During his intensive chemotherapy treatments, at least two of Jim’s senses changed.
Some things did not smell as they always had to him. I imagine it was similar to the way my brain idiosyncratically processed scents when I was pregnant: a scintilla of coffee, for example, would overpower everything around it, a bitter and nauseating shroud settling over everything in its enveloping reach. But I smelled things which were, at least in microscopic quantity, somewhere around me. Jim smelled things which were not there.
His palate changed, too. Only a constantly-changing and narrow range of foods appealed to him. Sometimes nothing did. Sometimes he could down two sandwiches and then some while in the chemotherapy “pod.”
No doubt most of these changes were a physiological effect of drugs being infused into him. An oncologist warned us that after he received a particular portion of the chemical cocktail, if Jim drank anything above room temperature it would feel like he was sipping broken glass.
For one of my daughters, a different kind of palette changed. Her oil paintings had tended towards the vibrant jewel tones which so suit her intensity and her very coloring. (Her skin and hair tones make her, in the well-worn seasonal wardrobe formulation, a “winter.”) Before Jim was diagnosed, her paintings sported emerald greens, scarlet reds, bold puce, and white seemingly lit from within, beribboned with vermillion and yellow.
That fall she began filling her hand-built canvases with ivory, ochre, rust and deep grays, backlit with a more distant, suffusing light.
Our senses seem to have changed more metaphorically.
I think all of us now hear things differently, and process what we hear differently.
Someone may say something completely innocuous—like “Happy New Year”–or, if the speaker is more in-the-know, “This year is bound to be better than last year.” My mind will begin churning thoughts I will not speak, but never would have had before: This year can’t possibly be better than last year, for me, because at least for a part of last year Jim was still here.
I take in written words differently, and nearly every lyric I hear has been irrevocably transformed.
A forceful, strong beat complete with the “Heys” Jim and I used to associate with marching band cheering songs, suddenly, egocentrically, turns into my life, as a female voice alternates lines with a male singer:
I don’t like walking around this old and empty house
So hold my hand, I’ll walk with you my dear
The stairs creak as I sleep, it’s keeping me awake
It’s the house telling you to close your eyes
My other senses have not changed literally, the way some of Jim’s did, but I appreciate them differently.
Having seen Jim—who truly enjoyed food–unable to eat, I still waver between extremes: either I simply cannot eat, in solidarity Jim would not have wanted of me for that brief time in his life, or I can begin to see food as he did, not just as nourishment but as a communal facilitator—even as an homage to family chefs, a hallmark of meaningful family occasions.
Most of all, I appreciate the sense of touch now in a way I could not have fathomed or foreseen, and I connect it now to other senses, like hearing a heart beating. Touch seems, literally, more connected to the heart, and to the thoughts I can see laid bare on someone’s face or hear etched in a voice. I cannot touch Jim’s face, but I can touch my child’s face. I can’t hug my husband, but I can be enfolded by a friend who reads the need for a hug in my eyes.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon