The San Fran Jumper: On Grief and Clothing
What's your most precious piece of clothing? Was it expensive? Is it designer? Did you get from a little shop on holiday that you have no way of getting back to? What makes it precious to you?
If I'd have been asked these questions before August 2017 I would have had a very different answer to the one I have now. Then it might have been a favourite dress or pair of shoes - something I simply adored and that I knew I looked great in. But now, my most precious piece of clothing isn't something expensive, or designer, or even particularly stylish. I don't look that nice in it, actually. But that's not the point of it. Now, my most precious item of clothing is my dad's old jumper. It's grey, with a faded 'I biked the bridge' logo on the front from when he cycled across the Golden Gate in San Francisco. 'Blazing Saddles' is emblazoned across the front, which I have no doubt is why he bought it - that was one of his favourite films. He was in one of his yearly work trips to America and I remember that he almost always came back with a jumper from his travels - one time it was a blue one with an embroidered VW camper van on the front and 'Laguna Beach' written on the chest. This one, the San Fran jumper, is so well worn that the fabric is incredibly soft and losing its shape. Threads are coming apart on the cuffs and there are small stains on it. One of the arms has a burn mark from a stray bit of cigarette ash, no doubt from when I chucked it on to keep me warm at the tail end of a uni party.
My dad died in August 2017. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in mid-July and 3 weeks later he was dead. It didn't give us a lot of time to prepare and dad never quite got out of the 'denial' phase, meaning that we simply weren't allowed to talk about his death as an inevitability. There were no plans made, no discussions of 'what he wanted' or what would happen after. I later learned that, in the email telling his team at work what was going on, he described the cancer as 'a bump in the road'. And that was dad all over - he simply refused to believe that it could happen to him. You might call it positivity, a 'glass half full' approach to life, and there definitely was a bit of that about him. But I think it would be more accurate to say that my dad walked through life as if absolutely nothing bad could touch him. And for the most part, that worked. But you can't 'positive vibes' cancer away and the disease was just too far progressed for any real medical intervention. I watched my dad die as good a death as we could give him: at home, in his own bed, surrounded by family and completely unconscious of the pain he was in.
After he died it felt like the whole house was full of him, which of course it was. His guitars were in the study and his pictures were on the wall and his dressing gown was on the back of the door and his razor was still in the bathroom cupboard and his clothes were over the chair, in the wardrobes, in the washing basket. But despite this, I can't say I felt what some people report when a loved one dies suddenly, the sense that 'he was going to walk through the door at any minute.' No, I watched my dad die, and then I watched him be buried. I am under no illusions about his mortality. I know exactly where he dad is: in the village churchyard, equidistant between the cricket pitch and the pub. A fitting final location for him, I reckon.
As a family we came together in a way that I hoped we would, but had feared we might not. My brother was a marvel and my sister-in-law a miracle. But the real hero was, and is, my mum: she never tried to hide her devastation, but she didn't let it immobilise her. Not for long, anyway. We did the things we needed to. We made phone calls, she did paperwork, we visited funeral homes and florists and council offices for death certificates. She remains the most extraordinary person I have ever known, and a new dimension of love and admiration for her was forged in those few weeks after dad died. With all this said, there was one thing that she asked me to do. There was one thing that she simply couldn't face, despite her resilience: mum couldn't bring herself to take dad's clothes to the funeral parlour. We had picked them out okay, had managed to coax ourselves through the process of deciding what he would wear as he went into the ground (what a funny thing to do anyway: who is he being dressed for?). But for some reason, she just couldn't drop those chosen clothes off. That task was for me, and I'll never forget it.
They had been lain on the leather captain's chair in mum and dad's room, folded neatly in mum's signature style. His favourite blue jeans with the holes in and an old rugby jersey. And his brown shoes, placed with such reverence on top of the pile. I sat on the bed and looked at them, and felt like if I touched them I'd be desecrating some kind of altar. This was the last pile of clothes mum would ever fold for him - something she'd been doing for over 30 years - and the intimacy of the act almost scared me. Eventually I managed to scoop them under my arm and I hurried out of the room, and down the stairs, and out of the house, not looking back in case I lost my nerve. I drove to the town and waited in the car for 10 minutes with those clothes in the passenger seat. My hand was on them the whole time, but I couldn't look at them. I gripped the fabric of the jeans and remembered how they had felt to me as a child, so rough and sturdy, so much like dad himself. But they weren't rough anymore: they were soft with wear and full of holes, fragile in their age. I crossed the road and walked into the funeral parlour, gulping down air as I set the pile down on the reception desk. The lady was patient as I stumbled over dad's name, and she almost imperceptibly slid the pile across the desk, out from under my hand and into hers. I silently nodded in thanks, knowing that she understood, and then left.
'Did you do it?' asked mum. I nodded, and I crumpled. We both did. My brother walked in and held us, so much taller than us both, resting his chin on my head just like dad used to. I gripped the fabric of his t-shirt, and vividly remembered doing the same thing to dad as I had said goodbye to him after he told me about the cancer. I had to leave again for Scotland, had only gotten a week off work, blissfully unaware of the bombshell that was about to be dropped on us. We'd been standing in the kitchen and I hugged him as tight as I could, my arms just about fitting around his waist. He was wearing an old green plaid shirt and I crumpled it in my fingers, sobbing into his chest, desperate to not let go. I felt like a little girl and was scared at the prospect of a world where my dad wasn't invincible.
This memory was interrupted by the sound of my brother, and the feel of his chin moving against my head as he spoke. 'We'll be alright', he said. 'We're always alright.'
What was it about those clothes that was so difficult? Why are they charged with emotion, especially after someone dies? When I did my undergraduate degree I wrote my thesis on the use of shoes as a form of war memorial, taking a deep dive at how shoes are used to represent the war dead: from Auschwitz to the Vietnam War memorial to the Iraq war, shoes - particularly empty shoes - are a motif that symbolises loss and grief. Our clothes are such an intimate part of us that when they are empty, never again to be filled by that same person, the absence is almost too much to bear. We struggle to fill those clothes with our brains, unable to compute the loss. And not just the loss, but the continuance of it. Gone, forever.
I don't cry as much about dad's death as I used to. The grief still comes, of course, and it's as raw and sudden and breathtaking as it ever was. But the moments are fewer and further between and I have learned how to cope with them better. The process is becoming familiar and that familiarity soothes a small amount of the sting. If I'm at home when it hits I will sometimes put on dad's San Fran jumper. It has become a part of my grieving, a physical emblem of him that can envelope me in its warmth and softness. The cuffs are now so worn from my tears, snot, and saliva that they they have started to turn upwards a bit, the fabric altered from all the times I have dirtied and then washed it. I used to wear this jumper for it's vintage cultural cache, but now it has a different purpose. My response has become almost Pavlovian: I can't put it on without crying.
But I don't want to leave you with sadness. Yes, my dad died, and that's totally shit. I miss him so much and I would give anything for him to still be alive. But I am my father's daughter, and I have inherited a small piece of his relentless optimism. When I start put on this jumper, and I start to cry, there is an arc that the grieving follows, and I know that it will end with me smiling. I will look at photos of dad being his normal, silly self and find comfort in remembering how funny he thought it was that I had chosen this jumper to take to uni with me. I was in the spare room looking through the 'overflow' chest of drawers, and had put on the San Fran jumper. He poked his head around the door:
'Why have you got that old thing on?!' he said, incredulous.
'I don't know, it's kind of cool though, isn't it?' I replied.
'Is it?' he chuckled. ' If you say so! You are a funny little thing, Puggle. Have it if you want.'
So I did. And I'm so glad that I did. It has come to represent more than just my dad to me. It represent my love for him, and my grief at his death, and the very process of grieving. It is imbued with the physical and emotional stains of loss, but through that loss, love has been woven into its fabric. Dad loved this jumper, and he loved me, and he loved that I loved this jumper. Taken together, the happiness and sadness entwined in this one garment are a perfect representation of why our clothes mean so much to us. They are complicated parts of complicated people in complicated relationships with each other.
It's just a jumper. But it's so, so much more than that.