I remember the feel of his hair, wiry from the side effects of the immunotherapy treatment. I remember the smell of his pillow. I remember how as he became weaker, thinner, he wanted a beanie cap to keep his head warm. Thus began the transferring of the aroma of him, the molecules of his essence, to one hat after another rather than to the pillow, which in any case was now with him on the couch rather than in our bed. I threw away all of the linens we owned the morning of his death. I couldn’t bear to nestle into them ever again, those sheets so reminiscent of the lovers we had been and could be no more. I washed for the last time all of his beanies and put them away, intending to donate them come fall.
A few days ago, as I searched for my own wool hat on the first day of cold New York City weather, I took the beanies out of the drawer one by one. It is a commonplace that smell is the most primal of our senses, the one most associated with nonverbal memory. I held each cap to my nose, trying to conjure him, trying not to lose that essence of him, hoping to imprint him deeper into my animal brain, so that even his death could not sever our physical connection. The smell was still there, if faint, or perhaps, imagined. I wanted more.
I walked to the closet where his flannel shirts still hang and buried my face in the one I most associated with him, an LL Bean plaid lined in fleece. Dan was always cold, even before he got sick. Before cancer, before dysphagia, before a trache tube, he had been a voracious eater. I used to laugh that he had the metabolism of a teenager, burning his calories so fast that he needed these many layers to stay warm. My tears fell as I buried my face in this remnant of a life gone too soon. Were they tears of sadness? Joy at the memory of him in better times? Pity for a widow consoling herself like a toddler with her comfort object? Does it matter?
I deposited the beanies in a plastic bag already overstuffed with his dress shirts and a few of my own castoffs. In a burst of resolve, I marched the four blocks to the Salvation Army Family Store on 96th Street. Always a bit worn down at the heels, now the storefront’s corrugated metal rolling shutter was padlocked. Spray paint advised that the store was closed permanently. I started to cry. Determined to follow through, I walked two blocks to another charity donation site and left the bag, exiting quickly before I could change my mind.
Waiting for the light to change at the corner of 96th Street and West End Avenue, I felt Dan’s presence, his scent in my nostrils, his voice in my ears.
“You’re going to be alright,” he said.
I shook my head no.
“Yes, yes you are.” He sounded so sure. “You can do this.”
“Please just walk me home, please don’t go!” I said under my breath as I waited at the busy intersection for the walk sign to appear.
Just as the light changed, I felt heat rise from my chest to my face. Was I going crazy thinking that my dead husband was speaking to me? As I threaded my way through the crowds of schoolchildren and their parents exiting from PS 75, I replayed over and over what I had heard, what I had felt, what I thought had happened in those brief moments. Back in my apartment, I took off my coat and hung it in the closet. Then I removed my hat and pressed it to my face. It smelled of Dan. Was it a miracle? A hallucination?
“But you don’t believe in those things,” I told myself. “There must be a rational explanation.”
Shaking, I reminded myself that my hat had been stored for six months in a drawer with his beanies, so of course it could have acquired their odor. The flush in my cheeks began to subside. Logic had prevailed. Or so I thought. But maybe, just maybe, this bit of animal memory was heaven scent. Which is true? Does it matter?