Scents of Life

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Katie walked hand-in-hand with her grandfather along the forest path. Dappled light filtered through the trees. She liked the roughness of his hand in hers and the way his eyes always seemed to smile, even when it didn’t show on his face. Whenever she stumbled over a stone or a root or her own feet, he steadied her with a grip that was still firm and strong.

He stopped along the trail and pointed to dandelions growing in a sunlit circle among the trees. Yellow petals crowned green stems ending in spiked leaves. Some flowers had already changed to puffs.

He bent to take a handful of stems, then held the flowers to her nose. “Their scent isn’t as strong as some flowers,” he said.

She grinned and then blew on them, sending a cloud of seeds into the air. Closing her eyes, she inhaled their aroma. They smelled faintly sweet, and there was something else, like the scent of cut grass. A noise like angry bees grew in her ears.

“Danny,” she said.

The sound of the mower sputtering to a halt in the front yard made Katie’s heart pound faster. Any moment now, her father would come to the backyard where she sat with Danny. High in the cloudless sky, the sun shone down, warming her face.

Smiling at the boy beside her, she held a dandelion to his face and said, “Make a wish before you blow.”

He shut his green eyes and blew, sending puffs swirling.

Before he could get away, she leaned in and kissed him. He gasped, opening his eyes, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“What did you do that for?” he asked.

“Because I felt like it.”

Danny put his fingers to his lips. A smile crinkled his mouth.

Katie clenched her fists. What had she done? She felt her face grow warm. “Don’t you dare laugh at me!” she said, slugging him in the gut.

Danny’s mouth choked into an O, and he gripped his side. Only then did Katie hear her father’s footsteps behind her. “Katie, honey,” said her father, unlatching the fence gate. “Do we need to have another talk about beating up the neighbor’s kid?”

She shook her head.

“You okay, Danny?” asked her father.

“I’m all right, Mr. Poulson.”

“Katie,” said her father, “take Ruffy for his walk, okay? I’ve got to finish the grass in the back.”

“Dad… ” A lump rose in her throat. “Ruffy died last year.”

Her father stiffened and put his hand to his head. “Of course. Guess I’m a little tired.”

Her parents spoke in hushed tones that evening, and she heard her mother cry. Katie slept fitfully. When she woke the next morning, she rubbed her eyes, then gasped. Hundreds of dandelions had been piled in the planter box outside her window.

“Danny,” she said, smiling.

In the forest, her grandfather tugged her hand. “Let’s keep going.”

Katie wobbled as she walked. The path at her feet seemed strangely distant. Farther along the trail, they came to a clearing filled with white chrysanthemums. Leaning closer, she arched an eyebrow when she caught their scent—they smelled of paper. Nearby, a woodpecker went rat-a-tat-tat against a tree.

Katie opened the door at the knock. Danny stood on her porch wearing a rented tux with a crooked tie.

“These are for you!” he blurted and stepped forward to jab a bouquet of chrysanthemums into her arms. “You look… beautiful.”

Blushing, she smoothed her taffeta dress.

Danny waved. “Hello, Mrs. Poulson, Mr. Poulson.”

Behind her in the living room, Katie’s mother held her father’s arm as she led him toward an easy chair.

“I’m not a damn child!” said her father, wrenching his arm free. “I can do it myself!”

Shuffling to the chair, he collapsed into the worn brown leather. His body looked small and pale against it, and his hands shook as he gripped the armrests.

Katie’s mother glanced her way with a tight-lipped smile.

“Danny,” said Katie, turning back. “I… “

“You’re staying home,” he finished. “It’s okay. Can I show you something? Just for a minute.”

They stepped out into the warm night air and sat on the porch swing. Pulling an envelope from his jacket, he handed it to her.

“You got into MIT!” she said, scanning the letter. “I’m so proud of you!” She hugged him close, letting the embrace linger. “Danny… “

“You got into Stanford. I know. Your mom Tweeted everyone.” Squeezing her hand, he looked away. “That’s great.” When he turned back, his eyes glistened in the dim light. “I know how hard you worked for it.”

He was silent for several seconds. “Hey, do you want to dance? I’ve been practicing.”

“I’d love to.”

They rose, and she placed her arms on his shoulders while he rested his hands at the small of her back. In the night air, they danced to a cricket’s song.

Katie jolted when her grandfather touched her arm.

“You okay?” he asked.

Turning slowly in place, she nodded.

When they continued down the trail, they wound their way past a clump of trees, and when they’d moved beyond them, they startled birds splashing in a bath surrounded by red and white begonias. An unpleasant musk lingered around the flowers; Katie wrinkled her nose.

Kate passed the Stanford “S” emblazoned on a bed of red and white begonias.

The lecture hall was filled with students texting and playing games. She sat in the front row, opened her notebook, and clicked a pen.

Projected on a screen were the images of two brains, side by side, shown as a cross-section. One was full of white-and-gray gyri pressed firmly together, the sulci a lattice of pencil-thin fissures. It was easy for her to imagine the brain floating inside the skull on a fluid cushion. The other brain looked like dried fruit, its cortex shrunken, its ventricles gaping with literal holes in the mind.

“Alzheimer’s destroys the brain,” said her professor. The woman adjusted her glasses. “We’re just now discovering how to slow the disease,” she continued. “We can use antibody drugs to attack plaques as they form, and we’ve learned, counter-intuitively, to slow the regions of excessive neuronal activity that are not symptoms of structural damage but rather the cause.”

The screen shifted to an image of a magnified cell.

“Further, there have been promising developments with combination therapies: treatments to accelerate neurogenesis in adults, creating new neurons, and at the same time, the use of mesenchymal stem cells to repair older neurons.” The professor frowned. “But if we halt or even reverse the damage, then what? The architecture unique to every person’s brain is critical to who they are. Their experiences, everything they remember, isn’t stored inside their neurons, but rather within the myriad connections formed among their neurons as they live and grow.”

Shrugging, she asked, “If we save the brain, can we save the person, too?”

Back at her dorm, Kate’s roommate teetered on a pair of platform pumps. “Kate, throw on your red dress! A bunch of us are meeting at the Saddle Room.” Batting her eyes, she said, “Mike’s going to be there.”

Kate blushed. “Can’t. I’ve got to study.”

“Come on! We’ll bang out Chem and Calc tomorrow, promise. Have a couple beers.”

Kate glanced to her laptop. “Meet you there, okay?”

She turned on the computer as her roommate left. Daniel’s image waited onscreen. Smiling, he said, “Hi, Kate.”

“Sorry I’m late.”

“Chatting with your profs again?”

“Some days I think they’re going to run for it when they see me waiting.”

He laughed. “How are your studies going?”

“Good. It’s a lot of work. And yours?”

“The same. So… are you seeing anyone?”

She paused. “I am.”

His face blanked, then he smiled. “That’s great!”

“He’s somebody I’ve been working with. It just kind of happened.” She leaned over to the cage sitting on her desk and pulled out a white rat, then held it for him to see. “But we’re going to have to talk about hygiene,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “He stinks.”

Her phone chimed. “Daniel, I’ve got to go. My mom’s calling.”

In the forest, Katie tripped over a root and nearly fell, but her grandfather caught her and led her to a stone bench. They sat together in front of a small pool surrounded by white lilies. The flowers’ perfume carried something more—the scent of Old Spice.

Kate stood with her mother and grandfather in front of an open grave. Her mom held a lily in her hand.

“What am I supposed to do now, Dad?” asked her mother.

“I don’t know, honey,” the old man replied. “I’m so sorry.”

Kate wiped tears from her face.

“He was a fighter,” said her grandfather. “He lasted ten years. Most don’t make it five.”

Her mom shook her head and dropped the lily onto the casket. “He was gone long before that.”

At the wake, people spoke in quiet voices and ate casseroles with forced smiles. Kate’s grandfather sat with her, the scent of his aftershave wafting around him.

“Will you be in town long, Katie?”

“I’m flying to Baltimore tomorrow to tour Johns Hopkins.”

He nodded. “Good school.”

In the forest, a tree covered with white flowers grew in a spot by itself. Katie stopped before it. Heavy petals lay strewn around its roots.

“What kind of tree is this?” she asked.

Magnolia grandiflora.”

Beneath the tree, the sky peeked through its branches. The smell of its flowers was overwhelming, but it could not completely mask the odor of antiseptic soap.

Kate shielded her face from the sun. Johns Hopkins’ campus was filled with red brick buildings adorned with white columns and steeples. Magnolia trees bloomed outside the library walls. Stopping outside the neuropathology building, she admired the silver dome and spire crowning the building. Her heels clattered as she moved through its polished halls, the sound of her shoes mixing with hushed conversations. Hints of antiseptic wafted from rooms as doctors and students moved about.

In a conference room, the first slide of her presentation was already on the screen. Nodding to the assembled faculty, she began.

“Our memories make us who we are, especially our emotional memories: love, hate, fear, grief. These feelings, and the memories associated with them, are what’s important, not the ability to remember the capitals of states.”

“The limbic system,” she said, moving ahead. “Areas of the brain so vital to memory and emotion that we’ve dubbed their combined parts the ’emotional brain.'”

The next slide depicted a neuron and what resembled a tumbleweed at its base.

“When Alzheimer’s strikes, plaques and protein tangles destroy healthy tissues and disrupt the synapses, blocking the linkages that allow the brain to function, like a storm bringing down power lines. But sometimes electric companies can reroute their grid and maintain the flow of power.”

She aimed a pointer to the screen. “The amygdala, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, and other areas of the limbic system. Even while we work to slow the disease and repair and replace damaged neurons, we keep these regions communicating with each other, rewriting existing memories, the emotionally significant memories that are so fundamental to who we are.”

“How do we do that?” asked a man in a white coat.

“I’m not sure.” She smiled. “But if you’ll give me the opportunity, I’d like to find out.”

In the forest, a rosebush lay just off the path. The flowers were a deep, vibrant red. Katie bent to smell them, then jerked back.

“What is it?” asked her grandfather.

“They smell like bacon!”

“Dr. Poulson,” said her lab assistant. “It’s not working.”

Kate slammed her fists against the imager display. “I can damn well see that, Kent.”

Her assistant fled the small equipment room with a hasty promise of fresh coffee. Hands shaking, Kate gulped down what was left in her mug even though the brew had gone bitter and cold hours earlier.

In the imaging room beyond the glass, a man in a hospital gown lay on a plastic slab buried deep in an fMRI scanner. The man watched a video feed, which also played on the panel before Kate. In the video, the same man, years younger, walked on a beach hand-in-hand with a beautiful woman. Kate hoped the sound of the surf would soothe her headache. It didn’t.

Jamming her thumb on an intercom, she said, “Liz, I’m switching Mr. Ignatius to the birthday feed, and let’s try script four this time.”

The young woman sitting in the room with Mr. Ignatius gave a thumbs up and flipped through the pages of her clipboard.

The feed shifted to a video of the same couple sitting at a table in front of a birthday cake covered with candles. In scrawled purple frosting, the cake read, “Happy 39th, Mary… again.”

“It’s your wife’s, Mary’s, fortieth birthday, Mr. Ignatius,” said Liz, reading from the script. “You bought her a gold bracelet and took her for dinner and dancing at Antonio’s. You had spaghetti and meatballs. Mary tried the calamari, but she sent it back.”

Kate studied the display, hoping to see parts of Mr. Ignatius’s brain brighten. The memories were there, she knew it, or the fragments were, at least. If she could just find the right combination of stimuli, find a way to link the pieces together, the healing brain might connect them again, like stars forming constellations in the night sky.

“I don’t… remember,” said Mr. Ignatius on the slab. “I’m sorry.”

Kent returned with two cups. “Dr. Poulson, there’s someone here to see you. I told him I didn’t think you had the time.”

Taking another look at the display, she pushed herself from the controls. “It’s okay. Like you said, it’s not working.” She rested her hand on her assistant’s arm. “Sorry for snapping at you.”

Running her fingers through her hair, she pushed past the hospital security doors, then stopped cold. Daniel waited in the lobby with a rose in his hand.

“My God, Daniel, what’s it been, three years?”

“Five,” he said, smiling, as he handed her the rose. His hair was grayed at the temples.

“I heard you got married.”

Shaking his head, he said, “I thought getting married made sense, but she made a persuasive counter argument. And you? How’s the rat?”

“I’m a widow,” she said with a dramatic sigh.

He smiled again. “Hey, smell my rose.”

Narrowing her eyes, she held the flower to her nose and breathed deeply. “Is that… bacon?”

“Sure is,” he said, laughing. “If you fiddle with the right genes, you can alter a flower’s oils and volatiles to make them smell like almost anything.”

“Are you here in town?”

“I’m in DC for a conference, but I thought I’d stop by and see you before heading back to Boston.”

“I wish you’d called first. We could have caught up.”

“I left messages.”

“Dr. Poulson,” Liz said behind her, “we only have Mr. Ignatius for a few more minutes.”

Daniel smiled, his green eyes twinkling. “Busy busy. You look good, Kate,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.

“You, too. I’m so glad I got to see you. Next time you’re in—”

“Dr. Paulson,” said her assistant.

“Be right there,” she said to the young woman. When she turned back, Daniel was already walking away.

Kate sighed. She made her way to the imaging room and went to her patient. Leaning into the machine, she set the rose next to his head.” I wanted to introduce myself, Mr. Ignatius. I’m Dr. Poulson. I’m the one using you as a guinea pig, and I’d like to thank you for your patience today.”

“Smells like breakfast,” said Mr. Ignatius, turning his head to the flower. His eyes widened. “That’s the damnedest thing.”

“Dr. Poulson!” said Kent on the intercom. “You’ve got to see this!”

In the control room, Kent pointed to the display. “First the olfactory bulb lit up, then the amygdala and hippocampus. And now look!”

The image of Mr. Ignatius’s brain was splashed with color.

“I made her breakfast in bed,” he said on the audio feed. “A rose in a vase and a tray with cheesy eggs, and bacon, and… ” Mr. Ingatius laughed. “Toast. I burned the bejeezus outta the first batch. Stank up the house for days.”

Kate touched her fingers to the display.

“I miss her smile most,” he said on the feed. “It filled her whole face.”

Heart pounding, she said, “Kent, I’ve got to go.”

Kate’s credit card and an enthusiastic cabbie got her to DC from Baltimore in forty minutes flat. She flipped through an inbox full of unheard voicemail to find the hotel. Moving quickly down a hall filled with identical doors, she checked the numbers of each before finally finding Daniel’s room at the end. She stopped to bang on the door. When there was no answer, her heart sank.

“Kate?” Daniel stepped from the elevator. “How in the world did you—?” His eyes widened as she rushed him.

When she finally broke the kiss, he stepped back. “You’re not going to hit me, are you?”

In the forest, Katie swayed in place. “Not going to hit me.” Laughing, she put her fingers to her lips. “What’s happening?” she asked her grandfather. “Where are you taking me?”

“Just a little farther.”

Along the path, they stopped to smell a bed of white tulips scented like pizza. Kate remembered her impromptu wedding with Daniel before a quiet judge: the silent room, the loud beating of her heart. The pizza they ate afterward in their hotel room. The scent of orchids and the smell of latex paint brought back memories of a big house and a man with a toupee handing them a set of keys. The white flowers—jasminum sambac said her grandfather—reminded her of leis and salt air and walking with Daniel on black sand beaches.

The forest trail ended in a clearing filled with lavender. Katie bent to smell the purple flowers. “What is that?” she asked.

“Laundry starch.”

In the utility closet, Kate rehooked her bra while Daniel buttoned his dress shirt. His hair was streaked with gray.

“Help me,” she said, shimmying into her dress.

Zipping her up, he rested his hands on her shoulders and nuzzled her neck. “Not that I mind,” he said into her ear, “but I think it’s the audience you’re supposed to imagine naked.”

A frantic host found them soon after they left the closet and practically shoved them onto the stage. Daniel escorted her to the podium and stepped back as the auditorium filled with applause.

“But we did it together,” she said.

“You have more letters after your name than I do.”

She placed a set of note cards on the podium. A vase with lavender rested next to a pitcher of water.

The first card read: Memory Mapping and Reconstruction through Conditioned Responses to Olfactory, Auditory, and Visual Stimulation, by Dr. Katherine Poulson MD. Ph.D. and Dr. Daniel Jenkins Ph.D.

“They call Alzheimer’s disease ‘the long goodbye,'” she began. “Well before the heart beats its last beat, the person whom we knew and loved is lost, their mind, their memories, their emotional connections stripped away.”

Taking a breath, she said, “No more. We haven’t beaten the disease, not yet, but we damn sure won a battle.”

Kate smiled and shuffled to the next card, waiting for the applause to fade, then she frowned. Her hands were wrong. Too small, like those of a child. A buzzing filled her ears, and she pressed her fingers against her head. When she looked up again, she flinched. The auditorium was silent except for a few nervous coughs. Hundreds of eyes bore into her. Then Daniel was beside her, his eyes bright and green, his face pale.

In the forest, Kate’s ears roared, as if she were going through a tunnel. She took a long, deep breath. “Daniel,” she said. “Have I ever told you how much you remind me of my grandfather?”

“You’ve mentioned it once or twice,” said the old man with green eyes. “Welcome back, Kate.”

“Do you happen to have… ?”

He pulled a mirror from a pocket, and she gazed into the glass, moving her hand to her wrinkled face. “How many years since the diagnosis?” she asked.

“Twenty-seven.”

“That long?” She stared back at the trail. “The reconstruction sequence has to be very precise, the stimuli exact.” Blanching, she said, “Oh my God, Daniel, those flowers, they can’t possibly bloom at the same time for very long.”

“Only a week or two if the weather cooperates.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “Thirty years, and I only get to be with you for a few days?”

He shook his head. “Most husbands don’t get to watch their wives fall in love with them all over again even for a single day.”

Smiling, he held a dandelion puff to her lips. “When you wish upon a dandelion and blow all the spores away… “

“Close your eyes, make a wish, and may they all come true some day,” she finished. Closing her eyes, she blew.

“Keep them closed,” he said, taking her hand.

They hadn’t walked far when she felt the air pressure shift and warm, the moist air brush across her skin.

“Now open them.”

They stood in an alcove of glass ringed by trees. A door rested in a transparent wall before them. Beyond the wall were rows upon rows of flowers protected inside a vast greenhouse. Displays in the alcove gave detailed temperature and humidity readings.

“I make roses smell like bacon,” he said. “You think I can’t get flowers to grow when I want them to?” He cupped her face and kissed her. “I’ve never lost you for a single day.”

Warmth spread through her, and her smile stretched her face until it ached. “Why can’t I remember this place?” she asked.

“New memories don’t stick as well as the old. And I know it’s a bit selfish of me, but I hope they never do.”

“Why?”

“Because watching your face, seeing the exact moment when you realize we’ll never be apart.” His eyes gleamed. “That’s something I never want to forget.”

end article

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Robert Lowell Russell

About Robert Lowell Russell

Robert Lowell Russell lives with his family in Ohio. He once aspired to be a history professor but found writing about the real world too constraining. Rob has had more than thirty stories published and likes to write about all sorts of things, frequently including action and humor in his work. For links to more of Rob's work please visit http://robertlowellrussell.com/.

  • Stone Showers

    Beautiful story. Alzheimer’s is such a difficult topic to write about. I absolutely loved your take on this.