I smiled when I glanced out the door of the guest bedroom. She’d dragged a rocking chair and footstool out to the small landing and positioned herself at the top of the stairs, right outside the door. With book in hand, she determined that we’d be together, even though I was waist-deep in storage tubs, sorting through all the clothes she’d ever worn. It was a project I’d been putting off for years and at 12:15 that wintry Sunday afternoon, I decided it was the day to get it done.
I’d settled into a rhythm, shaking out each item, checking the tag for size, sorting into piles to donate, filling a bag for stuff too stained or worn out to wear but perfect for recycling. Shake, check, sort. Shake, check, sort. Pop a new lid, start again. Shake, check, sort.
Until I got to the tub with the green lid. Sizes 2T to 3T.
My hand faltered as I stretched it toward the brilliantly vivid piles of soft cottons and cozy fleece. Long sleeves, tank tops, sweatpants, capris, sweaters, dresses – a year’s worth of clothing for all seasons. Including the season we’d reluctantly found ourselves in: a season of cancer and chemotherapy.
I pulled the sweater on top to me. The lime green and cherry red Christmas stripes – so bright and cheery. Wrapped around her tiny toddler frame, it brightened our Christmas card photo that year. She sat tucked snugly on a stepstool between me and Kevin, his hair thinning from six months of chemo, eyes weary with the sparkle gone, my smile a bit forced, as if determined to be joyful. No matter what.
I set it down, and reached out again. Autumn leaves and vibrant orange and hot pink stripes decorated my girl and I heard her giggling as she danced in the dry crackling leaves. I raked outside our bedroom window, one ear on the melody she sing-songed into the air in delight, the other straining to hear if he needed me to open a pill bottle or bring him a drink of water. Chemo weekend, and we soaked up the weakening sun while the poison dripped through his body.
Tank tops in every hue of the rainbow, and turquoise capri pants with a swinging tunic billowing as she raced around the backyard, popsicle dripping in the heat and her beloved, battered Duckie bouncing along for the ride. Kevin pulled into the garage, drained from the workday and the torment of being unable to cool off with an iced drink; the chemo made his body painfully sensitive to the cold temperatures. But he summoned the strength to push her on the swingset in the lingering twilight, and she squealed as she flew haphazardly into the muggy air.
There was not a single thread in that tub that didn’t stir a memory. That first hard year is etched in the hidden niches of my mind, though at the time, I remember only the dazed feeling of trying to stumble through each hour after being blindsided by cancer. It all happened so fast, and we never caught up, though we raced to doctor appointments and surgeries and chemotherapy, and we pored over all the new words and phrases and drug instructions, and searched natural cures in our spare time. And the minutes ticked by and the calendar pages tore away; time was slipping through our hands.
My sorting rhythm slowed. Stopped. I sat, tested myself, and felt strong enough to let the memories out to wander for a bit. Some days it’s easier to shut down, but we were snug in the doorway of the bedroom as the winter outside howled and spit flakes and icy bits. It felt safe.
She looked up and saw me sitting still.
She marked her page with one finger and, taking in the disarray around me, asked: “Are you all done, Mama?”
“No, baby bear, I am absolutely not done. I’m just thinking about all the stories sewn up in the clothes in this tub.” I teased her, “Back when you were a teeny, tiny toddler, and you didn’t ask for your allowance…just more popsicles!”
She tried to roll her eyes, but her eight-year-old self couldn’t quite pull it off, and as I stretched my hand from the fabrics pooled around me to tickle the bottom of her foot, an impish grin — her Daddy’s grin –spread across her face.
A small part of me wanted to pack the clothes back up and store them away again, reluctant to let the cotton fibers stretch too far away from me, and snap the threads of my memories.
But to what end?
There’s no going back in life, only forward. And the clothes served their purpose. Their bright colors and vivid patterns couldn’t hope to match the vivacious spirit of the little girl they clothed that year. Her giggles bubbled up inside and spilled out and we caught them in our hands, outstretched to grasp any bit of hope floating that year. She perched on Kevin’s lap, and patted the infusion bag of “Daddy’s medicine” gently, chattering to Dora the Explorer on television, and her energy soaked into him and pushed the fatigue aside, if only for a few minutes.
It was never the clothes.
It was always her.
Full of life, she pushed her Daddy to fight for his.
Our teensy fairy sprite didn’t fully understand how much her life changed that year. She didn’t know that words like “colon cancer” and “tumor” and “Stage 4” threatened to shred the fabric of her happy childhood. She knew Mama, she knew Daddy, and she knew joy. And with every word and dance and giggle and twirl that year, she brought it. She brought joy and she brought life. And she sewed them together tightly and cloaked us with love.
She made us grateful for every minute we had together.
It’s almost six years later now, and she knows all about those hateful words. She knows what happens sometimes when those words come into a life. I wish she didn’t, but she does.
But she still knows the other words – the important words.
HOPE. LOVE. JOY. FAMILY.
She still dances with delight and giggles with glee, and sings with sweet notes that echo to heaven and her Daddy smiles down on her.
She’s still working her special brand of magic.
Full of life, she pushes me to keep living mine.
It was never the clothes.
It was always her.