The Clothes

We stood at the threshold to our boiler room, a dimly lit corner of the basement that housed stacks of boxes with her clothes. Dad and I had been picking away at her things each time I returned home. My brother was never a part of this ritual — “they’re women’s clothes” my dad would say. The truth is it’s still a bit surreal, even now, when the three of us are together: too many awkward gaps in conversation where her wit would fit in, a negative space in our family picture.

I peeled through each item, some holding stories I’d never know. Last time, it was the shoes. This time: the sweaters, the shirts, the bras and nightgowns.

Her smell lingered, hanging in the air, and it took all of my patience to decide what made the cut. A “no” felt like a rejection of her or the significance of a day she wore it. A “yes” was a confirmation; this is something I could keep — parts of her I could carry with me. Some of her favorite things I clung to knowing I’d never make good use of them. If she loved them that much, no matter how unflattering they were, there had to be some merit to them I wasn’t seeing in this moment.

I watched as my dad pieced through the same things I did, speaking barely above an audible whisper for fear that if he spoke any louder I could hear the quivering he was trying to hide in his voice; sneaking smells of her clothes he thought I didn’t see, peeling through lingerie I didn’t know she owned and watching his heart break all over again. I’m old enough now that those particular items didn’t embarrass me. I’m lucky I had two parents who didn’t just love each other but were passionate about each other — even after two kids and an illness that rotted her body away.

Once we were done, my dad ventured upstairs to grab heavy duty trash bags he’d bought for this particular occasion.

“I’ll donate the rest of this,” he said, head hung.

The rejects were strewn about on the floor, melting into each other. They seemed like a map of time: a physical representation of my mother and the memories that had already started slipping away subconsciously. This was something I had come to terms with being unable to control. I imagined someone picking up her favorite sweater from a long rack of thrift store items, not understanding that that was the sweater she wore on my thirteenth birthday — the one I told her I thought was hideous. That person, whoever they were, would wear it not understanding that it housed a moment in time; a person who I wished I could go back to. I can’t shake the feeling that there should be someone else here. I can’t help feeling as though some adult, someone more qualified and responsible than me, should show up and take over.

I sat in the empty basement, staring at the measly box of things I had been bestowed the privilege of keeping and exhaled a long, thin stream toward the ceiling. There was nothing to say. There would be nothing to say for a long time.

When he returns, we begin piling the rejects into each bag with no semblance of organization. Somehow, this process is more aggressive than it needs to be. We throw things in bags with force, grit. It makes her death final. The gavel has struck, the case is closed.

As a kid, I had been attached to my dad: I still remember days we spent fishing out on the lake for 12 hours a day relaying long-winded stories and being comfortable with silence. I remember him rooting me on at tennis matches and soccer games. Slowly, as I grew older, we became frustrated when we couldn’t find common ground anymore and, in true Cychowski fashion, neither of us wanted to swallow our pride and talk about it.

With the loneliness I felt after she passed, I reached out to a person I had pushed out of my life. The further we are from her death, the more I see us filling in her gaps. Her absence made our minds pick the things we missed and admired most, the things we couldn’t part with and tried to take on instead. He has become more soft with age, more sympathetic, more sensitive. I overreact, I am overprotective, I worry relentlessly about “her boys” — my brother and father. We are learning what it means to continue on without our foundation.

I steal his shirts, the same way she used to. I listen with the accuracy of a tape recorder when he recounts stories of his life in Poland and his first marriage. I pay attention to the way he seasons his chili and does laundry. I do my best to call him every other day and talk to him about more than just work and my life. I ask him his favorite color, his opinion on an outfit, how he feels about the current political climate. I know this is partially because of her loss: I will always wonder how my grief will be different with him. A part of me knows I am trying to cement the little things in my head as protection for the second go around.

My parents’ small walk-in closet now holds one set of shirts on the left. A few have migrated to the empty side: my father’s attempt at making things equal, less empty, less of a reminder of what we are leaving behind.