Speak Softly and Smile

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By Wendy Hodge

Last night was one of those nights that happen every once in a while… the kind of night where you turn over a hundred times and wrestle with the sheets, trying to get comfortable but never quite finding that magic spot that allows you to finally sleep.

This morning my bed looked like the aftermath of a wrestling match, complete with crumbs from the crackers I nibbled on somewhere around 2:30 a.m. At some point during the wee hours, I grabbed a book by Steven Irwin and this line stuck with me – “The smell of her skin had a power of persuasion I could not fight. There was no remedy for it.”

It’s so true that a smell can transport us back to a place or a time…. or even back to a person. When I smell peaches, I think of a summer I spent in Virginia where I ate peaches straight from the trees and I was fiercely young and happy. Cotton candy takes me back to the first time I went to the county fair and got sick on the Tilt-A-Whirl. My date was not thrilled with me, I’m sure.

There are booming businesses centered around the strength of smell. My friend, Misty, sells Scentsy. For those not familiar, Scentsy is a company that makes scented wax that you melt in a warmer. There are dozens of delicious fragrances, and I am an absolute addict. The other day, Misty brought me a Lush Gardenia bar. The moment I opened it, I could feel my grandmother’s hand on my arm with her cool, long fingers. Just one whiff, and the tears started flowing.

Needless to say, I bought several of those bars. Scent-triggered memories are powerful things.

A few weeks ago, I was standing in Walmart contemplating the shampoo aisle. I picked up a bottle that had fresh fruit on the front and a picture of a very smug-looking young co-ed. Recognizing it as my favorite from my college days, I flipped open the top and inhaled. Like a reflex, my body recoiled as if I’d been hit. I snapped the lid shut and replaced it on the shelf. On shaky legs I walked out of the store and sank into my car. And let myself go back.

Two and a half decades ago, my sister died. It was sudden and yet seemed to last an eternity. She had been down to visit me, bringing her two young sons with her. After a weekend together, the three of them had packed up her Toyota and driven back to Virginia. It was a Monday. Sometime that afternoon, we got a phone call. There’d been a wreck on the interstate. A single-car accident. No one knows exactly what happened on that stretch of road. There were no witnesses, and my nephews were too young to be able to say much about what they’d been through. Weeks later I would see a photograph of the wreck – my sister’s car crumpled headfirst into the concrete median down the center of the highway, and my nephews sitting on the grass being attended to by EMTs. Their faces were blank, as if their souls had been airlifted along with their mother’s body to a hospital in Richmond.

I don’t remember the hours we drove in the dark, frantic to get to them. I do remember the way no one spoke as we rode, mile after mile, because we didn’t know what to say. We finally arrived and wound our way through hallways and up elevators and down more hallways until we were taken into the ICU ward where my sister was being treated. I wish I didn’t remember how she looked, lying there with bruises and cuts. Part of her hair had been shaved away, and her skin was an inhuman shade of gray and yellow.  My younger nephew was a few floors above in the same hospital. His leg had been crushed, and he was in a body cast. My older nephew was bruised and sore but had not been admitted.

While my family gathered around my sister, I spoke to the doctor. He was kind and told me the truth because he knew I needed to hear it. The chance of survival was slim. “And if she survives,” he said, “she won’t be who you remember.”

We did all we could, which wasn’t much of anything, really. We waited and we cried. We took turns sitting with my sister, talking to her and rubbing her arms. We prayed. An old hotel a block away had been converted into a hostel for family members of critical patients. We walked there slowly in the evening and pretended to sleep, tossing and turning and crying some more. We walked slowly back to the hospital in the morning and waited some more.

This went on for days. Six days, to be exact. And on the seventh day, we were called together by a physician along with a chaplain in a room down the hall from where my sister lay. There was a sign hanging outside the door that read “Speak Softly And Smile – Someone’s Heart is Breaking.” And I realized, this is the room where they tell you it’s all over. And they did. Because it was.

“She never made it home,” my sister’s husband whispered. But the truth is, I think she made it home the day she drove away from me. Because if there is a home to go to in the heavens, my Carol is there.

I think that’s why I couldn’t sleep last night. I miss her, and there isn’t anything that can make that better. The best I can do is to try to remember to speak softly and smile, because somewhere every hour of every day, someone’s heart is breaking.

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