My daughter is now six, but she was three when my husband was diagnosed. At four, she lost her father to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a disease that it took several more years for her to pronounce. As a six-year-old, her grief isn’t like mine. Hers is also down deep, but mostly unconscious. When it bubbles up unexpectedly, it takes us both by surprise.
We are hanging new clothes in what used to be my husband’s closet when my daughter has the sudden realization that her father’s clothes are gone. I packed them up almost a year ago and took them to charity, but she doesn’t remember this, nor the days of agony it took. It’s as though she has just noticed the absence.
She has a sudden and immediate urge for one of her father’s shirts. In my misery, I was mindful of folding and parting with his old clothes. I bagged a special care package of his most-often worn, some torn, day and night clothes for each of us — my daughter, my eleven-year-old son, and me.
Now I take my daughter to the hidden items. Inside the clear bag with her name quickly penned on a torn sheet of printer paper is a faded black ribbed tank top that seems suitable as a summer nightgown. I reluctantly release a few sprays of his cologne from a bottle at the bottom of the bag (they have since discontinued the line) creating a darkened spot on the chest of the tank, and slide it over my daughter’s downy blond head. She is tall for six — 4’3 (her daddy was 6’5) — but even so, the arm holes drape so low that her purple monster underwear is visible from the side. Her flat nipples almost peek out the top of the neckline. She is so proud standing there, barefooted, being held by her daddy’s scent and strong invisible arms which I can quickly imagine, but she does not remember. I am both as comforted as she is and so pained that I need to force my expression into the smile she wants to see. She climbs onto our marriage bed a few moments later and sits for a photograph.
In the still image of that moment before me, I see in her face my husband’s round cheeks and mouth shaped into her own partial smile, which is perhaps shielding as much as his own did those last weeks. I see also an unfamiliar cast to the eyes she inherited from me — vacant and simultaneously grieving and yet not fully aware she is. It now seems to me a six-year-old’s contemplation of death captured for mere seconds before her attention shifts and she leaps up to go watch a cartoon, smiling and waving as she walks out the bedroom door. She leaves me both palpably satisfied with her pleasure and painfully seized with the fear of not knowing what is coming next—certain that something else dreadful surely will.
She has worn the shirt to bed every night since, and I can’t yet bear the thought of washing it.
Deirdre Fagan is a widow, newlywed, mother of two, and assistant professor at Ferris State University. She has composed poems, stories, and critical essays while nursing babies and snuggling children on her lap.