Be the Change.

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OCTOBER 1, 2011 8:22AM

Dress has not always been my strongest suit

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  I buried my sister yesterday.  And I have spent days mulling over the words I need to say here and the words I want to say here about her.  There is nothing that I can add to the conversation about death, or spirituality, the meaning of life, or "what cancer can not do."  These ideas have been done and overdone, and I'm not sure I believe most of that shit anyway.  But there are a few things I need to say about the girl who was my friend for 40 years.

I suppose I should have said we buried my sister yesterday, but throughout most of the last three days, I felt alone.  I spent long hours talking to her in my heart, making sure that I could let her go without losing myself completely.

My obsession started two weeks ago, when I went to spend the Saturday with her.  She had given me the directive to go shopping in her closet (I am the frugal one; she had no problem shopping.) In fact, she said to me, "You never pass up free clothes. Go take anything you want." And she's right. 

From then on, it was all about the clothes.

I picked out a couple pairs of pants, trying them on in front of her and my mother.  I needed to know if the pants would fit, and not too tightly.  I hate tight pants.  Although I felt like I was popping out in places, she assured me that they made my ass look great.  (Not in those words;  we grew up with mom, so we didn't  say "ass" in the house . . .and we have never had sex according to her, I am sure. She figures our 4 kids all came from immaculate conception. We just go with it.)

That same day I was squishing into Renee's pants, my niece, Kimmy, went dress shopping for a homecoming dress; we got pictures all day from her, seeking approval from her mother for the dress that she had chosen.  It was purple, sparkly, short--and perfect.  I had to text "I love it" to my niece from my sister's phone.  

So Kimmy bought the purple dress and I took the pants home and wore them a couple of times during the last week of her life.  And Renee was right--my ass did look great in them.

A couple of days before she died, I spent the early morning hours staring into my closet, wondering what to wear.  I almost never worry about what I wear on a daily basis, and certainly not to the point of talking to my sweaters.  I needed some help.

That day I chose a carefree outfit--leopard-like print dress with black, conservative sandals.  I was good for the day, until the next morning when I found myself once again staring into the closet.  Shit.  I never do this.  Why was I obsessing over what I wear? This was new territory; this was cause for a bit of Freudian psychology.  There had to be a reason for this strange behavior. 

That day, I took a scrapbook to school with pictures of my sister that I needed to share with my friends and colleagues.  The moment I opened the book to the page with the year-by-year school pictures of her, I saw the dress.  The dress I wore the day she was born.  She was wearing the hand-me-down plaid dress in her 1st grade photo, toothless smile, pigtails and all.

The day floated back to me in the colors and emotions.  That was the dress  I wore the day she was born, eight years before her picture was taken.  (My mother is frugal, too. Renee got stuck with all of my clothes.  Hell, she even got stuck with my brother's old plaid Toughskins. It was the 70s. I dreamed in plaid.) 

My father had come to school to tell us we had a new sister, and I know I had on that dress. I remember that my teacher had me stand up in front and tell the class about my new sister.  I loved show-and-tell, and my own toothless smile must have shown my teacher that I had the best show and tell--ever.  

So now I knew: I couldn't just wear anything the day she dies. It had to matter, it had to be something I could remember, for the rest of my life.  

The call came at 4:47 on Monday morning. . . .and shit, I was in my pajamas, my peach-colored polka-dotted nightie.  Peach. . .that was the color she wanted at her wedding and I told her that I would not put a peach dress on, and if she made me, I would not be in the wedding.  I look horrible in peach: I am a fair-skinned, blue-eyed descendent of a Norwegian. (Shit, on a good day, I have a bit of faded pink in my cheeks.)

As I write this, I giggle.  I remember that conversation in the fitting room.  She conceded and chose navy blue--with a huge lace collar.  So she got her way in the end.  I like lace about as much as I like peach.  And she knew it.  But, yeah, I wore it.  

At the visitation, that picture of Renee in her wedding dress and me in that lacy, navy dress was stuck among all those of her in her striped string bikini and sexy black dress and sunglasses.  And so was the picture of me in that plaid dress my mother had made for me when I was 7. 

And that evening I was wearing a new skirt.  I had done a bit of shopping, just for her.  I bought a short, black skirt with orange, red, and pink polka-dots.  And as I checked out at the local Goodwill store, I told the cashier that I had lost my sister and I was going to wear this dress to the visitation.  I said that Renee would love the polka dots.  

The day of her funeral, as I laid my teary cheek on the casket to say goodbye, I thought of her inside the casket decked out in her Wisconsin Badgers hoodie sweatshirt.  As my oldest son cradled me in his arms, I had to let out a little smile--I was still thinking about the clothes.  

I got home the night of her funeral, and before I realized, I was cleaning out my closet. 

I was trading the summer clothes for the winter, and physically moving clothing from one room to another.  And that is how it is with my memories of Renee right now.  I am beginning to move the day-to-day memories to the summer closet, where I will keep them until that summer day comes back. 

The good thing about the summer closet is that I can stare at and talk to those sleeveless dresses and sandals whenever I want.  I could take them out and wear them right now. But right now it's too cold.  I'm too cold. 





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death, sisters, cancer

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very heartbreaking and genuine. it takes a poet.
Oh how this made me cry. I lost my best friend,(my sister) 40 years ago and I'm still grieving. About 2 weeks ago I started thinking about her all the time. This may sound crazy, but maybe I was picking up on some kind of vibe from you. I wonder if that happens? This is beautiful writing. I'm so sorry about your sister. I know your pain. -R-
Hard to read. Beautifully written. I'm very sorry for your loss.
Oh so sad! You honor your sister wonderfully with these words.
Beautiful tribute to your sister. I'm so sorry for your loss.
I'm so sorry for your loss. You've done a superb job of letting us see your beloved sister through your eyes with this piece. Great job.
It's interesting that both you and Kathy Riordan have used the closet as a methaphor for your emotions and grieving process. It's quite apt and you also have done a lovely job.
I am very sorry, Rochelle. The warmth will return, though maybe not as cozy as before.
I think clothes are important and choosing the right outfit for your sister's funeral was a part of both connecting with her and letting go. Wonderful piece.
Thank you, all of you. Christine, don't doubt that vibe. The connections we feel with other human beings are what makes us human.
I think your sister would be very happy with this post.
This is sad and beautiful and contains the strange, odd diversions we need to focus on when it comes to grieving. Grief doesn't come out like it should, so many times we have to distract ourselves with something else to do related to that grief, like dressing. I totally related.
Oh, my heart. I'm sorry.
I can't remember reading anything so eloquent and heartbreaking in a very long time. ~r
clothes are so important and personal. As the Meryl Streep character says in "The Devil Wears Prada", " You live your life in them.....".
So beautifully written. I lost my brother a few years ago - a brother I barely knew. You and your sister seemed to have such a loving, funny connection. I'm so sorry you've lost her.
I am very close to my sister as well and I cannot Imagine the feeling. I love how much you love eachother. Beautiful, Inspirational, and mere words are unworthy of this post.
Very sad, but a wonderful tribute to your sister.
Thanks for this post. I obsessed over what to wear at my brother's funeral (he too a U of Wisconsin graduate and mad Badgers-Packers-Brewers-Bucks fan). Although my brother would have cared less than your sister.

I am sure your sister might want you to go out and buy yourself a new outfit for the winter that will warm you in many ways.

My condolences to you.
I am so sorry for your loss. This piece uses such superficial things as clothes to symbolize very deep connections we share with our loved ones.