For awhile, I thought that clothes were just clothes. While I always felt it was important to make an effort to dress well, I never thought about the emotional associations that clothes have. That was until I found myself having to decide whether or not to throw away a shirt that had deteriorated after six years of frequent use. Ultimately, I decided that while I may never wear it again, I simply could not give it away because of the memories that it holds. So here’s to you, my six-year-old t-shirt.
I remember the first day we met: I was in need of better-fitting shirts that didn’t boast a Nike or Adidas logo. I went to the mall, and I found you — it felt like a match made in heaven. You fit me like a glove and you were on sale, so I knew we were destined for great things.
For the first few months of our love affair, we were inseparable — I’d wear you once or twice a week, make sure you got cleaned and we’d do it all over again the next week. You were there for me during the best and the worst of that school year — my hardest exams, holiday gatherings with family and even when dad was admitted to the ICU. Then in July 2011, something that I had tried my best to mentally prepare myself for what happened: dad’s long fight with cancer came to an end. As my parents’ only son, and as a Hindu, I was responsible for performing the funeral rituals.
I knew I didn’t need a shirt for the funeral itself since I would be wearing a veshti as I did for all pujas (prayer rituals), but I instinctively reached for you when I was getting dressed on the morning of the ceremony. You were there with me on the way to the funeral home, on the way to the crematorium and as I cried in the car later that day. You saw more of what I was going through than even my family and closest friends.
Something changed after that week. When I was getting ready in the mornings for months after his funeral, I would see you hanging out in the corner of my dresser but I couldn’t bring myself to put you on, because by doing that I would have to acknowledge what had happened. This wasn’t something that was exclusive to my choice of attire. I did everything in my power to avoid acknowledging the reality that he was gone forever. It had a profound effect on my life for a while — I wasn’t in a good mental place, but fortunately I found the help that I needed.
For the most part, I was able to acknowledge the hole that my dad’s passing had left in my life and was able to grow from it. Still, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t reach for you. I made excuses for avoiding you. “Oh, you’re too old,” “You don’t fit well anymore” or “It’s too cold” were the justifications I told myself, when the simple reality was that, at that point in my life, I wasn’t ready to relive the week of my father’s funeral. From the cremation to the spreading of his ashes, that was a can of worms that I still wasn’t ready to open.
As time passed I became more nostalgic for those last few months spent with dad. When I thought about his death, I went from feeling cheated out of years of memories with him to being able to think about all of the qualities he instilled in me. I realized that, while unfortunate, his death was one of the most life-changing things that had happened to me. I realized that it had taught me how to grow up, how to prioritize what mattered to me in life and served as a reminder of how precious family is.
Getting dressed one day in the summer of 2012, I saw you poking out from under a stack of shirts and decided that it was time to embrace all of the memories that you carried: from the ones that you were with me for, like the funeral, to the ones that you helped me remember, like driving around Chicago listening to my dad and my favorite songs with the windows down. I’m always afraid that sooner or later those memories will fade, and they likely will, but whenever I put you on, I remember everything about him. So while I may never wear you again, hopefully you’re willing to stick around in case I ever need to take a trip down memory lane.
Clothes are extremely personal. On the surface level, the way you dress is a fairly strong indicator of the type of person you are (or aspire to be), but on a deeper level, they are also a vehicle for processing memories and emotions. This summer, I was looking at flannels in a vintage store when one caught my eye: It was only $1, so I figured that there was no real reason not to pick it up. I have spent much more on other shirts, but I always find myself coming back to this shirt. Whether I’m bar-hopping, going on a date or going to class, I always have to stop myself from wearing it too often so I’m not known as the guy who only wears one shirt. We have already made countless memories: We went to New York together for a concert, we went to Europe for a month together and we have many more trips to come. The interesting thing about clothing is how continuous it is: As one piece of clothing slowly fades out of my wardrobe, another one enters the fold and new memories are made. I can’t wait to see what I’ll think of when I put this shirt on in a few years.