Cleaning up Dad’s clothes to donate gave me time to remember him

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Illustration by Chelsea O’Byrne

After my Dad died, I collected his belongings from the care home and donated many items – his walker, binoculars and books, the furniture from his cozy room – and washed and folded his clothes. His name was misspelled, Jhon instead of John, on the clothing labels.

Each label is held firmly in place, first from ironing and then cemented from many dryings in an industrial dryer: its adhesiveness reinforced by its adhesiveness. I called the laundry at the care home. Their expertise, it seemed, was getting the labels on, not off. A friend said, “Throw the clothes away.” But I pictured clean and folded clothes atop the landfill. Another friend suggested a black marker to cover his name. How long would that last? Would it ruin the clothes by seeping through? My practical side warred with the emotional “move on” side. The internet offered a large support group of other adult children with the same sticky conundrum. Try heating the labels, they suggested. I did. And no, the labels could not be cut away. Stuck, I moved the box of clothes to the basement as the eulogy was written, emails exchanged and phone calls made. His few possessions were divided amongst his children.

As fall turned into winter and the affairs of his estate settled, his clothes remained. And the clothes, I knew, had to go.

When my fun-loving Welsh father moved into supportive living, he needed new clothes, his own were threadbare and oversized. Online I found shirts he liked, short-sleeved polos with the added bonus of a breast pocket – he was often removing his bothersome bottom dentures or carrying around a notepad, rarely both but sometimes. I ordered one in every available colour – burnt orange, dark teal, vintage indigo, deep olive, heather grey, even black. After two-and-a-half years of constant wear and institutional laundering they had not shrunk nor were shabby, a good reason to pass them on. His preference was the teal one, “I look best in this one,” he once said with a wink. “I agree,” I smiled, “although the orange is a close second.” “Grey is more practical,” he added, as he slipped the blue one over his head. The shirts’ short sleeves showed his still strong arms, his fingers with self-trimmed nails, wide hands that fixed aircraft, built cupboards, whupped most at darts on the dartboard he brought from his family’s pub in Wales, or any pub, anywhere.

My father had a knack for fixing, which often rose from waiting and thinking. I found a small pair of pliers handed down from my dad, whose jawed grips come together exactly. I heat the iron and warmed one label, read the misspelled name and smiled at the necessity to include his middle name, Newton. I pinched the pliers to the exposed edge of stuckedness on the short end of the label and pulled. Thankfully, the label came cleanly away.

Manoeuvre mastered, I began. I pulled labels from navy pyjama bottoms paired with soft cotton tops. A soft sky-blue pullover. Several dark-grey crewnecks worn as undershirts. The pile of tags grew like wood shavings as I planed even more labels from a dozen pair of socks, socks thin enough to fit into shoes, but thick enough for comfort.

He never failed to get dressed each day. I came to a vest kept from his old clothes, bought by my mom. Braided cables of brown and navy, faux leather buttons, two pockets. The times we searched for his lost wallet, most often its discovery was here in this vest. I held the fabric to my face and despite the many months, it smelled like him – a mix of shaving cream and pencil lead.

He was not fussed about clothes but liked comfort – he wore the flannel shirt or fleece jacket I bought him. He used to shop for me, too: downspouts for my old house. A power drill. A pink toolbox, filled with some of his own tools, given with a glint from his eyes, eyes like mine. Frying pans, on sale. Workshop-worthy paper towels. Flashlights. Batteries. At the hardware store, his stride was long, and he knew his way around. Once in care, he’d phone me for peppermints, nasal spray, even bathtub calking to (successfully) fix a hole in a sneaker. A list at the ready on the notepad in his breast pocket.

I lifted a red checkered shirt he assured me he liked, but I never saw him wear. Then a light down jacket worn on his frequent trips around the building’s perimeter. He never wore gloves. Only once was he returned by the kindness of strangers. In the bottom of the box, I find a bathing suit.

He outlived my mom, two of his brothers and most of his friends. It seems, too, he outlived these clothes. The threadbare ones did a better job of reflecting his tired life, the sadness of losing his suffering wife. Of his own weight loss and deflated vitality. The worn pride he took in independence, staying at home for what we all felt was too long. Only the lure of a whirlpool for an aching back, rippled with compression fractures, convinced him into long-term care. It turned out, the care home only had showers; the bathing suit was never worn.

This clothing pile, I confess, is a curated wardrobe. Assembled at a time that implied a new beginning, a way for me to tangibly help, or at least make the situation look better than it was. Clothes for his shrinking frame, all practical: black track pants, elastic waist, deep pockets. But good-looking, too. I wanted him to look cared for as he was being cared for on my behalf. It didn’t change what was behind the teal polo, a rapidly decreasing cognition on an end-of-life runway. Yet I witnessed the clothes give him a swagger, some pride, another chance to embrace living in a place he never would have chosen – retired in a remote hanger like the Hercules aircraft he handily kept operational in Canada’s North.

The tenacity of the labels gave me time to see the resilience he exhibited in the last couple of years of his life (accepting daily nursing care, making a new friend in Sidney, liking, and winning, at bingo). He was gracious to wear the multicoloured shirts – this was a man who once wore cut-off jeans, sans shirt, in his backyard all summer, his chest tanned bright brown. I keep one pair of his socks, and tuck them into a drawer.

Donna Williams lives in Calgary.

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