When he found out he was dying, my grandfather took my grandmother shopping. They left the doctor’s office reeling from the diagnosis — pancreatic cancer, a quick and guaranteed killer — and drove a maze of southern California freeways until they ended up at a department store in Pasadena. They wandered dazedly through the store, these two slender, alert people whose shadows stuck a little closer to their bodies, fingers slipping along racks of denim and holding onto rubbery escalator handrails.
Eventually, around a rack of sweaters, Al looked at Verna. They weren’t big shoppers. “I guess I should buy you a sweater to remember me by,” he said.
She didn’t need a sweater to remember him, of course. It was an awkward gesture from a dying man in a complicated marriage. She doesn’t remember whether they bought a sweater, but she remembers him every day, 27 years later. She remembers the engagement ring he was so happy to give her that he forgot to propose. She remembers what he wore when he was buried. She remembers the round rack of sweaters at the Robinson’s May in Pasadena.
What do we do with the clothing of grief? I bought a black dress years ago to wear to a friend’s wedding, but when a funeral came up a few months later, it was the only appropriate piece of clothing I owned. I’ve worn it to several funerals since and can’t bring myself to wear it to any other occasion, touched by death as it has been. After making an appearance at my friend’s wedding, the dress became set apart for a different purpose. In this sense, it is like Victorian mourning clothing, which was always set aside for the specific purpose of mourning — no little black dresses doing double duty for a cocktail party and a wake, but enormous black crepe dresses worn every day for years until the mourning period was over, or until full mourning lapsed into half mourning with its gentler rules of apparel.
I had reason to wonder about this again when I was cleaning out my closet last month. On the top shelf I keep a small box with bathing suits and other items of clothing I use infrequently. Removing the lid, I lifted up the gray sweater I had worn to the doctor’s office in August.
“It zips up the back!” I had told my husband when he questioned whether I really needed another gray sweater. “I can undo it as my belly gets bigger!” I’d tried to demonstrate how the zipper would allow room for my stomach to grow, but it got stuck about one inch from the bottom. I pantomimed a pregnant belly larger than my growing bump. “Maternity!” I yelled, giant grin on my face. My penchant for gray sweaters would have to be indulged as long as my body was changing. I had started to feel better after months of morning sickness, and that trip to Nordstrom Rack to buy a new sweater was part of what made me feel human again.
The zipper was still stuck an inch from the bottom when I took the sweater out of the box. There were mascara stains on the sleeve. That pregnancy turned into nothing at all — a heartbeat at 9 weeks, then, at 13 weeks, nothing — and the gray sweater was the one part of it I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of. Throwing it away seemed impossible and somehow unkind to the memory of the pregnancy, but wearing it was out of the question. So it went in the closet, and so it has stayed these last six months, through national upheaval and a second miscarriage and a million other questions about the nature of the world.
I realize this sounds very adolescent, but I keep these clothes — the gray sweater, the black dress — because I want to remember that the pain was real. The passage of time dulls the sharpness of memories and convinces me that perhaps the pain was never so bad. Other people have survived this, I hear my mind say, why are you so special? So the sadness gets tucked away with the sweater, to be pulled out and examined several times a year and then put back away where its nearness to death cannot touch me. I think now about the sweater my grandfather wanted to buy for my grandmother, and about the sweaters that she wears — solid colors, cardigans, neutral tones. An aesthetic that can wash from one place to the next, bleeding days into each other. We hold pain in our bodies and then cover those bodies with clothes, and in some strange osmosis the pain is drawn into the fabric and woven together with scent, time, and loss.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about grief, Joan Didion writes about giving away her husband’s clothing after he has died. She goes into his closet and folds piles of the shirts he wore on their early morning walks through Central Park, bundles them up, and takes them to the Episcopal church across the street. She opens another closet and collects socks and shorts in bags. She returns for his shoes, but she cannot quite bring herself to give the rest of them away. “I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.”
If time heals all wounds (it doesn’t), then how do we examine the wounds that still plague us? We need a physical connection to the abstracted pain of past loss. The gray sweater, the black dress, the sweater set, the running shoes — in the instant of death, they become more than the sum of their parts. Their purpose is no longer to hide our nakedness or impress others or carry us from place to place. They are small monuments to monumental grief.
And so we keep the clothing of grief, or we give it away. We pack it into a container. We inhale its scent, remember its promises, wish it could transport us back to the moments before the bad thing happened. The gray sweater is all I have of the miscarriage, and I won’t wash it or wear it again until I have a healthy child. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. It’s pure foolishness to think that this is a talisman against future losses, future grief. Anything I wear — anything I put on in the morning, or again at night — could, in an instant, become weighted with the gravity of loss.
My grandmother has lived alone these last 27 years. She falls asleep on a king-sized bed and wakes in her long nightgown, looking like nothing so much as a little girl from Texas who has somehow lost her way. She plays tennis and chases her cat and climbs up and down her stairs for exercise on rainy days. But someday, we will go through her drawers and divide up the things that she wore. She won’t know, though. She’ll be somewhere else, wearing new clothes, and I will be wearing the clothing of grief.