First Person / Organizing the closet: Mom saw the order in things

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My mom leads me into the linen closet. She is six months into chemotherapy, but today her step is quick, her words are sharp, her eyes are clear.

I’m back from college for the first time since she re-arranged the linen closet — formerly my parents’ joint clothes closet — and she’s showing it off. Down the hall, my parents each have a newly built closet of their own.

Mom has a buzz off all the new space. She loves cobbling details together. It’s a challenge for her now — figuring out how things are going to work, incorporating new ideas into old ones, planning ahead.

My mom spends what little energy she has left finding the right therapist for her family. She gets recommendations from friends, makes phone calls, considers the options. She goes in person to meet with the woman she thinks is best.

Mom wants someone to talk to my younger sister and brother and me once she’s gone. She wants to know we’ll be taken care of and by whom — someone gentle, someone who has kids of her own. My mom needs to prepare, to arrange, to create order for us where there is none.

We’re her babies. We can’t be left without a plan.

Mom and I stand together in front of the linen-closet shelves, color-coded and neat. “Here, I moved all of your extra things from underneath your vanity so you have more room. And this section’s all for you, I don’t use any of it anymore.”

She points to shaving cream, tampons, panty liners and razors that sit on the second-highest shelf. Girl things. Things that my mom doesn’t need anymore because of the cancer, because of the chemotherapy that has taken her hair and stopped her period and destroyed her body further by trying to fix it.

I don’t know that she’ll be dead in a year. I don’t know that her voice will slowly fade from my ears after she is gone. Not the sound of it exactly, its timbre or tone, but the words themselves. I don’t know what it will feel like to go through boxes of her sweaters in the garage of our new home in Virginia where my dad will move a year after she dies. Which sweaters to give away, which to keep? None? All? Their smells will sit in my nose — the cashmere, the cotton, her sweat, an actual part of her dried into the sweaters’ underarm curves.

These sweaters are lined now on the top shelf of her pristine clothes closet. It’s the opposite of my own unorganized mess. Her shoes are in pairs and easy to find, the dresses arranged in order of their seasons.

“This is all going to be yours soon,” she’ll tell me one night as we stand among her clothes — like I’m about to inherit some vast estate and all of the neighboring fields and stables, too. She’ll be trying to prepare me, to let me know we’re nearing the end, that it won’t be long.

Once she dies, I’ll keep going back to her closet. I’ll stand there in her smells and take comfort in the way her brain worked, the categorizations, how she made sense of it all. I’ll go through the rows of hanging pants — corduroy, silk, denim — and try to remember if she ever used their pockets, how her small form filled them out, what it looked like when she walked.

I’ll open the drawers to examine the wrinkles in her pajamas.

I’ll smooth her wig still resting on its stand.

I’ll sit there in the quiet and wonder: If the place I came from is gone, is part of me gone, too?

But that all comes later. Now, as we stand in the linen closet the day I’m home from college, Mom explains the shelves to me. I take in her petite body, her busy fingers, her active mind. “Can you believe your dad and I both had all our stuff in here before? This makes much more sense, doesn’t it?”

She raises her chin in exaggerated pride.

Her brown eyes scan her work.

I tell her it does.

Maggie E. Pahos is a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at Chatham University (mepahos@gmail.com).


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