Brand building through storytelling

The mystery of the burnt-toast smell

My husband keeps unusual hours and has been known to get peckish in the night, so I didn’t pay much attention to the acrid smell that woke me on November 25, sometime around 3. I knew it right away: burnt toast. I lay in bed contemplating a faint clatter from the kitchen and fell asleep again within minutes.

I didn’t mention the smell to my husband until it recurred a week later at roughly the same time. This time I padded out of bed to find him puttering at his computer, baffled by my question about burnt toast. I might as well have asked if he’d been skateboarding in the living room. My husband hadn’t burned any toast. Not that night or any night within memory. We groped for some other explanation. An insomniac neighbour across the hall?

I’ve always loved the aroma of warm toast crisped at the edges to the colour of an almond skin. It recalls every slice of toast I’ve savoured, dating back to the oatmeal toast my mother used to make with molasses-flavoured loaves from a country store that prized its traditions. We raced to butter our thick, hand-cut slices straight from the toaster, so that each pore gleamed with gold. Now I favour more ambitious toppings: cream cheese with smoked New York salmon, hazelnut butter with a smear of blood orange marmalade, spiced goat cheese from the local farmers’ market. My freezer teems with breads of character–everything from pumpkin to fig and nut?lest I run short of options for my morning toast. But I’ll be down to the last frosty crust in the freezer before I eat burnt toast. No scraping for me–it never gets all rid of all the charred crumbs. Burnt toast is imagined satisfaction turned to disgust by a moment’s inattention. And now the smell of it was invading my sleep. Could I be hallucinating?

When things don’t make sense, I can count on my husband to be rational: “Next time you smell burnt toast, come and get me.” One thing about a nocturnal spouse: I can count on him to be awake and alert if something weird happens in the witching hours. That night as I drifted back to sleep, he stood beneath the closest air vent to our bedroom, inhaling deeply. He detected something odd, he told me in the morning. Fumes in the air vent! We had a theory! I positioned myself in the same spot and inhaled a vaguely chemical oddness that was nothing like burnt toast.

I had a chat about the smell with our superintendant, who knows every cranny of his building as I once knew the tender body of my infant. My conundrum intrigued him. He promised to ask the other people on our floor if they’d been burning toast at odd hours. “We have a nice bunch in this building,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll be help.” (I wasn’t so sure about that, but it seemed churlish to argue.) He proposed the following explanation for the smell: insomniac across the hall burns toast just as the morning paper arrives before dawn, opens his front door to retrieve the paper and releases fumes that proceed to snake under our front door. around a thick-walled corner and down a hallway to the master bedroom. The super stroked his chin as if a more convincing theory were about to strike him. “I’m pretty sure I’ve read something about the smell of burnt toast. Beats me what it is, though. You could Google it.”

I thought I had at least an inkling of what this Google search would uncover?mechanical stuff involving pipes and vents. Every building has its mysteries. Why not mine? So I could not have been more dismayed to find page upon page of citations on more ominous mysteries, the kind that lodge deep in the brain. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, brain tumours…the smell of burnt toast has been linked to them all.

I had indeed been having hallucinations. Olfactory hallucinations, to be precise. And back when I first realized the smell might not be real, I couldn’t remember the word “olfactory.” I had to Google “pertaining to the sense of smell.” My mother died of a brain tumour, its first symptom a scrambled vocabulary. She’d been dreading Alzheimer’s, which ran in her family; better to be dying of cancer. Olfactory hallucination. The words tolled on my screen like a bell. I e-mailed an SOS to our family doctor, pleading, “What do you suggest?” His answer was swift and blunt: “Brain MRI.”

No “We just need to rule out a brain tumour.” No “There are all kinds of perfectly benign things this could be.” I could have felt grateful for his vigilance, but personal history tripped my panic button. It seemed to me that he was riding into battle against the cancer that had killed my mother–and now might be coming back for me.

I once saw the scan that confirmed my mother’s fate. The only thing I remember, nearly 24 years later, is that her head was uncharacteristically bowed, as if in awe at the tumour that had already plundered her legendary brain of nearly all its accumulated riches from the English canon (name the poet, she could quote him) to the macaroni and cheese she’d been cooking by heart all her life. She somehow retained her capacity for wonder and I recall her saying, with more curiosity than regret, “Every day another part of me stops working.” What had stopped that particular day was control of her bowels. She was three or four years older than I am now.

I nearly shared the uncertain status of my brain with my sister, my son and a friend who happened to call when I was feeling shaky. But why worry them before the facts were in? Aside from my husband and our doctor, the only person in the loop was one of my oldest friends, who has a neurological condition that will not get better. This friend is something of an expert on bizarre symptoms like mine and was able to persuade me, as no one else could, that it was much too soon to panic. Days passed without the faintest whiff of burnt toast. Even so, I put our winter vacation plans on hold.

I showed up 12 hours early for my MRI. The date was December 12, just 15 days after my first e-mail to the doctor. In my distraction, I misread the appointment notice, but the receptionist was kind enough to squeeze me in. As I waited, my eye fell on the patient in the hall. He lay motionless on a gurney, bald and stitched all over from surgery. Not so long ago he had walked among the Well. Now he had crossed over to the Sick. Someday my turn would come. And this test could bring the news that unravelled everything. The Big One.

The results arrived on December 28. “No abnormality involving the brain.” No explanation for the smell either, but why quibble? Chances are I will never again be so certain that I do not have a brain tumour. I’m still savouring the news, like a box of extra-special Christmas chocolates to be enjoyed one or two at a time until nothing is left but gilt paper. I feel cleansed of anxiety, awash in gratitude for the vigilance of my doctor, the comforting words of my friend, the steadying presence of my husband. The superintendant for listening, the receptionist for understanding. I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, but I’d like to hold onto these things. Because, soon enough, it will be my turn for the Big One.

Posted by Rona

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