In high school, I was obsessed with wearing only vintage clothing. After hours of painstakingly searching every clothing rack at Goodwill, I would find a well-worn baseball jersey or an elaborately bejeweled Christmas sweater. I felt a sense of immense pride in reclaiming someone else’s memories — their winning games, their holiday parties — in an attempt to express my “uniqueness.”
My mother found it ridiculous that I dedicated so many hours to purchasing useless articles of clothing (a point upon which I obviously begged to differ). In her defense, I wasn’t old enough to drive, and she was stuck sitting in the lobby of the thrift store for much longer than she cared to. “I have a closet full of old clothes,” she said one day. “Why don’t you just go there and take whatever you want?”
It had never occurred to me that my mother possessed anything that I would find to be of value. I went up to my parents’ bedroom to take a look. I discovered a walk-in closet filled with every piece of clothing my mother acquired since she first arrived in the United States from India. Long, flowy dresses with thick belts around the waist, oversized fuzzy sweaters with large shoulder pads … It was a gold mine!
As I went through each item on its respective hanger, I saw glimpses of my mother’s past: the first pair of pants that she put on after 24 years of wearing only traditional Indian clothing, the shorts my father bought for her to wear on their first trip to a public beach, a white dress with orange flowers that I recognized from a photo of my first Christmas. Each one carried a memory, a feeling. The apprehension of moving thousands of miles from her familiar life in India, the excitement of creating a family. Visiting her closet became a journey through her life, one about which she spoke very little and about which I had never really thought to ask.
I continued to return to her closet throughout high school and each time I came home from college. As I was getting ready to begin medical school, I found myself with so many questions. Which of these items holds her experience of landing in the United States for the first time? What was she wearing when she found out she was pregnant with her first child, when she began her internal medicine residency as a young mother of two?
What about what she was wearing on the day she learned that she had cancer?
Maybe it was a pair of jeans sturdy enough to shield her or a sweater cozy enough to comfort her as she took in the magnitude of the diagnosis.
“We are taking care of it. Everything will be fine.”
When my parents called to tell me the news, they urged me to complete my junior year of college and to continue my plans to study abroad. They assured me that “everything was under control.” I took their word for it and went on with my life thousands of miles away.
When I returned home several months later, it was clear that weeks of chemotherapy and radiation had taken a toll on both of my parents. My mother smiled weakly through tired eyes; she had lost a significant amount of weight and recently got a new haircut to mask her thinning hair. My father had put his life on hold to drive her to her daily treatments, cook meals and worry. They looked like different people; I realized that I had missed a significant chapter of their lives.
It was not until I was a third-year medical student on my surgical oncology rotation that I began to understand what their journey might have been like. Together with my attending, I sat down with families to deliver the news and outline the treatment plan. The energy of the room immediately changed as they realized that their futures were no longer what they expected them to be. Their shoulders sagged with acceptance, and their eyes grew tired as the doctor outlined the long road ahead. Family members cleared their calendars to make room for the daily appointments, the operations, the months of recovery.
I tried to imagine myself with my mother and father as they sat in a similar room with their doctor. Did he sit down? Did he hold her hand? Did he take time to go through her labs, images and biopsy reports? Did he answer each of my father’s questions, as repetitive as they might have been? What did they feel and say before they collected themselves and decided how to tell their children?
After my rotation, I went home and asked my parents to take me through their experience from start to finish. I was ready to go back in time and to walk with them through each step. They couldn’t give me very detailed answers. Years have passed, and those difficult days have blended together. They focused on the fact that she is here, and she is healthy. “You know, I had always been meaning to lose weight. And after going through my treatment, most of my clothes don’t even fit anymore!”
My parents keep those memories safely tucked away in a place that I don’t have access to and perhaps never will. The clothes that carry those memories are sitting in Goodwill somewhere, waiting to be part of someone else’s story. That chapter of her life has closed, and she now gets to embrace a new one.
And she has a new wardrobe to go with it.