The Shirt

What strikes me about grief is how random it is. One day I will be fine, living my life and functioning well. Then something small will remind me of my dad and I’ll be consumed with sadness. The room recedes, the voices around me become white noise. Suddenly I’m in a glass box, imprisoned by memories

One time it was ice cream. It was three or four months after my father died. I was at a lunch with several people, a cafeteria-type place. One of the women had a container of vanilla ice cream. It looked like the one I’d fed my dad in the hospital a few days before he died, when he was in the hospice wing under “comfort” care.

I was eating my lunch and enjoying the conversation when I looked over and saw the container on her tray. The women were talking and laughing. I stared at the try and everything in the room blurred. All I could see was my father struggling to take a few bites of ice cream, his head cradled in my arm like a baby’s. It was the last food I saw him eat.

How could I explain tears that came from nowhere? A few of the women looked at me with concern. I sat there frozen. My inner people-pleaser wanted to assure them, I’m fine! It’s nothing! But I couldn’t speak.

Another day I was on the treadmill listening to an old playlist on my phone. One of my dad’s favorite songs came on, “What a Fool Believes,” by the Doobie Brothers. I used to play it for him at the memory care facility. It always cheered him up. He’d laugh and tap his foot. “This guy’s so good,” he’d say.

Just a few bars of that song and I was crying. I skipped to the next one.

What I’ve learned is the happy memories of my dad can upset me as much as the sad ones. I struggle to find the joy in them, because my mind won’t rest there. It moves past them to where I am now without him, and I feel the loss so powerfully.

Grief is a sniper. Sometimes it strikes without warning. A week ago. I was pulling out of Target when I suddenly felt my dad’s presence in the car, as if he were sitting beside me. I remembered his “passenger-driving.” He would look behind him as I was backing out and tell me it was ok. My dad never stopped looking out for me, even when I was taking care of him.

How can something change so dramatically in 30 seconds? One moment I sensed his presence and then he was snatched away. Nothing but emptiness.

I wanted so badly to hold onto him. It was an ache in my body. A minute earlier, I was fine and then so upset I had to pull over.

Hanging in my closet is my father’s red plaid shirt. After I cleaned out his room at the facility, I was struck by how small his life had become. He had hardly any belongings, just clothes and family pictures I had brought him. There was a bed, wheelchair and medical equipment that belonged to the hospice company, so it stayed behind. My dad’s whole life—88 years—fit into two small boxes.

I walked out of there broken. My caregiving days were behind me. I would never have to come back. I’d never be awakened by a call saying my dad fell or had a skin tear or was agitated, so they called the hospice nurse.

I wouldn’t have to brace myself as I walked in for a visit, wondering if he’d be angry or paranoid. Or worse, he’d be so sad nothing I said would matter. Defeat would hang on him like his baggy clothes. He was so thin at the end, less than 120 pounds.

On the best days, he’d smile when he saw me and say, “Hi Pud.” I’d bring him a piece of carrot cake. We’d listen to The Doobie Brothers. He’d be happy, eating his cake and tapping his foot. I’d hug him goodbye and he’s say, “I love you, baby” with a catch in his voice. “I love you, Dad.” I’d say. “I’ll see you again soon, ok?”

There would be no more of any of those days. Was there relief? Yes. But more so, there was sorrow.

I donated everything to charity except the red shirt. I don’t know why I chose it as there were plenty of others he regularly wore. Something about it stood out to me. It looked like him—the color and bold pattern reminded me of how vibrant he was once.

One day I wore the shirt around the house for a few hours. It hung loosely on me, reminding me that it was fit for him. I could still smell his scent, although it was long gone. I thought wearing it would comfort me but didn’t. It hurt. I took it off and hung it back in my closet, not set apart but mixed with my clothes. Every day when I pick out my outfit, I see it.

It is 10 days from the two-year anniversary of my father’s death, and I can’t stop thinking of him. Over the past few weeks, I’ve dreamed of him several times. In one two nights ago, my dad was in danger. I couldn’t convince him to leave with me. I was scared and panicked that I couldn’t keep him safe. I felt him slipping away from me. I awoke to this heaviness and despair, as if he had just died.

Today it is overcast and rainy, as it was yesterday and the day before. It seems so long since I’ve seen the sun. I wish I could make it appear right now. I’d hold up my face to it and drink it in. I’d feel its warmth and the darkness inside me would wash away.