Column: 20 years of living without a sense of smell

The other night I dreamed of Bounce fabric softener. The dream was so vivid, I thought I was awake, smelling early morning laundry in a warm dryer. But when I woke up, I was still smell-blind.

I haven’t smelled anything in 20 years. Not since a surgeon, performing minor sinus surgery that went horribly wrong, vacuumed away my sense of taste and smell. To most people, a loss of smell is unimaginable — not horrible, not like going blind or losing an arm — but something they can’t imagine because they never thought about it. In some ways, my impairment is worse, because no one knows about it unless I tell them.

Its invisibility induces a kind of loneliness. I’m excluded, missing out on something everyone else gets. My lost sense of smell has changed my relationship to the world; I’m only experiencing part of the picture. I’m unaware of its dangers: a gas stove the pilot light of which has gone out, permeating the room with its odor. And its beauty: I couldn’t smell the white freesia my husband wore on our wedding day.

Because your nose distinguishes flavors, I haven’t tasted anything either, beyond sweet, sour, salty, and bitter — two of which, sour and bitter, are not even pleasant. I feel like an elderly person who craves dessert because sweetness is the strongest and most pleasing taste when you can’t identify anything else.

Food holds no interest for me anymore. Everything tastes bland. My sense of taste is like black and white film in an old camera: the camera’s light meter takes all of the brilliant colors of a meal and reads them as 18-percent grey. I crave the subtleties of a well-cooked dinner. I am aware only of the predominant sensation: instead of tasting grilled swordfish with a lime beurre blanc, I taste the sourness of the lime and think the fish has gone bad. Wine tastes like vinegar, steak tastes like shoes. It’s like having a bad head cold all the time; nothing penetrates.

I eat by textures.

In the month I spent in the hospital after the operation, when a loss of two senses was the least of my problems, I loved Jell-o for its cool, slippery texture as it slid down my throat. I was one of the few people who didn’t complain about the food. I ate it unless the texture was wrong. I couldn’t eat the leathery grey mass they passed off as turkey, the canned vegetables microwaved into rubber, the rice pudding that coated my throat like Elmer’s glue. Grapes were my favorite thing to eat that summer because they were double-textured: chilled, with a tart skin that spurted as I bit into it, and inside, a sweet, chewy center.

What matters more to me than the loss of taste is my ruined sense of smell. I’ve read that smell is the strongest and most enduring sense memory. Before the operation, I had an acute sense of smell. Standing at the ocean on a windy winter day, breathing in the salt air, transported me to the hazy days of mid-summer: coconut suntan lotion and lemonade Popsicles. The sticky-sweet smell of glazed crullers reminded me of Saturday mornings as a child, with my brothers and sisters, stuffing ourselves with warm cinnamon doughnuts. Christmas was the smell of cookies baking and burying my face in the Christmas tree and inhaling the scent of sap and pine and December cold. I miss those spontaneous scent-inspired flashes of memory.

I’m not a self-pitying person but it’s unbearable to realize that I may never again smell bread baking or the comforting odor of my husband’s chamois shirt that I slept in when we were first married. I’ve never smelled my 16-year-old son. When he was born, his pediatrician laughed and told me that not having a sense of smell could be a good thing with babies. But I never experienced his unique scent of milk, powder and baby shampoo. They say a mother can always recognize the smell of her children. I never will.

I have to imagine the mouth-watering smell of gingerbread cookies and the tang of an orange as I peel the skin. Or that first whiff of wood smoke at the end of the summer and the perfume of roses still blooming in October.

Perfume. Gone is the sensuality of an unexpected waft of perfume as a woman walked past me, my favorite perfume that lingered on a sweater I hadn’t worn in months or the musky cologne a high school boyfriend wore — the best memory he gave me while everything else about him is long gone.

For some, smell is the least important sense. They would consider themselves lucky if they couldn’t smell a baby’s dirty diaper or food rotting at the bottom of the garbage can or the body odor that clings to exercise clothes. Of course, I don’t miss those things, but I’d take them back if I could have it all.

I don’t know what effect my loss has on my writing. I’ve lost almost half of my five senses. The first thing they teach in Creative Writing 101 is, “Use your senses to make your writing come alive!” I have to rely on my memory of what things used to smell and taste like: a second-hand experience at best, like telling someone else’s story and forgetting the interesting parts.

My doctors can’t predict if my sense of smell will ever return because it involves nerve regeneration, a field they know little about. They have said that if it hasn’t come back yet, it probably never will. I try to keep my anger and bitterness locked away in a trunk and pushed back into a corner of the attic where I won’t trip on it every time I open the door.

And still, I dream of fabric softener: a brand I never particularly liked when I could smell. In my dreams, there is a huge bouquet of every smell I loved, some with faces and voices attached, some with memories clinging to them like clothes, fresh from the line. They’re waiting for me to smell them again. To be able to walk into a room with my eyes closed and my nostrils open and know who is there.

Go bury your nose in a warm neck and breathe deep.