The hospital has a distinct smell. A smell I have tried in vain to find a worthy comparison for, an alternative the rest of the world could understand, maybe the smell of gasoline, or nail polish, or moldy socks, or dirt or a locker room that hasn’t been cleaned in months. You see, the smell of the hospital is so particular, so stubborn, that it renders itself immune to any attempts at description or computation. It is a smell that burrows itself underneath your fingernails, within the strands of your hair, the fibers of your clothes, coating your nerve endings, seeping into the folds of your grey matter, so that in time, the hospital no longer becomes synonymous with healing and care and new beginnings but rather, soley that smell. 

It is the smell of grief, of remarkable grief, the kind that blurs your vision and boils your blood so that it roars in your ears, of dirty parents who haven’t showered in days, of bad news, news so bad it flips your world onto its axis, eliminating all that is familiar, all that is known; news delivered by doctors with plastered smiles, just the right mixture of synthetic sympathy, a twinge of relief perhaps, that this is not their life, this is not their pain. It is the smell of shattered glass, of fatigue, of broken dreams, of wishes made on shooting stars, of prayers, of meals with the consistency of cardboard that only managed to get by FDA regulations simply because they met nutritional value standards and nothing else, the smell of the knowledge of the inevitable, of death and of the tiniest shred of hope.

The timeline of my life is divided into B.C. and A.D., Before Cancer and After Diagnosis. Much like in the years leading to the coming of modern religion, my reality was primitive, ruled by kingdoms whose lifeblood was fantasy and naivete, where constellations danced and leaped across the night sky, where dragons breathed fire and the flick of a wand was a worthy opponent to the world’s greatest problems. Grape popsicles that melted within a minute of opening, rivulets of violet sickly sweet staining the notches in my hands, the lines etched in my palms, pooling into the valley between my thumb and my finger, so that in due time corporate America’s idea of what artificial grape flavoring should taste like became infused within the twists and spirals of my DNA. The utter and raw simplicity of childhood being the only thing that could bend the laws of the universe. In the year of our Lord, my anno Domini, in the way that worship and faith brought advancement, progression, chaos, and divisions, cancer swept through my brother’s life and in effect mine with the same ferocity. It is an anomaly, it creates chinks in the social chain, tearing big, gaping holes in the already threadbare fabric of your life, and it has no mercy;  it will gnaw muscle right off the bone, it will fray heart string, it will pulverise connective tissue all without discriminating by race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status or power.

When I was 11 years old, my brother, 6, was diagnosed with stage 4  Medulloblastoma. A tumor in his brain no larger than overripe plum upended my life. Of course as with anything we regret, there are so many what-if’s, what if we had realized it was a flaw in his genetic code, that all that needed to be done was to switch an A with a T, what if we had caught it sooner, that his slurred speech and inability to walk straight were something much deeper than viral meningitis. For 10 hours, he was suspended on the thin line between life and death, they sawed into his skull, prodded within the crevices of his mind with cold, foreign instruments that had no business being there, haphazardly snipping nerves and nicking arteries, his blood splattered on their shoes, smeared across their clothes, embedded within the granules of their white latex gloves. My brother was born again, with a crooked face, and eyes that were unable to close, and sores in his mouth, and arms marred with grey residue from medical tape, and thick white bandages that oozed yellow pulp. So that doctors, young doctors with an aura of smugness, knowing that they were the very embodiment of the American ideal of success, in the way they carried themselves, in the way they handled stethoscopes with whip smart accuracy, told us my brother would never be able to read or write again. 

I read in some magazine somewhere, a waiting room with peeling walls and flickering fluorescent lights, or in line at the grocery store, or in the school library reading as a desperate attempt to mask the fact that I had no friends, that the sense of smell has the longest evolutionary history out of any of the senses, that the body’s sense of smell and memory retrieval have an instantaneous connection. Like how the smell of wax crayons and soap remind you of the irreproachable purity of kindergarten, or how freshly cut grass and barbecue invoke the sense of summer or how the smell of the hospital, still so tenacious after all these years, reminds you of pain and grief and scratchy eyes from no sleep, and wilting flowers and half deflated helium balloons and sick brothers and sad moms and desolate dads. 

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