I know it’s technically just a shirt; I completely understand that.
Yet, it’s also so much more than that.
At least, I think it is…
It was actually brand new the first [and perhaps last] time I wore it. The gorgeous thing arrived in the mail just days before I hopped the kind of midnight flight you usually only book at the last minute in the case of a family emergency.
The blouse wasn’t anything spectacular in itself back then, but I also knew the moment I saw and held it for the first time that it would fit me perfectly…
And, sure enough, that soft t-shirt blouse looked pretty great when I put it on for the first time just hours after reaching my destination. It was as if that top was made for me.
However, what I didn’t realize as I nonchalantly slipped into my new shirt that morning is that I was actually in the process of greeting a day I‘ll never forget for the rest of my life.
Here’s the thing:
Within [about] an hour of putting on that top for the first time (9:30 A.M. or so), I watched my grandmother die before my very eyes (10:27 A.M., to be exact), held her lifeless hands in my own for as long as I possibly could, did what I could not to cry over her corpse, and whispered all the things I never got a chance to tell her during the final years of her life in the hopes her spirit would hear me before departing that room. It was in that t-shirt [which I actually selected for that visit in the hopes she’d have liked it on another day many years ago when she could’ve still appreciated it] that I kissed her wrinkled forehead, stroked her stark white hair, gripped her withered hands as she’d always done mine, and touched her for the last time.
That was the blouse that I had on as my grandmother passed away upon her actual deathbed, just feet away from me. In that, it’ll be marked in my mind forevermore as a shirt unlike all the others I own.
My grandmother’s struggle was a prolonged and tedious one. The same, unbelievable strength, resilience, dignity, and mysticism she exuded throughout every single moment of her life never faltered for a second — not after she became widowed when she was still far too young to lose her partner (especially in a society that did absolutely nothing to mitigate her consequential struggle as a single, working mother in times when widows were expected to live in a state of mourning until the moment of their death, and women weren’t supposed to be doctors), nor during her miraculous recovery from cancer in her mid-70’s (after which she immediately proceeded to jump on an airplane without any travel companions, fly from Phoenix, AZ all the way to Asia, and climb the Great Wall of China by herself), the decade of disheartening dementia that followed (it had already taken root in her mind by the time she beat cancer), or the appearance of severe depression during her second stage of Alzheimer’s (it came hand-in-hand with her newfound paranoia, memory loss, physical decline, and sudden dependence on her children [after being a pillar to everyone she knew since she was a little girl], which was all in addition to her forced relinquishment of any and all control over her life).
She even went so far as to embody these extraordinary traits during her final, strained breaths in this mortal world of ours.
I believe that it was this very same set of characteristics, which she passed down to all her descendants, that allowed me to practice steadiness throughout the days preceding her demise, the morning it actually happened, and all the moments following it up until now. It enabled me to suck up my pride and tell my father to fly home early from his international business trip for my mother’s sake, encourage my parents to make the cross-country trip to see my grandmother off properly from this life, grin to myself as I admired what an absolute goddess she throughout the strange afternoon following her death, and pull through all the traveling and hospital time which awaited my father and I immediately after on the other side of the world (we had another family emergency occurring at the same time).
The way my grandmother left us was beautiful… miraculous, even.
Our family, even with our astoundingly varying (and often clashing) beliefs, personalities, and ways of seeing the world, found unanimous agreement on this matter. I won’t get into the details in this blog post, as I’ve already recounted some of them in a previous one, but take my word when I say it was ethereal.
My grandmother left this world in an identical manner to how she lived in it: by consistently achieving the impossible.
So, why is it that every time I’m looking for something to wear (especially as I pack away all my belongings for the rest of the summer [so that they can be shipped across the country] to the point where I’m now short on clothing options), I simply can’t remove that gorgeous, flattering shirt from its hanger? Why is it that I can’t even move my hand towards it?
Is it that the piece of cloth I just so happened to wear that day has become sacred?
Is it that there’s a magic to it now that I’m not sure I should be exposing to my flesh and sweat, potential tears and spills, random human contact, and the toxic air of the real world?
Is it that incorporating it into some casual outfit for another silly day on Earth would be disrespectful to the memory and profoundness that was [and still is] my late grandmother?
Is it that I’m desperate for ways to memorialize her final days and moments?
Is it that I’m craving ways to honor her in my daily, corporeal life now that she no longer has a physical presence in my life?
Or, is it a bizarre combination of some or all of the above?
The really wild thing is how she would’ve chuckled at my predicament if she was still alive and lucid enough to understand it (…which would also defeat the entire purpose of her having an opinion on it, I suppose). I wouldn’t actually be surprised if her ghost tried to nudge me in its direction, before deciding I’d be better off wearing her clothes. Not only did she have a great sense of humor when it came to the silliest things in life (and trust me… she would’ve considered my predicament here quite silly), but she also always requested that we celebrate her life when she passed rather than mourn it.
Furthermore, she always took great pride in the fact that me and her were able to wear most of the same clothes in my adulthood thanks to our similar, petite size… At least up until I bulked through fitness and MMA, and she fell into a cycle of intensive weight gain and loss as a side effect of dementia’s influence on her eating patterns.
She always insisted I wear her clothes, too. This was easier for me when she still [kind of] had most of her lucidity some five years ago or so; she was a very stylish and elegant woman throughout most of her life, and greatly prioritized and prided herself on how she presented herself to the world.
I actually even wore one of her sarees to my high school prom; it was a great decision. It looked wonderful. Plus, it made her and my parents extremely happy.
Photos from my high school, senior prom in 2012 when I was seventeen years old. The second photo also features my parents, whose idea it was that I wear one of my grandmother’s old sarees in the first place. This was their condition for letting me go to prom. My only condition was that the saree be gold… Though, to be honest, I would’ve worn one either way, and I would’ve been glad I did within the next few years when I finally stopped feeling awkward about repping my culture.
Regardless, even though we remained around the same size for the first 3–5 years of my adulthood [and her second stage of Alzheimer’s], wearing her clothes gradually grew more difficult. Not only did we have extremely contradictory senses of style and different body types, but her wardrobe had also become one which strongly prioritized convenience over fashion. This became necessary by the time she entered/was entering her third stage of dementia; there was no skirting around it anymore.
On top of insisting I change out of all my outfits anytime we went out because her clothes would look better on me than my own, she also pushed to style me. It became quite a predicament because, despite being one of the most artistically inclined and aesthetically aware human beings I’ve ever known (matched only by my own mother, who is also her daughter), her disease had already seized this part of her brain and started to convince her that rather wacky outfits were the way to go.
She’d always been quite eccentric and open-minded, but never in any way that required much concern or intervention on the part of her children. However, as her Alzheimer’s progressed, it actually got to the point where my mother, father, uncle, and aunt (depending on whose house I was at) had to run interference because they knew I couldn’t go out dressed that way, and just as importantly, neither could she.
This was all so out of character for her, a classic woman who had always been praised for her propriety, sharpness, and neatness among all who knew her, that we realized it was time to really start worrying.
I remember being so frustrated. My relationship with her was strained back then, and I was still too young and unlearned to fathom how her harsh manner of dealing with me in my teenage and [very] young adult days reflected her own, strange way of loving her female descendants [and, of course, the struggle of going head-to-head with her only granddaughter who, without a doubt, inherited a vast amount of her DNA].
It all seems so silly now, and I feel like a brat over the whole thing.
I was always kind about it, but what would’ve happened if I’d just sucked it up and found a way to rock all the crazy stuff she wanted me to wear so badly?
I understand that my obsession with always being well-dressed, neat, sharp, and elegant when leaving the house is something I inherited from both my grandmothers, but would it have really killed me to just go with the flow of it for her sake?
Would it have been the worst thing if I let our constant power struggle go every now and again just to make her happy for a few hours, despite knowing she would soon come to forget the entire thing anyways?
No. Probably not.
I know my parents and relatives would counter me on this, and say that there’s no way either one of us could’ve gone out into the world dressed that way. They would tell me I did nothing wrong, and handled the situation with grace.
Still, I regret that I stopped giving in once her outfits grew too outlandish for me. If I really am her granddaughter, I should’ve been able to slay in them anyways.
The only thing my grandmother loved more than showing me, her one and only granddaughter, off to the world was showing me off after dressing me up in her own clothes.
She always pushed all her endless criticism of me aside when she was in the process of doing this (this was back in those days when she could still socialize with a sense of awareness, and was still lucid enough to be reproving towards myself and my mother). Only the immediate family was allowed to see all that.
However, when we were among others, it was simply my grandmother and her granddaughter against the world.
She knew she was extraordinary. Furthermore, she would’ve fought tooth and nail to prove to everyone that I, her granddaughter who embodied so many of her physical, mental, and emotional characteristics, was spectacular…
I mean, she would’ve if she hadn’t already managed to convince everyone of that.
Everyone respected and admired her immensely, and also knew she was a lady who held every member of her family to very high standards (the females, especially). I suppose for those who knew her, it only followed that her descendants, who she loved to brag about anytime the opportunity presented itself, must’ve been up to par as well. No one was about to argue with her in regards to the quality or potential of her familial successors.
If she said we were worthy, we were worthy.
Like many mothers, and their mothers before them, my grandmother saw my own mother and I as extensions of herself. Many people find such dynamics problematic; nonetheless, I’ve recently decided I’m not one of them.
In fact, I couldn’t be prouder that I made the cut to represent a woman as excellent and exquisite as my grandmother, to be a living, breathing extension of her. What greater honor could there be than being gifted the responsibility and privilege of carrying on the legacy of one’s own ancestor?
This is the ultimate distinction.
The past few weeks have forced me to realize that clothes are more than just sewn together pieces of fabric, or products of the blessed art we call fashion.
Clothes serve as memories, capsules, and reminders; more so, they’re captors of life experience, and sponges of human time.
Therefore, even though I’m not a particularly sentimental person, I can’t promise that I’ll be pulling the shirt I wore on the morning my grandmother passed away off its hanger and slipping it back over my head anytime soon.
Maybe, I won’t really even touch that blouse again except to fold it, put it away for safekeeping, remove it carefully from its packaging every 5–10 years whenever fleeting whirlwinds of nostalgia overcome me, refold it, and place it back into its impenetrable wrappings.
Some things are just too sacred to be treated as anything less.