A couple of weeks after my mom found out she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, she went through all her most treasured items, placing each of them in a small brown gift box. She tucked a note into each box with a short message to the family member it was meant for. They were her most special things: the small bird figurine from the living room mantle, the sterling silver bracelets I’d seen on her wrists for so many years that they felt like small, metal appendages. She was letting them go with such ease that it shocked me, made me furious.
I was 26, and had quit my production job in New York City and moved back home to Massachusetts the day after we got the news. I knew her diagnosis was grim, but I was also in denial, and desperate to maintain the myth that she could beat it. “Mom,” I said, standing with hands on hips in our dining room as she sat in a chair — the one right in front of the window with the good light — laying out these things which, all together, mapped out her whole life. “What are you doing?”
“I want to get this done while I still feel good,” she said, voice firm. “It’s important to me.” She was giving everything away. It was selfless, such a kind gesture to leave everyone with something so that she would never be truly gone. But it told me that she was okay with leaving, and I could not shake my anger over it.
Nine months later, I got the silver bracelet with blue stones.
My mother used to tidy up the house before our housekeeper came over to clean it. Every other Tuesday morning, she’d scuttle around, stacking papers and grumbling that my father had not put away his folded laundry, choosing instead to leave it stacked on the window seat in their bedroom. Again.
Our house was never messy; it was lived in, and loved. I don’t think my mother minded it that way, but she worried someone else might be offended by it. When my teenage friends came over to hang out in our den and watch Friends, she’d apologize. “Please excuse the mess!” she’d say, to humans whose main concerns were where to score weed, and whether the Proactiv their own moms had bought them would actually solve their current zit crisis. Still, she cared.
My mother’s mother had been a nurse. “Hospital corners!” my mom would cluck, as she taught us how to make our beds. She’d fold and tuck the clean white linen into something neat and beautiful, like someone taking a crisp sheet of origami paper and turning it into a crane with a few twists of their hands — magic. I learned to tidy from watching her, though I’ve never been good at it. My expertise has always been in clutter: in hoarding letters sent to me at various summer camps; rainbow barrettes I wore in first grade; journals filled with teenage misery, Dave Matthews Band lyrics, and i’s dotted with fat circles.
A few weeks into my freshman year of college, my mom emailed: “I’m cleaning out your room. What can I toss?” She did not fear a good purge. When I came home for that first Thanksgiving, my room had been exorcised of its clutter. But she left the piece of paper I’d taped to the side of my dresser, strategically positioned so I could read it before going to bed: a poem about depression and anxiety, written by a fellow member of the AOL Phish fan poetry forum I frequented (yes, this really existed). The words made me feel less alone in my own struggles, and soothed me when my insides were chaos. She knew, even if she didn’t fully grasp its significance, that some things were important enough to keep.
I didn’t expect to be the one to clean out my mom’s drawers and closet after she died. This, I assumed, was a job that would fall into the My Dad Handles This category, along with figuring out the funeral home arrangements and dealing with the endless insurance paperwork. But he had gone back to work, and I was still shacked up in my parents’ house, doing nothing.
My dad had been sleeping with her soft blue bathrobe as a blanket since she died, folding it up at the end of his bed every morning. Going through her things item by item would have been a particularly painful task for him. And so I sat on the floor in front of her dresser and dug in.
I had no idea she kept her socks so neatly organized. Here was this woman I’d fought with consistently from the ages of 11 to 21, who held me when I was dumped by boyfriends or tormented by friends, who watched Oprah on the small TV in the kitchen as she cooked dinner. I knew her, and loved her, and she was dead, and yet I was still discovering things.
She hoarded well-made, long-sleeved cotton shirts. Boat neck, V-neck, crew. Neutral colors, mostly. Some still had the tags on them. I wept as I lifted each one out of the wooden drawer, piling most of them in garbage bags to donate. I surprised myself with my ruthlessness. It felt oddly empowering to be so deep in my grief and still be able to let things go. I raised every item to my face, inhaled, and then dropped it into that plastic abyss.
But then I came to her pajama drawer.
Inside was the story of the life she’d lived for the past nine months. The sicker she got, the more time she spent in bed, in her pajamas. The first two months after her diagnosis went bizarrely well — the stents kept her tumor at bay so she could ingest pureed foods, the chemo kept the spots on her liver from growing. She couldn’t believe how good she felt. But then five months in, everything shifted. She landed in the ICU in septic shock; her gallbladder collapsed. She was too weak to have it removed. Tubes inserted into her stomach drained bile from her body. There was a blood clot, and then the self-administered shots of blood thinner that followed. She came home from the hospital with an IV in her arm. We’d sit together on the couch and laugh about stupid things while bags of medicine dripped into her body through clear plastic tubes.
And so stretched on months of my mom in her pajamas, little matching sets she’d purchased with care from her favorite stores. Loose-fitting tops and elastic-waisted bottoms in the softest cotton, covered in delicate florals or gray stripes. They became part of her, her outfit of choice as the cancer fully took over. They were the clothes she eventually died in, just after 2 a.m. on a blisteringly cold March night. I took all four pairs I found in the drawer and walked them to my bedroom, placing them in my suitcase. I took them all with me, because it was the only way I could think of to take her with me, too.
The pajamas weren’t the only things of my mom’s to make the trek back to Brooklyn with me. Most of my choices were sentimental: her jewelry, of course. Two shirts — one white and one a deep pink — that still had the strongest scent of her. Little odd things, like the tube of Vaseline with “MOM” written on it in red permanent marker, so the rest of us wouldn’t use it; her hospital bracelets; old grocery lists; her mostly used jar of La Mer face cream. (I was broke and just discovering skin care; I think she would have admired my thriftiness.)
I moved the shirts into my bed, sniffing them as I fell asleep, longing for her. The pajamas took up residency in my closet. Sometimes I wore them, like some sort of weird dead mom cosplay. They were cool and soft on my body; it felt like slipping into her skin and hugging her, all at once. Other times I would smell them, hold them, cry into them. I told myself over and over that I should find someone on Etsy to make them into a quilt, but like many other things in my life (Season 5 of The Wire, learning how to knit) I never followed through. Most of the time the pajamas just sat there, in a stack, taking up space and reminding me not just of my mom, but of the cancer, her death, and the deep and dark ugliness of those nine months.
I tossed the shirts, eventually, when they lost their scent. I finished the La Mer, and finally let the empty jar go, too. But the pajamas came with me from apartment to apartment. They spent a year in a drawer in my studio in Manhattan, and then moved to a shelf in our new Brooklyn apartment, my first place with an actual closet, and where we brought home our oldest daughter after she was born. A couple years later, they survived a cross-country move from New York to Los Angeles, landing in a walk-in closet in an apartment on a traffic-filled Eastside street. Two years later after the birth of our second kid, they moved with us to our first actual house, on a quiet Valley street, to their final home on the bottom shelf of my closet, next to rumpled piles of workout clothes. For 10 years, I packed and unpacked her pajamas with care, even if I rarely touched them once they were shelved. They lived on, a fading shrine to my long-gone mother.
I bought Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up — impulsively, at Costco one afternoon, a couple of years ago — because everyone was buying Marie Kondo’s book. I brought it home with breathless excitement and promptly forgot about it. It sat on my nightstand for two years, where it served as a home for my ever-growing collection of hair ties and eyeglasses; I rediscovered it only after I had to clean off the bedside table due to an unfortunate essential-oil diffuser spill. In the first sentence of the book, Kondo promises to “change your life forever.” This, I was sure, was what I needed.
My house was overflowing. My closet was filled with clothes I hadn’t worn since before my first pregnancy in 2010. My kids’ artwork was stacked in towers around the house, waiting to be filed away in the nonexistent art folders I kept telling myself I was going to buy. But worse than the actual clutter was the looming sense of dread all this stuff gave me, and nothing stressed me out more than the pajamas. I’d kept them because they were a part of my mother, but now they only reminded me of the worst time of her life. I’d had her for 26 glorious years before the cancer hit, but looking at the pajamas sent my brain back only to those nine months she lived with the disease. They had an energy about them — tired, worn, and so, so sad.
Kondo doesn’t just promise a cleaner space; she insists that “putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart.” It’s a tempting offer, a win-win. “Not only will you never be messy again,” she says, “but you’ll also get a new start on life.” A spotless house and a newer, better, you? Don’t mind if I do!
I started my purge later that week. So what if I had only skim-read the book in a hurry? My new life was waiting! I’d even hired someone to help me, a stylist who specialized in weeding out what you don’t wear and making outfits out of what’s left in your closet. This was commitment, and there was no turning back. Just as I had with my mom’s things 10 years earlier, I opened up the garbage bags and got to work. First I tossed the prepregnancy clothes, and the winter stuff I no longer needed living in Los Angeles. Then an endless stream of pen-stained purses, moth-chewed scarves, long-forgotten boots. I started to feel euphoric, high. My eyes drifted down to the bottom shelf, where the pile of pajamas sat. I grabbed them, inhaled their musty scent one last time, and tossed them into the bag.
As any casual reader of Marie Kondo knows, there is one ultimate question for those ready to bring life-changing magic into their lives. “The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.’”
Even though my mom’s pajamas had become a heavy reminder of my loss, I hadn’t actually considered what it might feel like to really let them go. I knew that they didn’t bring me joy. They never had. For a time, they brought me some version or memory of her; now they just brought me sadness, a tangible manifestation of my undying grief. Letting them slip into that bag felt freeing, a release. Maybe it was this easy. Maybe this was the magic I’d been promised.
The next day, I drove everything to a Goodwill near my house. “Just unload it anywhere!” a volunteer shouted as he wheeled a giant bin of donations by my car. The parking lot was a sea of unwanted things, baby bjorns and humidifiers and crates and crates of clothes. That was where I left the pajamas, unceremoniously, after so many years of carefully carrying them through my life. I cried the whole drive home. The next day, it hit me what I had done. I barely had anything left of my mother, and I’d let a huge piece of her go without truly thinking through my decision. I was ashamed, horrified. I’d discarded her.
I have sat with my regret now for a couple of months, beating myself up for carelessly tossing the things that linked me so deeply to the person I still want so much. Sometimes I go through the tired exercise of wondering what my mom would have to say about it. I know the answer instantly: She’d be fine with it. Roll her eyes at me, even. “You weren’t even wearing them!” she’d say, painfully practical, even in the afterlife. “Look at all the closet space you have now.” But it does nothing to assuage the nagging feeling that giving away her clothes was a mistake, the shame I feel over literally tossing one of my last remaining connections to her in the trash.
But tucked in behind the regret and longing is the realization that abandoning her pajamas at that Goodwill also felt good. I’m grappling with the fact that part of me, maybe all of me, was and is ready to let her go. To be free of these reminders of my loss is also a relief, a lifting of a decade of pain. And it’s helped me to understand that all these feelings can exist at the same time, in a swirling, conflicting mess. I want her, but I want to be free of my grief for her, too. I want to wrap myself in her clothes, but I also want to let go of everything that reminds me of her, us, what could have been.
A jeweler I follow on Instagram introduced me to the idea of mourning jewelry — rings and bracelets from the 18th and 19th century that might be filled with a deceased loved one’s hair, or marked with their initials. Humans have been attaching grief to things and holding on to pieces of their loved ones long before I folded up my mom’s pajamas and brought them back home with me. But no physical object can ever give us the thing we really long for — the person we love, alive and whole again.
Holding on to her pajamas didn’t bring her back or spark joy, but it turns out, letting go of them didn’t either. I miss her just the same; all that’s different is the newly empty shelf in my closet. But I feel joy when I remember her, and how clearly and easily she let her own things go; how she was strong and brave enough to say goodbye to pieces of herself, so that we could be strong and brave in her absence. It may not be life-changing magic, but it’s enough. ●
Kate Spencer is the author of the memoir The Dead Moms Club. Her written work has been featured on Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Salon, Refinery29, and VH1.
For more information about The Dead Moms Club, click here.