The first suit I ever owned was the one I wore to my father’s funeral. My brother and I stood on either side of our mother, all of us numb and drained from the 17 months of cancer’s wrath that my family had endured. At least my Dad could now rest and we wouldn’t hear his moans of pain and regret in the dark hours when he thought we were asleep.
The clothes will always remind me of the last time Dad left the house. Using money and credit donated by a local charity, the four of us set out for the discount men’s store to buy what my mom insisted on calling “dress up clothes – you know, for a party or the prom . . .” but we all knew the truth. Everything pointed to the fact that our maiden voyage dressed as proper young men wouldn’t be a festive event.
Mom insisted we try on every possibility – solid to plaid, breathable wool to Easter Sunday seersucker, traditional to pseudo-European cuts. We ended up buying navy blue polyester. She explained herself as wanting us to see the array of choices – as if we cared - but I think Mom’s true motive for the endless parade of Saturday morning torture was to give our Dad the longest possible chance to imagine his boys as adults – even if by masquerade.
I guess I should have been a little bit embarrassed or mad about the donations that came our way after Dad got sick. But the truth is, it wasn’t long before we really needed them. My Dad couldn’t work anymore and Mom had to miss a lot of days to stay home with him or take him to his doctors’ appointments. My brother and I tried to help out where we could, but raking leaves and a few hours at the grocery store on weekends didn’t make much of a dent. We learned pretty quick that anything beyond what was absolutely necessary was better off forgotten.
My Dad was a hard worker when he was able, and a proud man too. I saw the pain in his eyes when he realized he had provided all he could. Looking back, I think that’s the day his shoulders started to slump.
So for him, my brother and I decided, that on that cold February afternoon in Texas, we would stand tall with our shoulders stretched as broad as we could muster, in the brand new, medium-quality, donated suits that both our parents claimed made us look like movie stars. We didn’t even add last year’s winter coat, but instead wore them uncovered in open defiance of everything that brought us to this place.
And in those moments, while we supported our mother and contemplated our own futures, I caught a glimpse of the highway just beyond the north corner of the cemetery. That’s when I knew that my days in the grip of disease and hardship were numbered; that in a few years, I would take the larger, hand-me-down suit from my brother’s closet and follow that highway to something – anything – better.