I know exactly what my husband, Cam, was wearing the day he died. An unassuming black t-shirt that he had worn for some of the best and then the last days of his life. He’d taken it rock climbing in Spain and hiking in America, he'd worn it to his job in a film studio, even under his shirt when we married. He loved it so much he’d bought a couple and alternated between them most days. The soft cotton had once been just the right fit around his athletic body, not too loose and not too tight.
I’m sure he was in it the day he was told by doctors that his recent stomach aches were in fact stage 4 gallbladder cancer - a disease he could only outrun by months. I can picture him in the hospital waiting room, fiddling with a braided bracelet he had bought on our travels in one of those colourful hemp shops, which was meant to be woven with good luck.
As Cam’s cancer progressed over eight months, we could mark the bad and the better days by his wardrobe. When he couldn’t get out of his pyjamas, it meant he was too swollen or had been taken to the hospital too urgently to change. The days he put on the t-shirt and jeans marked the better ones, when he was feeling strong enough to go to work or walk to his favourite coffee shop - armour for small victories.
Cam died just after turning 34, in his black t-shirt and still wearing the bracelet, though he’d lost so much weight they were much looser by then. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to decide what to dress him in for the last time, until the funeral director posed it over a catalogue of coffins. It seemed both irrelevant, then of seismic importance. How stupid of me not to ask him. How could I condemn him to an eternity in something he didn’t even really like? With slim pickings, (Cam only owned about a suitcase worth of clothes), I chose the suit he had worn at our wedding. It seemed to fit the bill of being both something special and something I was willing to never see again. Perhaps he would have chosen the black t-shirt for himself, but I wasn’t ready to let it go. Instead, I slipped it off and took it home to a place where the rest of his clothes hung like ghosts.
We imprint on our clothes more than we imagine; we leave our scent on them, the odd hair, the way they subtly change shape to fit our bones. For a while, Cam seemed to linger in his, so I liked them just where he left them, unfolded and unwashed. I hadn’t been sentimental about things before; I’ve moved more times than I can count and I have given away almost everything I’ve ever owned. But these things were different, they were Cam’s or at least they existed in a sort of limbo, not really his anymore but still not really mine. If I let these things with his DNA on them go, then he might be fully gone.
Grief, for lack of a better word, is a skill. It takes time and practice to learn how to hold your pain but move forwards. For a while, my apartment looked more like a freeze frame of the final weeks of Cam’s life until it became clear, quite abruptly, one morning that I - and I alone - would have to face his belongings. His climbing shoes were the first to go, they had been specially fitted to his foot which made them useless to anyone else. Cam’s mother loved a woollen jumper that he'd had for years, so I sent that to her. Then there were jeans and a coat that weren’t knitted with many memories, I donated them to an animal charity - he’d been vegan, I thought he’d like that. Things trickled out of my apartment but still, the black t-shirt and bracelet stayed, except now I’d buried them for safe-keeping in a box under the bed.
The internet will tell you a thousand things to do with someone’s clothes after they die - I’ve searched them all. Some people believe it’s bad luck to wear a dead person’s clothes, which after a year of being a cancer wife was something I could do without. Cam’s bracelet was meant to bring good luck and he’d died from a freakishly rare illness at 34, so au contraire. How well Cam had lived had nothing to do with luck, but an inner peace and fortitude to suck up every moment of life he was given. His clothes had been part of that, a consciously chosen wardrobe that he’d worn well and enjoyed.
Hidden under my bed his clothes weren’t being enjoyed at all. I chose to get them back out and gradually began slipping into his beloved t-shirt on any given day, just like he had. I’ve travelled in it, climbed in it and worn it with my favourite Levis. I’ve worn it so much it is starting to feel more like mine than his. Simple pieces of fabric stitched together that are helping to process my grief. This is my way of taking Cam forwards.
It’s been three years since Cam died and I have a son now. One day I hope he’ll ask me where I got my favourite black t-shirt.
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