The coat is dark navy blue and it’s made from cashmere. I can still see Greg in it, gathering up his briefcase to head out the door to work. “Have a nice day,” he’d say before giving me a quick kiss, hoping it would prompt me to wish him a nice day.
I can still hear the back door open in the evening, feel my heart rate pick up slightly—he’s home!—as I turn to watch him walk in the door, in the blue cashmere coat.
Greg collapsed over two years ago, died over eighteen months ago, and yet I’ve held on to the coat, for reasons I have been unable to understand or explain. “You’ll know when it’s time to let it go,” my friend says. She was widowed very young and is an expert on grief and loss. She continues, explaining to me her theory of putting the belongings of our loved ones into different piles after their death, to help make sense of what to throw away, give to family, donate, or keep. But the coat doesn’t seem to fit into any of these piles.
“I’ve already done that with his things,” I say. “But I still have the coat.”
Again, she says, “You’ll know when it’s time.”
I remember standing in our shared master closet the day after Greg died, with a few of the kids. We were looking through his things, and I was suggesting things they might want to take. I ran my fingers over the shirts and belts and pants, remembering him in these clothes. The shirts he had worn right before we left for Spain still hung on the lower rung of the closet, with the sleeves rolled up, not dirty enough to wash yet, having been only worn for a short time after work one evening.
“I’d really like one of his baseball caps,” said my middle son’s fiancé.
“I would be thrilled to have his watch,” said my son. “I’ll definitely wear that.”
We rummaged through his large collection of t-shirts, most acquired from some trip we had taken together somewhere, each of my kids selecting a couple. One son took a golf shirt. I pulled out his cuff links for our other son.
We shed some tears that day, certainly, but it was for the searing pain of our loss, still so fresh just hours after his death. It wasn’t really about letting go of his things, which I found was easier to do than I had imagined.
Very soon after Greg died, I moved all of his clothes from our shared closet into the guest room and filled the space on his side of the closet—or at least tried to—with my off-season clothes. I painstakingly separated the hangers just a little bit more to make the closet feel full, as if that might help ease the pain of the gaping hole I felt in my heart.
Just six weeks after his death, I participated in our neighborhood garage sale, knowing it would be a great opportunity to shed things I knew I no longer needed in my now single life. Friends suspected it might be hard for me and helped. One friend spent an afternoon cleaning out my kitchen to figure out what to get rid of. Others came to work the sale with me. These friends had been some of my hand-holders in Spain, helping me stay sane while Greg lay in a coma in Ramon y Cajal Hospital in Madrid. Much later I came to understand that the hand-holder role, once assumed, would become part of our relationship for life.
Three of the tables in my garage were filled with Greg’s things—shoes, shirts, jeans, belts, and two full racks of his gorgeous custom-made suits. He had wrestled in college, and those years of cutting weight and lifting weights left him with a hard to fit body—much larger in the neck and shoulders with a disproportionately smaller waist and hips. I never begrudged the expense of those suits—he worked hard for me and our family, and I loved seeing him dressed up.
During the sale, the suits hung lifelessly on the racks, and while a few people looked at them, they were meant to fit Greg, not just any bargain hunter coming through the sale. One man about Greg’s height looked at them briefly then asked me to call him if they hadn’t sold by the end of the day. When Gail called him at nearly 4pm on Saturday, he came right over and asked if he could take them all—not buy them, just take them. I said yes without any hesitation and without shedding a tear. I didn’t know if he planned to wear them, sell them, or donate them, but it didn’t matter to me. I was happy someone wanted them.
The only piece of Greg’s clothing that wasn’t in the garage sale was the blue cashmere coat. It would never fit our boys who are much larger than Greg was, and it’s not really the kind of coat a 28-year-old would wear these days anyway. When I moved to my new home several months after his death, I put the coat into the new guest room closet where it’s been for the past year.
It’s a week before Thanksgiving, I’m getting ready for the holiday. I go into the closet to look for something. I stop and stand still, then reach out to touch the coat. I bring it to my face to smell it, trying desperately to smell Greg once again. While he was alive, I sometimes complained about the amount of cologne he splashed on, telling him it was too strong. Now I inhale deeply, trying to get just a small whiff of that scent.
Nothing. The coat just smells like wool. And with that single inhale, I know it’s time.
I bundle up the coat to take to the dry cleaners near our house that hosts a coat drive every year for homeless people. I keep flashing to images of Greg in the coat and then a homeless man on a corner in the coat holding a sign that says, “Anything helps.”
That’s ok, I tell myself. The coat will keep someone warm, and Greg would be happy with that.
The woman at the dry cleaners knows me and knows Greg’s story. She smiles as I walk in and I quickly place the coat into the collection box. “I’m finally letting go of Greg’s coat,” I tell her. She softens, and her face shows that she understands my heartbreak. She starts to thank me, but I need to get to my car before I crack, so I quickly say goodbye.
As I drive away, I think of a scene from the movie PS I Love You. The main character, played by Hilary Swank, after losing the love of her life, holes up in her apartment in grief for weeks after his death. At one point, a few months later, she’s sitting alone on the couch and she speaks out loud. “You’re not here anymore are you?” she says. Silence.
Intellectually, I know Greg hasn’t been here since we lost him over eighteen months ago, but there are things that have helped me feel like he still is. Turning on the football game on a cool fall Sunday. Playing Andrea Bocelli music while having a glass of wine on a summer evening. Dragonflies. Candles. Pictures. And his blue cashmere coat, still carrying the faint scent of his cologne.
I made peace with letting go of the coat by reminding myself that letting go of his coat doesn’t mean I’m letting go of him. Greg will always be with me, because I’ll always carry him in my heart.