in there, the overflow was out of my control, and I was completely incapable of handling it.  One of the many things that happened during those ten weeks that threatened to put me over the edge was the car trouble that mysteriously started happening just after Dad’s diagnosis.  Just days after his surgery, I remember hearing a faint buzzing noise coming from under the car hood after I'd parked and taken the key out of the ignition.  My husband checked it out and said that it seemed like the battery was still running, despite the fact that the car wasn’t.  He took it to the repair shop, but they couldn’t get the problem to reoccur while it was there.  It didn’t happen again for about a week; the next time I heard the buzzing noise, I was in the parking lot at the rehab hospital, about to go inside and take an overnight shift with Dad. 

I was torn; I needed the car because I had to drive back home to go to work the next day, but I needed to be with Dad.  In a move that seems totally uncharacteristic for me, I threw caution not just to the wind but completely into outer space and left the car – and the buzzing – in the parking lot and went into the hospital.  Since my dad’s diagnosis, my priorities had never been clearer.

The next day when I went outside to the parking lot after Mom had come back to be with Dad, I unlocked my car door and tried to start the engine.  Nothing.  The battery was obviously dead.  Luckily for me, my aunt, who was at the hospital too, offered to help; we called AAA and they sent a repair guy to check it out.  He replaced the battery, and, when the same incessant buzzing sound started up again as soon as he connected the new one, he told me to get the problem checked out to be sure it wouldn’t happen again.  I took the car straight to the dealership near the hospital, but they couldn’t find a problem; they said they’d disconnected and then reconnected the battery and the buzzing noise had stopped. 

Looking back and remembering the amount of stress I was under at the time, I’m a little surprised that I didn’t just tell the people at the dealership to keep the old car and bring out a new one for me; having to deal with car trouble on top of everything else was definitely an overflow of the stress with which I was equipped to cope.  Instead, though, I drove the three hours home and told my husband what had happened (again), and he showed me how to disconnect the battery under my hood and gave me a yellow-handled wrench to keep in the side pocket of my car door, just in case. 

Just in case was a language in which I was fluent by that time.  I’ve always felt the need to have plans and back-up plans, and, since Dad had gotten sick and had begun to need around-the-clock care, I knew that careful strategies and consideration of all the variables was essential to my entire family.  Having to tote a yellow-handled wrench around did not at all – pun intended – put a wrench in the plans we had laid.

A couple of days later I drove back to where my parents lived and parked my car in front of their house.  I heard the buzzing again after I’d turned off the engine, and I inexpertly used the wrench to disconnect the battery. I became much smoother at the process over the next couple of weeks, even performing the procedure later in snow and in the dark.  On the day when I was driving home from my parents’ house on icy roads and had to turn back due to the route being impassable, I pulled up in my parents’ driveway, stepped out of the car, and heard the buzzing again.  In the snow and ice, I hurriedly used the wrench to disconnect the battery and then closed the hood of the car and went inside, wet from the snow and shaken from the precariousness of the road conditions.  Dad, who was sitting in his red leather recliner chair in the den, looked up from reading the newspaper when I walked in and noticed the wrench that I’d forgotten to put back in the car in my hand.  When he asked and then I explained why I’d needed the tool, he laughed and said, “Well, if the whole OT thing doesn’t work out for you, I guess you could always be a mechanic.”

When Dad was in the hospital the last time and my family was having to deal with getting to and from the hospital on icy roads at all hours of the day and night, I got so adept at disconnecting and reconnecting the battery that I could do it in the hospital garage in under ten seconds each time.  I ignored the stares of the people around me in the garage and declined the help of the security guard who saw me with the yellow-handled wrench and my car hood propped open.  The battery hookup/unhook became part of my commute routine, just like defrosting the windows and driving through Sonic on the way to the hospital to get Dad a Diet Coke.

I still sometimes think about the boy who said he could identify colors by their smell, and it makes me think that maybe part of the reason I made it through the difficulty of the time when my dad was sick and since then is that I somehow recognized that, because my family is lucky, we had the sound of laughter to remind us of the love and hope and devotion we shared even through the most challenging times.