Grief in Clothes
When my sister lay in the hospital, dying but not knowing it, she kept asking, “Do I have any clothes here?”
“Yes,” I would say, nestled against her on the narrow hospital bed. “Your kitty — cat sweater.”
“Good. I’ll need it when I go home. When will that be?”
I’d never lie to her, so it’s good I didn’t know either.
She had spent a few days in a coma, and from the last few weeks she remembered little. She remembered that our father died in mid-January. She cried that she wasn’t at the funeral and I cried with her and told her it was not her fault she got sick. She outlived him by one month.
I have my father’s sweater vest. I have my sister’s kitty — cat sweater. It’s been two years and I haven’t dry-cleaned either: I can still smell them on their clothes. Soft warm familiar scents nestled in woolen fibers. I try to prolong it and wear them only rarely, when I miss them too acutely.
My mom got old quick, double grief steeling her at first and then crumpling. Two month later she got a cancer diagnosis. She got better with surgery and radiation.
She doesn’t leave home much. I still buy her clothes: nice pants in beige wool that doesn’t show cat hair, a patterned summer dress. She would never wear a robe even if there’s no one there to see her. For colder months, I bought her an alpaca cape. She says she’s the most stylish old lady in her neighborhood. She always wears lipstick.
We grieved together, doing small thing that reassured us but there was still life: going to museums, concerts, cafes. Buying each other extravagant gifts. My only statement bag is from her, a bright — red testament that my mother, gutted, still wanted me to feel something good, even if trivial. Triviality is reassuring; it is the stuff of life.
A new cancer diagnosis for her: stage four, metastatic. She has lost her hair to chemo. We Skype weekly, talk on the phone more often. “When you come over next time,” she said recently, “bring me a dress. Blue or green, just not black, with long sleeves and high collar.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“You know.” I do.
I grieve my mother’s pre-death and look at dresses online. First time in my life, I don’t look for natural fabrics.
I get the call. I make the neighbor to put the phone receiver to her ear even though they are not sure she can hear me (she can.) “Wait for me.” I say, “I’m on my way.”
I pack in 10 minutes, leave for the airport in two hours. I am home in 14. I make it in time to tell her, “I love you, I’m here.” She lives two more hours.
Waiting for someone to die is a strange thing: you hope it won’t be today or tomorrow, you wake up every morning hoping it’s not that day, until it is. Still, you do not wear your black dress just in case you need it right away and there is no time for dry cleaning. I’m glad I packed it.
It is September in Moscow, and it is colder than usual, and I have no warm clothes. I wear my mom’s alpaca to her services, and then give it away because I cannot bear looking at it without my mom’s shape swaddled in it. I order a jacket: they know me at that store, and when I come in to pick it up, everyone is silent as they hand me the bag with my black jacket folded inside like a sleeping thing.
Grieving is like having a resource-intensive program running constantly in the background: even when you are doing normal things, daily things, your memory and your battery life are shit, and everything takes forever; there is always missing time. Your brain is rebuilding around a gaping hole, trying to form new connections around the crater of absence, spinning tentative bridges across the chasm of Saturday mornings when you always had your Skype dates. It is constant work, most of which happens behind your awareness, and you cry when it floats up.
I dress in black as mourners do, with dark charcoal and navy. I understand now: it requires no matching and no planning, it is simple clothes that require no thought and look okay. They do not show dirt, which is nice when laundry is too much to face when you barely holding it together for necessities. Mourning clothes are the emblem of simplification for survival, life-saving routines that conserve the resources. I exercise and go for walks and do crossword puzzles and read fashion blogs because they are routines, protection, they are not letting me overheat from too much processing.
I give away her things to neighbors, to the woman who came by to help with cleaning, to her social worker. I keep small, incongruous things: a scarf and a pair of socks, worn ankle boots, handkerchiefs. I run around and file paperwork, and arrange and organize, pick up her ashes and put them in the ground. It is raining always, and I am wrapped in black, soft, woolen. I am wearing soot become clothes.
Some people find spiritual comfort in churches; I prefer beautiful retail spaces. I go to the store where mirrors are cracked and warped, wooden floors and bleached pale, and on the racks there is Yohji Yamamoto, Haider Ackerman, Comme Comme, grandma Demeuleemeister. They know me here: when I call that I will come by, there is a dressing room prepared for me filled with black woolen things.
“There is a skirt that is really good for twirling,” the salesman says with a small shrug. “You’ll like it, I think.”
I buy the skirt. You never know when you might feel like twirling again.
(Picture: My jacket and dress)