When my mom died, my dad couldn’t face cleaning out her closet. I was just 19, and so it didn’t fully make sense to me why the closet had more meaning than any other space. I volunteered to do it, and along with my sister Lindsay and our childhood friend Marcie, I went through my mother’s clothes.
It was a quiet process, which is my lasting memory. Marcie took things out of the closet and my sister and I sorted through them. My sister, always meticulous, folded the clothes that we were going to keep. I don’t remember much else.
I do remember that Lindsay and I talked very little in those days just after our mother’s death. I think a lot of this was because we were still teenagers, unaccustomed to dealing with grief and loss and all of the difficult emotions we were experiencing. It’s not like either of us had a therapist to help us process or tell us that it was okay to feel conflicted about the terrible reality that we were facing.
But we had each other, and even if we didn’t really know how to communicate about loss, we moved through it together.
Twenty years later, I found myself in another closet, doing the same thing. It was the spring of 2018, and though I wasn’t ready to clear out all of Shawn’s clothes from our closet, I knew that some of them needed to go. I asked my sister to help.
I made piles – one of clothes to donate and another pile to keep. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with all of the extra shirts and ties I was saving, but I couldn’t bear to get rid of everything in those early days.
Lindsay was quiet as I debated where I’d put each item of clothing. This was the way she approached my grief, and really all of the choices that I’ve made over the past three years. She said nothing unless I specifically asked her opinion and offered nothing but support when I made a decision. That meant that as I took things from the closet, she spent much of the time silently folding each article of clothing into a perfect square. Some of the clothes remained in my closet, and she folded those, too. Months later, as I’d be dressing for school or doing something else in my closet, I’d look over and see those perfect piles of Shawn’s shirts. I’d miss him in those moments, but I’d also feel comfort, because they reminded me of my sister and this small but important act of love.
We are different, my sister and I. I’m much louder and more chatty, a teacher at the front of the class and an extrovert through and through. My sister is not quiet, but she does not need to dominate conversation. She’s an ER nurse, a job perfectly suited for two of her defining personality traits: calmness and toughness.
She is also fiercely loyal, and I have been the beneficiary of that loyalty. No matter what choices I was facing – whether I should work full-time or pay for extra help with the kids or move to Texas with our extended family – she supported me. My dad lived here for over two years and not once did she complain that I was getting all the support, even when she had a brand-new baby. She knew I needed it more. When I spent every phone call for months never asking about her life and just recounting the horrors in mine, she listened, and kept calling me back. When I wanted to start dating again, but felt that other people would judge me, she replied simply, “well then, that’s their problem.”
There are all sorts of corny sayings about sisters (i.e. “sisters by chance, friends by choice”) and Lindsay and I have always mercilessly made fun of such quotes. We are unsentimental in the gifts we give each other and the cards we write, and we don’t need constant reassurances from each other that our relationship is strong.
I know it is strong, because all I have to do is remember the way she has quietly folded clothes when we cleaned out the closets of people we loved. She never said much, but she didn’t need to. I could feel her devotion, her love and her loyalty.
It was fierce.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.