While walking down a busy street in Paris, all of a sudden, I smelled his smell.
His smell. My head snapped around like a weather-vane as I looked in every direction to see where he was, but to no avail. I turned around and scanned the crowds. He was nowhere to be seen. Of course, I knew that he wouldn’t be here.
I should have known better, but I still did it. A reflex, I suppose.
Two years later, I am in New York having dinner with my mother and sister when all of a sudden, out of the blue, it hits me. It’s him. It’s his smell. He’s here. He’s close by. I turn around as a well-dressed man and an elegant woman brush past our table to leave the restaurant.
How dare anyone else sport his scent? Cool Water by Davidoff. The one I’d come to associate with him. The one I inhaled deeply from his neck or clothes when he hugged me or kissed me good night. The one that has me behaving like a fool when I know full well I’ll never see him again. Ever.
He’s been gone for almost 25 years and yet, it still happens. Not as often, just once in awhile. Except that now, I don’t freak out when I smell him in the streets. I still look around, just in case, but my heart doesn’t start pounding anymore. Nor do I have the expectation that I’ll catch a glimpse of him in a random place.
I used to think: did I dream it all? Can it be that I got it all wrong and that he’s not really dead? My rational self knows better, but nonetheless...
Now, when it happens, I smile. I decided long ago that I’d take those random moments as a little sign from him. In my head and in my heart, I say hi to him and tell him: thanks! Thanks, for never letting me forget you. For still walking amongst us via the surrogacy of other men’s fragrance choices.
He died a month after my twin girls were born. He had multiple myeloma.
He’d had it for 17 years. That was unheard of at the time as the typical survival rate was less than five years. More like one or two. He was incredibly lucky-- if one can put luck and cancer in the same sentence. His cancer lay dormant for 12 years. Until one day it wasn’t anymore. One day, it decided to rear its ugly head and become ‘aggressive’, just like that.
The bones in his spine started breaking. He was in agonizing pain. He was living in the South of France when his descent into hell started. I was 25 years old. The same age my daughters are today.
I had to take a leave of absence from work at Bear Stearns where I was a stockbroker. I flew to Nice and stayed with a dear family friend for almost three months. She was my mother’s age and I had gone to school with her three kids in Frankfurt, Germany where we all lived at the time.
Despite the age difference, she and I became very close. Not as a mother-daughter, but more like a friend. A confidante. Annie had lost her husband to cancer a few years prior and was very familiar with what I was going through. She knew that when I’d come home after being at the hospital all day with my dad, I perhaps didn’t want to talk. She gave me space. Dinner was always ready, and she was there for me if I wanted her to be. I always chose to talk to her because she would lovingly distract me by telling me about what she’d bought at the farmers’ market that day and what the various vendors had to say about the weather, their crops or what the latest gossip was. It lightened the mood and made me feel like I had a life outside the white walls of the hospital my father was in.
We would talk about books all the time. I didn’t particularly care for watching TV after my long days in the hospital. I craved silence and peace. I needed to retreat and lose myself in a good story. It’s what kept me sane. Still does. Books have always been my best friends and my favorite escape.
After two months of my being there, my father took a turn for the worst. One of his thoracic and lumbar vertebrae had broken at the same time. They’d outfitted him with a corset that had metal bones that would hold his spine upright and intact. But he had developed sepsis from the port in his chest where his chemo got delivered. They had to operate and take it out immediately and put him on massive doses of antibiotics. He made it through. His oncologist told me he wanted to talk to me and that I should call him later that day.
There were no cell phones at the time. Just pay phones. I called him from the hallway phone on my father’s floor. There was no preamble. There were no comforting words. His sentence came just like that: “Your father is in bad shape. His bones keep breaking despite our treatments. We are not sure there is anything else that we can do for him. I am sorry”. “How long does he have?”, I asked. It felt surreal. Like in a movie. I never thought I would ever have to ask that question. But I had to. I had to know. “Six months to a year” is what I heard. I couldn’t breathe. Blood was whooshing in my ears. My heart dropped. So did my knees. I managed to say something like “thanks for telling me” to which he responded “he’s lucky he made it this long with what he has” and I hung up. I had to shut him up. I cursed the doctor in French under my breath: “Espèce de con”, which translates to a nicer version of you A-hole. Who does that? Telling someone that their father is going to die soon over the phone, not in person. Face to face -- as common decency would dictate.
Now what? I knew something that no one else knew. My father’s expiration date.
How do I tell my mother and my sister? How do I tell his sister, mother, and niece? How do I look my father in the eyes and pretend I don’t know?
The rest of that day was spent in a daze. I kissed my father when he awoke from his surgery and looked into his eyes. I loved his eyes. They always sparkled with mischief. I’ve often been told that I have the same eyes as him. Just greener. But there was no spark anymore. Just pain and questioning: How much longer? How much longer would he have to endure the pain and discomfort? Would this be his new normal? I pretended I didn’t see the unasked questions in his eyes. I told him that now, our priority was to get him stronger so that he could get up and start walking again.
After a week of treatments, his sepsis was gone and he started improving - both physically and mentally. After three weeks, he was back in physical therapy, cracking jokes with the staff and the spark in his eyes was back. Small victories that seemed so huge at the time.
He’d been through much worse when he was young. He’d survived World War II by hiding in Budapest, Hungary. He’d come close to death so many times that he had stopped counting. He had survived due to grit, determination and cunning. He’d hidden in plain sight during a house search by covering himself with dead bodies. People who’d been shot, just minutes, ago while he was in another room. It was the only choice he had, so he took it, no matter how horrifying that must have been for him.
Our favorite story was when he was a young medical student, he one day smuggled medications out of the university’s pharmacy to his sick niece (who was in hiding with her parents) and got stopped in the streets by the Hungarian Arrow Cross (the Hungarian version of the Nazis, but more evil and ruthless). “Jew, stop!” “Hey Jew, you, stop right now or we’ll shoot you down like a dog”. He turns around and looks at them in the eyes and says: “ Are you talking to me?” “How dare you call me a Jew?!” “I’m no Jew. I’m with you. I am one of you. Whenever I see one of those Jewish vermin, I think, good riddance”. “So, how dare you insult me? I’m Hungarian. My whole family has been for generations. I am pure blood. There is not an ounce of Jewish blood in me. Want me to pull my pants down and prove it to you right now?” as he starts loosening his belt and drops his trousers. The Arrow cross soldiers start laughing and tell him to pull his pants back up. They ask him why he’s out in the streets at night? He tells them an uncle is sick and he’s bringing him some medication. They shrug and let him go. Just like that. Death defied!
Back to my father in the hospital in France.
After multiple conversations and planning with my mother, sister, and aunt who were in New York City, we decided to airlift him from the hospital in the South of France to New York. His oncologist had given up on him, but we had found someone who specialized in multiple myeloma and who had a plan for him.
He made the transatlantic flight on a stretcher with my mother and sister sitting with him at the back of the plane. The one time he actually had all the leg-room he needed, he was asleep most of the time. Luckily, all went smoothly and he made it to NYC unscathed.
There, at Beth Israel, his new hospital, the team of dedicated doctors and nurses got him the best care that he could have gotten. Within a month, he was up and walking again. He had a new corset made for him to keep him together. He received physical therapy in his room and eventually he graduated to walking to the rehabilitation area.
The first day he got up and walked by himself, he started crying, as he didn’t think he’d ever be able to do so again. My mother witnessed it and started crying as well. He was so emotional and so proud of his daily progress and new landmarks. He felt that he was given a new lease on life. And he was.
He believed again. He didn’t know how long he would last, but he believed he could maybe beat the terrible hand that he’d been dealt. Because he was a doctor himself, he was able to attend staff meetings about his case and be privy to a lot more information about his treatment plan than the average patient might have been.
Two months later, he was discharged from Beth Israel and was able to live on his own. Amazing! A family friend who was a nurse in Hungary said she’d come and stay with him. She made sure he didn’t do anything that could cause him to break more bones. We all knew that he had a tendency to not follow orders, and he still needed help getting to and from appointments amongst other things.
Two years later, at my wedding, he walked me down the aisle. He wore a tuxedo and his corset underneath it. We all had tears in our eyes and he wore his Ray-Ban sunglasses to not show his own tears and emotions. Who would have believed it two years prior, when the doctor in Nice had told me that he wouldn’t live past a year at the most?
Two years after that, I gave birth to twin girls and he flew to San Francisco to meet them the afternoon they were born. He spent a week with me getting to know them and hold them. A week after that, he made his way to Little Rock, AK where he was to get a bone marrow transplant to try and outsmart his multiple myeloma. The disease wasn't well known back then and the only two places that had experimental protocols were Mass General in Boston and this hospital in Little Rock. He chose the latter as the professor in charge of oncology and of this new protocol had been one of his protégées at a hospital in Frankfurt where he was the chief of staff.
Sadly, it didn’t work and he died two weeks later. He was 69 years old.
I was heartbroken. We all were.
I still miss him but get to smell him every once in a while-- in random places, and I smile.