Courtesy of The New York Times.com | By Ari Scott | Illustration by Katherine Lam | Originally Published 02.24.2018 | Posted 03.15.2018
“Can I borrow this?” I asked my mother in September, knowing she would say yes. I was already wearing it: a smart, gray cardigan covered in tiny diamond shapes. I needed something nice to wear over the sleeveless blouse she had already given me and didn’t think my hoodie would cut it for the job interview I had later that day.
“You can have it,” she said from her bed.
I asked, “Are you sure?” out of politeness, but I knew she was. She wasn’t going to wear the cardigan that day or any day. Chances were she wasn’t going to wear anything in her closet ever again. My mother was in her usual uniform of old vegan-themed T-shirt and hole-in-the-butt sweatpants — her beloved “rags” — just as she had been almost every day since her Stage IV cancer diagnosis 10 months earlier. It didn’t need to be said, but we both knew her days of wearing smart cardigans were over.
There had been days in the past several months when she’d gotten dressed to be seen by the outside world — trips to my sisters’ houses to see her grandsons, a birthday lunch we had for her in April, an excursion to an art exhibition at my nephew’s nursery school that featured finger paintings and creative uses of macaroni. For these, she wore her traditional nice outfit: stylish blouse, long cardigan, crisp jeans, ankle boots and colorful head scarf to cover the bald head she revealed only at home.
Once back in the privacy of her house, she’d quickly change back into her rags. She liked looking nice, but the worse she got, the more comfortable she wanted to be.
By the time September rolled around, the only trips my mother made were occasional visits to the back patio to sit in the afternoon sun, and even those were becoming infrequent. She was content to spend her days on the den’s pullout couch, soon to be replaced by a hospital bed.
I had been living with my mom that whole year, and I already knew I fit into her clothes (we were almost exactly the same size). But it hadn’t dawned on me until then that my mother’s illness essentially doubled my wardrobe. I obviously had mixed feelings about that: Having more clothes was good, yet my mother’s cancer was bad. There is most likely a German word for this feeling, but I don’t know what it is.
I got the job I’d interviewed for, which made my mom happy. She was becoming weaker. There were days we wouldn’t get to talk at all, because she’d be sleeping before I left in the morning and after I came home at night. I rummaged through her closet for another cardigan. I took four.
She was eating less and less. Always in pain. I’d bring her pills and rub lotion on her legs. One morning on a whim I put on one of her button-down shirts: a billowy pale-blue one knotted at the bottom. Not exactly my style. I’m more of a gray T-shirt and jeans kind of gal. I wore it anyway.
Visits from hospice nurses became more frequent. My mother was having trouble feeding herself. Soon she would not be able to leave her bed, even to use the commode we set up in her room when she could no longer walk to the bathroom. I looked through her closet one afternoon for a pair of black jeans because mine were falling apart. Hers fit me perfectly. I tried on eight more pairs. I folded them up and brought them all down to my room.
It was becoming harder to have a conversation with her without wondering whether she understood what I was saying; it would soon be impossible. I clung to the contents of her closet as if they were her last chances of survival; if I gave her jeans life, maybe that would somehow, magically, transfer to her. Her clothes were a part of her, and now they were a part of me — the distance between us that much shorter.
She stopped breathing one morning last November, seconds before I was to leave for work. Minus the items I’ve claimed as mine, her closet remains intact. I haven’t been able to bring myself to clean it out. Seeing her clothes — neat, colorful, on sleek velvet hangers — makes her seem more alive. As if she’ll be standing there any second, picking out a stylish blouse for a trip outside.
I still go through it every now and then, searching for something else she once put on her body to put on my own.
I wore the same cardigan I’d worn to my job interview to her wake — a tiny part of her with me when the rest of her no longer could be.