The Blog

PBS's 'This Emotional Life': The Unbearable Absence of Smelling

"It's your last chance to smell him," my friend told me, and my heart broke for her and for all the others who have had the loves of their lives replaced with folded flags.
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There's this gross thing I do a few weeks before my husband deploys: I steal his dirty t-shirts. Not just any shirts, mind you, only the especially stinky, just-worked-out-in shirts. I put each one in a plastic bag and then I vacuum seal the bag. I try to bag one shirt for every month he will be deployed. He knows that I do this and he doesn't seem to mind, but it does make it difficult for him to get dressed as the deployment date nears.

I hoard his stinky shirts so that I will be able to smell him while he's gone. The smell is one of the first things I miss during a deployment. It's not that my husband smells particularly good. On a normal day when he's not deployed, I hate the way he smells after a work-out. I usually point him directly to the shower -- do not pass go, do not collect a welcome home kiss, just wash -- STAT.

But after he's been gone for a few weeks I'll allow myself a stinky shirt to get me through a lonely stretch of nights. I do this after I've finally changed the sheets on our bed, and after his signs of daily life in our house have faded away: his dirty clothes in the corner of our bedroom, the jar lids screwed on too tight, the shaving cream and whiskers drying in the bathroom sink, the foam earplugs that fall out of his pockets in the washer and dryer. When these signs are all gone, I'll reach for a dirty t-shirt. Sometimes I'll wear his shirt to bed, other times I'll just put it on the pillow next to me and breathe in his familiar smell as I sleep. Each shirt will last for a week or so before the scent has faded. Gross as it may sound -- and I'm sure it sounds gross to any who have never been separated from a lover for months on end -- his smell is pure bliss for me when he's gone. It's a tangible, hold-it-in-your-hands connection to a living, breathing person when we are both living in a world of daily casualties and the only available connections are distant and electronic.

That's why I understood what a good friend, an Army widow, meant when she told me that she always advises new widows to ask that their husbands' clothes not be laundered before being sent home.

"It's your last chance to smell him," my friend told me, and my heart broke for her and for all the others who have had the loves of their lives replaced with folded flags. For most, many months passed between seeing their husbands alive and well and seeing them in caskets -- months without smells, touches or kisses. Knowing how I hoard my stash of stinky shirts, I can only imagine the depth of sadness that comes with realizing that such a stash will never be replenished.

I recently visited an exhibit at a museum near my house. The exhibit is called "Hugh's Crate" and it is simply that, the crate of belongings that the Army returned to the family of 1st Lt. Hugh William Wellons, a young soldier who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1966. The exhibit is poignant in it's simplicity. Wellons' crate held the sorts of things a young man, especially one living then, would take with him to war or pick up along the way. Wellons had, among other things: a four-string Gibson guitar, a corn cob pipe, a pack of pipe cleaners, a nearly empty package of American Tobacco, a checkerboard and checkers, three decks of Bicycle playing cards, a Bible, a package of Mexican jumping beans, a book of trick matches, translation dictionaries for Spanish, French and Vietnamese and several black and white photos of a pretty girl in a lawn chair, sitting in front of a convertible.

Looking at those pictures, I wondered if she might be the one who most misses his smell.