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The Scent of Dying

As I slowly mourn, I am in the house where I grew up and where I cared for my father in his last days. The house has become an altar…I remember the scents of his dying.

The House, A Poem
Every part of this house—in which I grew up and, at that time, had no influence on the decor—every part, as I now shape the house to me, becomes a poem:

The three wooden ducks on a high shelf above the books. The tall lamp overlooking the wing chair’s shoulder. That Governor Winthrop desk inviting me to sit, to write, to dream. A house is an altar with seasons of joy, of lamentation, of day in and day out. The books are happy for being taken down, leafed through, dusted, rearranged. Rugs spread their reds and blues beneath me. Glad. Yes, they are glad. The tables and chairs, pleased with my presence, circle congenially as if this is the finest cafe down a hidden back close in the most sought after village on Earth.  A little clock tak tak taks, unhurried. The walls applaud my return, eager for me to be home in my own way that isn’t so different from what has been, but a little different. They don’t mind.

She is our breathing human, looking at us, seeing us, feeling us, and loving us as we love her.

Bird and pine branchThe Scent of Dying
Mid-January I puttered around the house, picking up the little Irish blanket I had bought for my father in December. As he weakened, this blanket was light enough for him to maneuver and warm as a summer breath. Being plaid was an added benefit—he could trace its lines as he perseverated, a ‘worry beads’ blanket. He adopted it, always wanting it near. During his last three days on morphine when his body was hot, we mostly covered him with a sheet but left the blanket folded at the foot of the bed in case he cooled down.

A week ago, so soon after his death, I held it to my nose. It smelled faintly of him. Not a bad smell. Not soap or detergent because we hadn’t had reason to launder the delicate frothy wool—we often snatched it from him as he went to wipe his lips on it, putting a towel or napkin or Kleenex in his hand.

This morning, I bring it near my face. Nothing. I unfold it, sniffing here and there. Nothing. They say spirit is fragrance and I now believe this. His spirit is gone.

, His Dying Day
Sue the Nurse, Angel of Death, departs as I enter the room. I smell a pungent burst of vinegar. Pleasant. Particular. Rounding the bed, I see that after moving him she has left him in an awkward position. A gurgle in his throat alarms me. I raise the bed head. Sue calls out goodbye from the doorway. Yes, yes, goodbye. I hear the door close. I tuck a pillow under his left arm and shoulder. He takes a short little nip of breath. I smile. Little sips of air. I’ve been watching him breathe for two days, completely unresponsive, just an intermittent breathing, even as a respirator. How will it stop? It seems impossible that it will. But it does.


Wood & Yeast
Two hours later, he is warm but not hot. I lean down, kiss the hair above his ear. The scent of wood.

Three hours later, a different nurse arrives to pronounce his death, to waste the meds, to confiscate the narcotics. She helps me check that he is clean, which he is, and to pull the covers neatly around him. I call the coroner. I am alone with Dad. I run my fingers across his cooling forehead, bend near his face. He smells yeasty below his eye, and floral sweet in his hair. His arms and legs are cool.



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    One Comment
    1. Jamie Schack #

      Hi Diane,

      I just wanted to offer my condolences – I know how hard it is to watch a parent die. But it sounds like you had some beautiful moments and experiences throughout the process, as I did.

      I’ve been following your blog on this on and off for a while – this seems like a good time to connect.

      If you want to catch up, drop me an e-mail.

      February 28, 2014

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