The day my son was hospitalized for suicidal ideation, he was wearing a graphic t-shirt. It features a pixelated video game character he loves, frozen in a jaunty pose. The shirt went with him from one hospital to another, along with his pants and socks. When he came home, I threw the shirt into the washer, then dryer. I folded it and returned it to him.
He wears it often so I wash it often. During the weeks following his hospitalization, I’d see him wearing it or in a rumpled pile. It rudely reminded me of that horrible day and night. There’s a huge disconnect between the innocence and energy of the t-shirt and how he was feeling. Outward appearances are dangerously deceptive. The mustachioed hero on his chest is perpetually posed leaping into action. Meanwhile, behind 100% cotton, beat a heart that wished to cease.
The shirt is still in his t-shirt rotation. I wonder if he thinks about that day when he pulls it over his head. Does he recall what he wore to save his life?
A couple of months after my dad died, my mom gave a bag of his shirts to pass to my husband and sons. I sorted through the button-down flannels and sports team t-shirts recalling photos and events when he wore them. I kept shirts that I personally liked or felt a connection too. The rest of the shirts were donated.
I washed the shirts after inhaling each. They still smelled like my dad. Washing them would wash away the scent of my mom’s laundry detergent and the scent of their house. I was resetting them, I thought. Neutralizing. Dried and folded, they were passed to my husband. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the first time I saw my husband wearing one of my dad’s shirts, it was difficult. He is wearing that only because he can’t.
My dad was taller than my husband, so the shirts drape differently. My dad had a bit of a belly before he was obviously unwell. My husband doesn’t. The shirts fit him, though. It’s like a Brotherhood of Inherited Shirts. They morph to fit and strive to remind. Although they no longer smell like my dad, the colors and plaid prints were his, first. Someday, they’ll fade and thin until no longer wearable. Grief does that, too. The intensity fades, the weight thins, and it will be used for other purposes.
The softened shirt might end up being used to cover a preschooler who wants to finger paint. The more streaks and splashes of color smeared, the more fun was had.
Weathered grief ends up being used to help someone in the throes of a fresh agony. It remembers, it covers, it doesn’t mind the wild zig-zags of another’s pain. God knows I left my own smeared handprints on others.
One recent morning, my son and husband stood by the front door saying goodbye for the day. My husband drops off our son at school on the way to work. I could see my son’s video game t-shirt through his open jacket. My husband was wearing one of my dad’s button down wool shirts.
The pang never showed. I noted the moment because, hey, there they were in those shirts that tease those feelings up and out. I waited for the punch. I waited for the visions of smooth seas and old photographs, conjuring up a time when life seemed more simple and doing laundry wasn’t an obstacle course of pits to swing over.
Instead, I saw just them: Two men I love, going out into a still-dark day. That moment was all we had. Rather than feeling ambushed, I felt rescue. I felt reality.
That shirt is my husband’s. It is solely his.
That shirt is my son’s. It is still his.