Rona Maynard Let's Talk

Letters from Rona

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 December 31, 2012 @ 5:53 AM. File in Time and change


Your comments

Number of Comments  11 responses to "The mystery of the burnt-toast smell"

Deb Pascoe
December 31, 2012 at 8:08AM
Rona, how wonderful to rediscover your blog! I am relieved and happy that burned toast smells did not lead to a tragic diagnosis. Getting older certainly calls attention to one's mortality in bright, buzzing neon. I agree with your take on it, that it's important to be grateful. Every day will be someone's worst day ever, and I try to remember to be thankful when I am not the one tapped for such a day.
December 31, 2012 at 8:08AM
What a relief for you! I'm blown away that you got your MRI so soon. Our system is still working, although we do hear lots of horror stories about long waits for diagnostic tests such as MRI.
Rona Maynard
December 31, 2012 at 11:11 AM
Our doctor has connections. In this case it's two-tier health care that was working.
January 02, 2013 at 5:05AM
As somebody married to a neurosurgeon, I'll admit I began to notice a muscle clenching in my gut about midway through this "letter". You are so right, smelling burnt toast that isn't there can mean some pretty awful news is going to be delivered. I am so grateful it wasn't your turn to be on the receiving end of bad news, and happy to see you are back to sharing your news, good or bad, with the rest of us here on the blog!
Rona Maynard
January 02, 2013 at 5:05 AM
Good to see you again, too, Deb. And by the way, Texas is now one of my favourite places to visit.
Ruth Pennebaker
January 18, 2013 at 5:05PM
Oh, lord, what a scary story. But how nice you're back online. I've missed you.
January 21, 2013 at 3:03PM
So glad to hear everything is well! I am about 18 months away from being the same age my Mother was when she was initially diagnosed with esophogeal cancer that later metasized into stage 4 lung cancer. I am starting to have some health issues myself and have had cancer in the past, so the closer I get to that magic mark of 54, the more I worry about my future. Once you have seen one or several family members undergo chemo, surgery, and radiation, and know it only borrows a short amount of time, and does not cure it, you tend not to want to experience them yourself.
June 07, 2013 at 5:05PM
I smelled burnt toast this morning in our house and no rhyme nor reason for it. And then this afternoon as I was retrieving the mail outside at work, I smelled it again. And it was a lot stronger. But as I live in a different part of town then I work in I am bamfoolzed about what this could mean.
Rona Maynard
June 09, 2013 at 4:04 AM
Susan, you were having olfactory hallucinations that could be a symptom of any number of things. They could also mean nothing at all. I don't want to worry you but I suggest you consult your doctor. I had a brain MRI, which found no reason for concern. I haven't had any further olfactory hallucinations. Who knows why they ever occurred?
August 07, 2013 at 12:12AM
Hi Rona, accidentally found your post whilst searching for a different smell issue. I also have experienced the smell of burnt toast in bed. If I recall it was in the days when I used to have a lie in (probably 20-30 years ago) and I have never had a serious illness. I am now 63yo
Jennifer Holton
August 18, 2013 at 3:03PM
Hello, this morning while drinking my coffee before work I got the very strong smell of burnt toast, so strong that I had to check that I did not put bread in the toaster. I have also found that lately, I am much slower at typing, trying to think of the words and how they are spelt. I am being urged by a family member to immediately seek a doctor's opinion, although it is Sunday and I have just finished an eight hour shift at work, I don't rightly feel like sitting in an ER for any number of hours.......suggestions??rnThank you rnJennifer
Rona Maynard
August 19, 2013 at 12:12 PM
Hi, Jennifer. Your relative is right: you should definitely seek medical help. If you don't have a family doctor, you might try a walk-in clinic, where you'll probably be referred to a specialist. It's an alternative to the ER and should involve a shorter wait.
CC Writer
May 12, 2014 at 2:02PM
We moved recently and I smell burnt toast almost every afternoon when I get home from work! My husband smells it too so I don't think we both have a medical issue. Drives me crazy. Some days are worse than others, like nauseating, maybe because of wind direction? Haven't remembered to ask the neighbors about it because it only happens in the afternoon. Anybody ever find the source of these smells, assuming it wasn't medical related.
July 06, 2014 at 2:02PM
I have been smelling burnt toast at all hours but I ask the neighbour's' if they had burnt toast & they Say "No" My Mum is in hospital at the present after breaking her hip but in 1994 she had a anurism & stroke. I am a bit worried now as I always dread the worst x Best Regards, Maria.
Rona Maynard
July 14, 2014 at 1:01 PM
Hi, Maria. I know what it's like to fear bad medical news but please don't let this stop you from seeing a doctor without delay. You need to get the facts and have the problem treated if you have one or move on if you don't.
July 12, 2014 at 1:01PM
I was still inbed when I thaught my spouse was making toast ,when I got up I asked him he said no .So I am trying to find out what this means.My vision also gets blurry as I'm typing this off and on,I had a eye check up and there was nothing wrong. My hemoglobin is also,low can't explain why.
Rona Maynard
July 14, 2014 at 1:01 PM
Irene, you need to see your doctor and get this checked out. It could very well be nothing serious but you should definitely find out for sure. Hoping you hear good news, Rona
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