The Smell of Antiseptic
I hate the smell of antiseptic.
Now before I tell you why let me give you all the BS reasons I give my friends every time I have a mini panic attack over the smell.
1. I’m allergic
2. I have a sensitive nose
3. I was abused by my cleaning lady as a child
Okay now the real reason. It reminds me of hospitals and I hate hospitals. Nothing good ever happens at hospitals and everyone’s all depressed there. No one ever says,
“I was feeling really sad so I went to the hospital and it cheered me right up!”
And if they do they’re liars. Hospitals are depressing places where dreams go to die and people just sit and cry over things they can’t even control. And where bottles and bottles of antiseptic are sprayed on walls and floors so white they’d blind a lesser man.
Nothing good’s ever happened to me in a hospital. Broke my foot- hospital. Bruised my back- hospital. Crazy fever- hospital. I guess the only good thing that ever happened to me in a hospital was being born and that doesn’t really count. Maybe one day when I’m older and married and giving birth in a hospital I’ll finally like the damn places cause they helped give me a child. But until then all I have is violent hatred.
As a kid I used to like hospitals. I spent a good bit of time in them each year and I thought they were the coolest places. The smell didn’t bother me as much back then. My brother and I used to explore, run the halls and watch TV in the rec room. The nurses thought we were adorable. Back then I wanted to be a nurse. I didn’t realize how much antiseptic the job entailed.
My Nana, she was sick. I didn’t know what cancer was back then; no one could really explain it properly. Back then I thought doctors were like mini gods with the power to heal all illnesses. I couldn’t understand how something could be un-fixable. Nothing was un-fixable back then, my mother had the hands of a surgeon- she could fix any broken toy. I wondered why she couldn’t fix Nana.
Nana was in and out of the hospital pretty much every year. I liked her out of the hospital better, when we were at her and Papa’s house upstate. She’d teach me to pick flowers and send me out to get blueberries for pies. I’d eat most of them but somehow the pie still came out good. It was like this perfect model of the American Family, my Nana the perfect grandma.
In the hospital she was quiet. She was quiet out of it too but it was a different quiet. A lot of times she’d be asleep and we’d have to wait hours and hours till the nurse let us wake her up. That’s when my brother and I would explore or find ice machines and fruit or eat my Nana’s graham cracker. For some reason I remember the graham crackers. You could split them in half and my Nana used to give me one half and eat the other. I still remember.
Each hospital stay was different. Sometimes it’d be a normal visit, just beds and blankets and a window. Everyone looked like ants from her room. Other times it’d be a scarier visit. The nurses would be firmer and we’d have to leave earlier. One stay we all had to wear these masks and gloves and aprons. It was hard to breathe in the masks and my brother and I just gave up and kept taking them off. My mother was really serious about it though, she kept yelling at us “Put your mask on! Keep it on, this isn’t a game.”
My Nana though, she never liked to see us uncomfortable. I knew if she woke up she’d say, “Lynne, don’t worry, let them breathe. I’ll be fine,” but she just kept sleeping. I don’t remember if she woke up that visit.
Hospitals, they take everything from you. I don’t remember my Nana pre-sick but I’ve seen pictures. My Nana was so skinny when I knew her, with dry skin that used to tickle my hands when I gave her chills. She loved that, the chills I mean. At the funeral though I remember looking at pictures and asking my mom,
“That’s Nana?” about the plump, shiny, smiling woman with curves. She just nodded and teared.
But I digress. I didn’t hate the smell of antiseptic all those years as a kid running wild in a hospital. I think it’s cause I knew, deep down, that soon we’d be back in the country air and it’d wipe away all this terribly sad smell. I hated the smell at the end, in the hospice.
Hospice is hospital code for ‘it’s over’. It’s where you go when they’ve given up with the medicines and the treatments and they just don’t believe anymore. My Nana chose hospice, a choice I’ve never really come to terms with even though it wasn’t even my own. In the hospice, you can pretty much do whatever you want. No one cares about germs or disease; it’s too late for that. It never smelled like antiseptic in the hospice, just overcooked meat, flowers and rubber.
But to get to the hospice you had to walk through the whole hospital. That’s when I began to hate the smell, that’s when it began to shake me. The smell meant we were getting closer to the hospice, getting closer to the tiny little woman in the bed who was now my Nana.
I remember on my last night in the hospice, before we left for the drive back home. I was helping my Nana get ready for bed and she asked my to hand her her tray. I did and then she just took her teeth out. I had never known she had false teeth. I don’t even know when she got them. But seeing her there, small, skinny and toothless being fed painkillers from an IV, I felt like I wasn’t looking at my Nana. My Nana got sick, yes, but she also weeded in the garden, hung up hummingbird feeders, pretended to get mad about the deer eating her tomatoes and gave amazing chills. I had lost my Nana. The hospital took her from me. Cancer may have taken her from earth but the hospital took all I had left.
I love my Nana. Love, in the present tense, she’s still with me now. Cancer, no cancer, the heart never lets go. It’s been three years; it took me that long to finally type about it. I’ve grieved, we all grieve, we still grieve. I can go days now without thinking about it. I still think of her often, in the places and people she left behind. In my Papa and my dad and my mom who was her daughter in more than just law. In the kid who grew and learned in a hospital. In innocence. She’s there.
But god, the antiseptic. The chemical that tries too hard to clean the germs from a place of death. Goodness I hate it so. I can’t smell it even now; even now it burns my heart. I wish hospital walls weren’t so white, I wish hospital lights weren’t so bright, I wish hospital floor didn’t squeak so much, and I wish that hospital cleaning men were barred from using antiseptic.
My Nana never smelled like antiseptic though, bathed as she was in chemo and chemicals. She smelled like love and home and a past and beauty. She was my Nana.
In Memory of Judy Feinberg Z’’L (of blessed memory). I love you Nana.
Age 15, Grade 10
Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Brave