Smelling Funny, Like a Bad Papaya
Yesterday I listened to my local public radio station and heard an explanation of why, as written in my previous post Baby Steps, I might now smell bad to myself.
An author answered questions about her recent book (my apologies, I missed her name or book title as I joined the interview after it began). A caller asked why his wife and daughter loved the smell of Mexican papaya while he hated the smell. He reported that he had read somewhere that many others hated the smell, too.
The author responded that smells were perceived based on the differences between our life experiences with the thing smelled and age or sensitivity. If I have had a bad experience eating papaya, then I may never again care for the smell of it. Alternatively, I may have more sensitive receptors of a particular scent, which may affect my perception of a smell as good or bad. Over time, the receptors in each of us are likely to dull. The author speculated that this was not merely a phenomenon relating to smell.
In the case of dulled receptors, she speculated that one’s receptors might lose strength over time because, as we age, we lose interest in rejecting smells and become indifferent to them. She likened this to weakening as we approach death. We may fight a thing when young and give up the battle as we age. She offered one caveat. If a person faces repeated exposure to something unpleasant, then, over the course of a lifetime or a career, one’s distatste could grow.
As an example, a police officer who investigates deaths might grow more disgusted by the smell of death (or sight of it) over a career.
Her other comment was that we become accepting of a disgusting odor if it is in the family. Thus, I might gag while changing a baby’s diaper but find the diapers of a family member tolerable. Another caller from the health industry said that, in her experience, there were people who drew the line at mouth care, upper body smells, lower body smells, but seldom all of them. The author allowed that an individual could be more sensitive to some smells than others even if exposed to them constantly.
One possible interpretation of the foregoing is that the author reports on a field for which no reliable data exists. Why else might one offer so many conflicting explanations for the phenomenon?
I prefer the first explanation. I dislike the way I smell today because I attribute the change to physical changes when the changes are the unhappy results of my disliking the physical changes made to my body by radiation and chemotherapy. I really would not care to think that I smell badly and always will.
I would not care to think that I will perceive myself as smelling worse as I grow older. If one dislikes the smell of papaya, there must be nothing worse than an old papaya. It might be a comfort to think that older men will find me more appealing, except that I hate the thought that anyone would stand upwind of me to avoid gagging until he grew to like me.
No one currently has as his or her job the regular exposure to me. However, it would be interesting to determine whether those who dislike me also dislike my smell. It sounds like a natural defense against a predator–like a skunk’s musky odor released in times of danger. What might my new odor repel? I would like to know.
Of course I am comforted by the thought that family and friends will find me acceptable no matter how rank my odor because of their familiarity with me. I would like to think that anyone who loves me will find me tolerable even if I have changed in respects that I could not control. They already put up with many of my least attractive characteristics. As the author intimated that other senses are subject to similar perception, this would suggest that familiarity breeds tolerance, rather than contempt. I am reminded of when my father’s mother was in a nursing home. My aunt and I, along with a caregiver I hired, took certain nights to visit Grandma K at dinner time. Before we left, we helped Grandma into a nightgown and tucked her into bed. She did not like to sit in her wheelchair before a TV in a public area. She wanted her dinner, her nightie, a Meltaway Mint, her own TV, and a hug or kiss.
On many occasions, I wiped my grandma’s bottom after helping her to and from the commode. She was uncomfortable with this because she hated the thought of imposing on me–until I told her that it was my honor to wipe the royal bottom. She laughed. I know she understood that I loved her so much that nothing about her could disgust me. Nevertheless, there was a day in August, just prior to her October death, when she threw up in my lap. I saw the look on her face. She was mortified. I was not disgusted. But she lost her will to live in the weeks following that event. I started to visit every day, trying to encourage her to live. Each day she grew weaker until she ceased to communicate. I kept visiting. I saw her the night before she died and, even then, she was dear to me in ways I cannot explain–in ways I need not explain to anyone who has watched a loved one die. There really must be something to that notion that treasured family and friends are always dear. Even if I cannot accept the changes in me because of their negative associations with cancer treatment, I hope that those who matter most will always love me (and pretty much everything about me) like I loved my grandma.
I would like to think that, as time passes, I will love myself enough to lose my own distaste for the new me.
That is, perhaps, the greatest gift accorded by a loved one–tolerance of one’s loved ones even if they begin to smell like a bad papaya.