Her Clothing, My Grief
March 6, 2020/ Spark Magazine
A bathroom mirror reflects a child peering over her mother’s shoulder, watching her navigate through the steps of her ritualistic routine, going through the motions without a second thought as to which step follows. Eyes level with the glass, the child, now alone, observes all the products strewn across the counter. She brutishly twists the bottom of a lipstick tube. Lines emerge and diverge across her face, a map of roads not yet traversed. She travels to the closet where a teal dress hangs. She plucks it off the hanger and slips it on, a trail of fabric following her where she goes. Teetering about, her giggles increase with the clacking of heels all too big for her diminutive feet. Reminiscing on bittersweet memories such as these, I never considered that the joy I felt in playing with my mother’s clothes would turn into shameful resentment as I coped with my grief.
Sharing an article of clothing is an intimate exchange that binds two individuals together. This is not to say that the dark wash denim jeans with the studded back pockets you borrowed from Stacey to wear to the rodeo that one time means your souls are now forever conjoined. But there is something very personal about entrusting a piece of yourself to another person. Our clothing is not just our clothing but our memories attached with them. So when we lend “that one jacket from that one time” or “the sneakers we wore when,” not only are we openly sharing our experiences with others but in turn, we’re allowing them to create their own, the blending of our narratives formulating something new altogether. This exchange is true for mothers and daughters especially, the sharing of their wardrobes allowing them to blend identities.
This was not my reality.
I was always a chubby kid. Chubby arms, chubby legs, chubby tummy, chubby face. I had baby fat. That baby fat then turned into adult fat, and here I am today. But listen — this is not some tired narrative about a fat girl overcoming her insecurities and loving herself. Despite my non-traditional body type, I had no qualms about my weight. Wearing my mother’s clothing wasn’t an issue for me (though in retrospect I’m disconcerted that a ten-year-old could exchange wardrobes with a middle-aged woman). My indifference changed once my mother got sick.
When someone is diagnosed with stomach cancer, there’s a couple of routes doctors can take to treat the illness — a partial or total gastrectomy. Under this procedure, surgeons remove the patient’s entire stomach, connect the esophagus to the small intestine and create a literal food chute. My mother was diagnosed at stage four, so I’ll let readers take a wild guess as to which surgery she underwent. After her medical release, my mom had to learn how to eat again. Practically reverted to infancy, her food choices ranged from Gerber’s mashed peas to puréed apples. At her sickest, she barely weighed a hundred pounds. No longer capable of caring for me in the way she had, our roles as parent and child shifted.
In the latter stages of her illness, there wasn’t much my mother could do outside of laying in bed. Most of my mother’s clothing came from the juniors’ department at this point, a section of the store I had long outgrown. We couldn’t bond over clothing and fashion in the same way we used to. I no longer knew how to act around my mother. And though I wish to say that through this hardship our bond grew stronger, our relationship only withered, driving my mother to tears with how lonely I made her feel. Watching her, feeble bodied and weeping in a bed that seemed to swallow her whole, I was made to recognize my mother’s mortality.
When I got to high school, I hyper fixated on my weight. Within a year, I lost close to fifty pounds. I did not gauge my success by the amount of weight I lost but by how close I was to fitting into my mom’s old clothing. By closing the clasp on an outfit, I zipped up my grief, one dress holding in all of my baggage. Not being able to fit into her clothing proved my defeat, depriving me of the small ways I could find to connect with my mother posthumously. Feelings of inadequacy festered in my head, and the only way I could treat the infection was through this infatuation.
If this were a novel, this would be the point where I assured readers that I’ve come to terms with my grief and my body dysmorphia conveniently vanished. But life doesn’t follow conventional plot devices. Grief has no clear resolution. Some days I’ll feel great and all of a sudden I’m flat on my back gasping for air. Every morning I gamble with my closet, not knowing whether I’ll recoil at the article of clothing I try on. Yet as I sit in my bathroom applying creams and lotions and moisturizers, I look back on all the times I would watch my mother do the same. And as I outline my lips with my own lipstick, I’m reminded of the lines I once messily drew, and of the lines that have newly emerged since then, an entire map of the roads I’ve encountered and have yet to cross. ■
by: Samantha Paradiso
layout: Rebecca Wong & Sandra Tsang
photographer: Chloe Bogen
stylists: Doris Umezulike
HMUA: Sarah Stiles
models: Megan Bennett & Shelby Scott