When my kid was 10 months old, her father got diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and they told him he had 6 months to live. When suddenly faced with your own mortality while you stare at the future in the eyes of your infant child, it does funny things to your mind. Those six months were chaotic, lived in anger, in pity, in fear, in sorrow, in resignation…and then indignation sets in at the sound of the infantile giggle of a delighted child that has no idea that your doting gaze at her was literally in synch with your counting every minute, till you are no longer there.
I was a full time housewife and suddenly I was going to be a single mother with no job. Those six months were lived in the sort of electric fear that sets your heart racing non-stop. I started job hunting immediately, but it turned out to be harder than I had expected because suddenly fitting back into the job market after a 5 years’ hiatus meant I was not as relevant as a fresh college graduate was. I was desperate and ready to take any job at all, even manual jobs, but nothing was forth coming!
I had a young child to take care of and a husband in a terribly foul mood, battling aggressive chemotherapy and radioactive treatments. Attending interviews proved to be a challenge…but those 6 months came and went and I still was unable to find suitable employment…and he was still alive.
The cancer wasn’t spreading, but it wasn’t shrinking either and it was lodged somewhere that would have paralyzed him if they had operated to take it out, so the prayer was that it would shrink, or at least remain dormant, long enough until he put his affairs in order…
We lived in the west coast of Italy at the time, in the Genovese town of Rapallo. Fast forward to the week before he died, I had by then found employment in Tuscany and had moved with the kid while he remained home to continue with the treatments that by then had ravished every ounce of what he used to be. She was now in 1st grade. He had just received the results of the latest tests and called to let me know the cancer was spreading very rapidly and it was by then in his bones, his brain and most of his vital organs. I think he knew it was time. He wanted me to come that weekend. It was a Tuesday. He has asked me to bring her along this time.
He hadn’t seen her in almost two months by then (his request), even though he called several times a day to talk on the phone with her. He was so physically spent he didn’t want her to see him that way because he wanted what memory she had left of his image to be the healthier version she was used to. She was too young to understand the gravity of the situation, although she had always known he was unwell and knew that she no longer visited with him because he was not well enough to have visitors, which wasn’t a lie, they won’t let children a certain age in the ward.
Thursday evening he called and said “Come now.” I picked the kid who was supposed to be at a sleep over and we hit the road. The Drive from Tuscany to Genoa normally took about 3 hours. He’d call every 30 minutes to find out if we were any closer and I’ll tell him where we were. Roads repairs along the way delayed our trip immensely. On a normal journey we should have arrived sometime around 9 pm but we didn’t get to Genoa till a little past midnight. He called just when we had made the turn off the highway into the city, and when he found out she was sleeping, he said to put her to bed first but I had to come tonight because there was something important he needed to tell me face to face, and also because he needed me to look him in the eyes and promise him I will keep her safe.
I dropped her off at a friend’s house and couldn’t make it to where he was, roads were blocked due to repairs, entries and exists into the street where he was were denied, no exceptions. So we agreed that I would come by, first thing in the morning. I went back to my friend’s house; it was by then, 2am. At about 5am I was awoken by the smell of the perfume he wore which I thought was odd, there was no one in the room besides me and the kid. I looked at the clock and decided that it was a decent hour to wake up and head out, with the hope that I would find a way to get through the road blocks. I left her still sleeping.
I had to park about a mile and half away and walked the rest of the way because vehicles were still denied entry and exit. The smell of that perfume remained with me till I walked into the building at 7:55 am. They told me he had died just 10 minutes ago but had been up since 5am asking if I was there yet. I never found out what important thing it was he wanted to tell me face to face, and I never got the chance to reassure him that I will keep her safe.
Like clockwork for the next two months at a certain hour of the day, the smell of that perfume will come and linger for about 30 minutes and I’ll be covered in goose bumps. I didn’t know what to make of it. One day, as soon as the smell manifested, I simply said out loud to no one in particular. “She will be safe for as long as I live.” The smell ebbed away and didn’t come back for the longest time.
Over the years, every once in a while I get a whiff of it, but never for long and no goose bumps.
Last week, the kid asked me if her father wore a particular perfume, she asked to know the name and I told her. Then I asked her why she was asking. She then told me that she thought she might have had smelled it earlier.
“You were barely in 1st grade when he died, you certainly can’t remember what he smelled like?”
“I can’t explain it, but I know it was how he smelled, I do recall that smell.” She insisted. And over the course of the week she would stop mid motion and ask if I could smell it too, then when I sniff, she’d say it’s gone. Yesterday, we went to River Road and just on our way out on the stairs in front of the office, we smelled it, turned and made eye contact. I was immediately covered in goose bumps
“It’s him, isn’t it?” she asked. I shrugged.
“Anything is possible,” I responded. We drove in silence. After a while, she said
“I think we’ll be OK, I think he is watching over us and this is his way of letting us know we’ll be OK. It’s like your Dad and the Cardinal bird.” She said it with a conviction and she seemed calm and quite accepting of the notion. All I could think of was ‘he wants me to remember I promised to keep her safe’. So under my breath I muttered
‘I smell you loud and clear, she will be safe, and that’s still a promise.’ I have not smelled him since. I don’t make promises easily but I don’t break them once I make them and I am not about to start now.
Peace begins with me.
©Naan Pocen 2020