Saturday, September 18, 2010

Smelling the Roses

"Don't hurry. Don't worry. You're only here for a short visit.
So don't forget to stop and smell the roses.

~Walter Hagen

"Do you know what I miss the most? His smell. I miss that more than anything." She sighed quietly and shook her head. "That's a funny thing, isn't it?"

I didn't know what to say. This woman had just lost her son. There was nothing funny about that at all.

"When he was a newborn, I would just bury my nose into his tummy and smell his baby smell. . .and then. . .when he got a little bit older he'd go outside and play," she patted her eyes with a tattered piece of tissue and then chuckled softly. "I used to say, 'Boy, you need a bath 'cause you smell like outside!'"

I could suddenly feel my heart pounding in my chest. It felt like it was pumping tears straight into my eyes and gripping at my throat. This wasn't the normal empathy I feel in the hospital with my patients; this was different. . . . a distinct feeling reserved for mothers. Part of me has always felt that God aligns the hearts of mommies. We root for each other, protect each other, share with each other, and in our own way, stand together in our own little army. There's something instinctive about it, too. . . .almost like it was by design.

I took in what she was saying to me for a second and before I knew it, I was transported to those first moments in the mother-baby unit with Isaiah and then Zachary. The sterile hospital smells were dampened from my memory by the tender scent of baby. . . . . .unforgettable. Then, I reflected for a fleeting moment on the way my boys smell now. That "after play" boy smell. I knew exactly what she was talking about. Until that moment, had never thought of it as something to love. But it is. It so is. I swallowed hard and parted my lips to speak.

"I know that smell well," I responded gently. "That 'little boy' smell is so distinct."

"Yeah," she answered while staring off into the distance. "Yeah." She looked down and wrung her hands in her lap. A wrinkled shirt of his was balled up on her lap.

That suffocating feeling started trying to wrestle me down again. I took a few deep breaths. I still didn't know what to say.

"I used to hug him and just smell him, you know? Do you ever do that with your children? Just smell them? Like even when he was a grown man I would. He always smelled so good, my boy. He was so clean, you know? Do you have children?"

"Yes, ma'am." I was conflicted when I added, "Two sons."

"Oh. Well, I hope you smell them every chance you get. I know it sounds crazy. But. . ." She stopped talking mid-sentence and sighed.

Silence filled every corner of the room. Not even a television was there to provide background noise or even a belligerent patient in the neighboring bed. I tried not to look at her eyes; I feared that somehow they'd connect with my own in that mother-to-mother way releasing from both of us some primal mommy-army war cry. Instead I let my eyes rest on her hands. . . .delicate hands with long fingers that seemed made for a piano. She gripped the button-down shirt that had once belonged to her son. I clenched my jaw and pleaded with myself not to cry as I watched her draw the shirt to her face. She inhaled deeply.

That was it.

I covered my mouth with my hand to muffle the cries that I could no longer stifle. I knew it was a "no-no"--crying in front of a patient or their family--especially like this. . . but at that moment all I knew was that a mother lost her son. And that was something to cry about.

"I'm so sorry." I shook my head while gazing in her direction. I wondered if she knew that the "sorry" was referring more to her loss than my unrestricted emotion. I hoped she did.

She looked up at me with a haunting grief in her eyes that I secretly prayed to never know first hand. No. That was it. I quickly turned my back to her and gasped because I knew what was coming next: the "ugly cry." My right hand was still sealed tightly over my mouth while my left gently pressed down on the base of my neck. I wanted her to smell her son, too. I wanted her to be able to touch his face and hear his laughter--not conjure him up from a Polo shirt. The more I thought about it, the more I cried. I wanted to press down the emotions. . . but I knew the truth. Somebody in the mommy army just saw her child pronounced dead that day. Someone who felt him first create what felt like butterflies in her lower abdomen that later became defined kicks, and someone who'd likely made him a PB and J and kissed his boo-boos. The same someone who was later strong for both of them as death looked him in the eyes, and who first bravely asked me about hospice just a few days earlier. There was no pressing those truths down.

I reached for some tissue on the tray table and shifted my body back to face my patient's mother. The Kleenex in my hand was covered with mascara which suddenly reminded me of how potentially inappropriate my outburst had been. I sighed and tried to regroup. "Mrs. Cassidy? Listen, I'm sorry. I just. . . "

She stood up and wrapped her arms around me in a motherly way that I could feel instantly. What I was trying to say was, I just want to honor your son. I was never able to get it out, but I think she got the message.


"Don't hurry. Don't worry. You're only here for a short visit.
So don't forget to stop and smell the roses. "

~Walter Hagen


  1. I am Rachael's mom. Thank you for this beautiful post. It made me cry, and I think that can be a good thing, because so much of our time is spenting swallowing our tears and pretending we're stronger than we are.

  2. Terry--you have done well. Your daughter is such an inspiration to me. Really. Thank you for reading this and for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I am sitting here now, weeping as I read this, with my own Kleenex covered with mascara. What a powerful piece of writing this is. I wish every mom could read it. You are my kind of doctor, my dear. Thank you for sharing this important message with all of us ♥

  4. I got so weepy reading this, even though I don't have children. I loved how you described the army of motherhood--I think that's so true. Even for those of us who aren't mothers, there's something I think that strikes us when we read of someone else's child suffering.

    I know it's not protocol to cry in front of your patients, and all, but I bet that meant a lot to that mother.

  5. This made me cry as well. I know that smell. The thought of having it taken away is horrifying and heart-breaking.

    Thank you for writing about this.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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