If it’s true that the death of a loved one tops the list of the five most stressful life experiences, then it must surely be followed in second place by sorting and emptying out that loved one’s wardrobe. Bathroom cupboard. Bedside table.
Mum’s red glasses. Her toothbrush. Her slippers and dressing gown.
The things that make it feel like she should still be here.
They’re small and painful reminders that she isn’t.
Even more painful than seeing these items is the thought of throwing them away. It’s like losing her all over again.
In the bathroom cupboard I see the jar of beautiful Mt Macedon Rose Luxe Body Mousse that a friend had sent for Mum’s birthday, less than a month before she died. I remembered Mum out of the shower and wanting to open the new body cream. I unscrewed the lid and offered her the jar. She slid her finger across the untouched surface. It was not her usual facial moisturiser and being labelled Body Mousse, I didn’t expect that she’d put it on her face. I watched her dab the cream from her finger on to her forehead, her nose, her chin and her cheeks in a movement she’d have done twice a day for many of her 71 years. Then she stopped to think. Slowly she started rubbing the cream into one cheek.
We looked at each other in the mirror.
‘Yes, Mum. Like that. It smells beautiful.’
I straightened the towel on the rail. It was what I’d read would happen; the tumour would block more neural pathways and grow into other parts of her brain.
We helped her into bed and afterwards I lay my cheek on hers. I could smell the cream and feel the warm, buttery softness of her skin and I tried to somehow imprint all of it into my brain so that I could remember it forever.
Now, sitting on the bathroom floor I open the jar and put some of the cream on my face. But then I’m disappointed because I’ve inadvertently swiped my fingers across the surface and messed up the mark that Mum’s had made.
Instead of sorting out the toiletries, I put them all in the ‘keep’ bag and nothing in the ‘throw away’ bag.
We break for a drink.
We fill boxes, bags and two old cases with the things in Mum’s wardrobe. Inside the lid of one of the cases, we see Mum’s maiden name written in texta. The fabric lining is torn. We fill it with her shoes.
There are full boxes and cases to donate, plastic bags of things to throw away and an overnight bag full of clothes and items that we think Mum’s girlfriend might like. We agree that Mum would like that idea. There’s a pile of clothes I might try on myself.
I put all of the chemo headwear in a plastic bag and tie it tightly. They make me sad. Sad that they were part of her wardrobe and the final things I remember her wearing. There are outfits she wore to each of our weddings and loose shirts that I had thought would be easy for Mum to put on in hospital with a broken shoulder from the seizure that had revealed her brain tumour.
None of it feels dispensable.
When each box or bag is full, I carry it to my car and add it to the boot or backseat. I don’t care whether it’s to donate, keep, give away or throw away, I put it all in my car. Sticking out of one of the bags, I can see a shirt that Mum often wore. I unfold an empty reusable shopping bag and lay it over the top so that Dad doesn’t have to see that shirt again. Or so that I don’t.
We lost her and now we’re losing all the pieces of her.
‘Get rid of it,’ I can hear Mum saying. She used to come to our house to spend the day and we’d clean out a cupboard and she’d take more things out to the wheelie bin or to the op shop than I ever would have.
I try to comfort myself with that. With remembering that the important things to keep are the memories. That in her final weeks as we realised we would lose her, that none of the stuff I was putting in my car mattered.
And I’ll try to remember that now. I’ve been ferrying Mum’s stuff around for two weeks. In the supermarket carpark I’ve been squeezing the milk into the boot, upright against her case, and laying the loaf of bread gently on her khaki jacket.
I want to look at all of her things one last time before I let them go and they, too, are gone forever.