I have an enduring mental image of my Dad: he is rugged up in his flannelette pjs, a red woollen dressing gown belted over the top. You know the kind of dressing gown – woollen plaid, warm but a bit scratchy. The kind of thing men of a certain age love to wear on chilly winter nights and mornings.
The dressing gown he was wearing when I visited him on the night before he died.
I was really close to my Dad. I went over to his place to keep him company one Tuesday night in the winter of 2008. Mum had to go out for a few hours, and she was reluctant to leave him home alone, because he was recovering from a little procedure he’d had the day before to take a skin cancer off his nose. It had left him with two black eyes and he felt pretty miserable. He also had a lousy headache. He’d hit his head when he slipped off the side of the bed while doing some exercises on Monday morning, but the GP said everything was OK.
We watched telly together for a while, but then Dad turned to me and said, “Do you want to watch this?” I could see the show wasn’t helping him feel better, so I said, “No, I’m not worried if you turn it off.” So he turned it off and we chatted instead, and how glad I am that we did.
Wednesday evening, my Dad died of the undiagnosed brain haemorrhage that had begun when he hit his head on Monday morning.
I can’t even begin to describe the yawning chasm that opened up in the universe when my Dad left Earth. He’d had a tenacious faith in Jesus since his teens, and a deep assurance of his own eternal destination, but even that wasn’t comforting right then. Later it would be, but not right then.
In the foggy days that followed, I spent a lot of time with my Mum as we struggled to cope and comprehend. One day I saw Dad’s red woollen dressing gown, and I reached out to touch it, feel the texture. “Would you like it?” she said. I nodded. I needed a new robe as it happened, but that wasn’t why I wanted it. Mum sensed this. She said, “I’d like it if you had it.”
And so through the rest of the winter of 2008, I’d get off the train from work where I’d been holding myself together all day, bawl my eyes out on the drive from train to home, have a hot shower and put on my pjs and Dad’s red dressing gown. It gave me such comfort. Like a big warm hug from my Dad. Even the smell of the wool was evocative.
When the winter of 2009 arrived, I pulled out that old red dressing gown again. The wound was not quite so raw by then, but the dressing gown was still a tangible connection with the man who gave me life and shaped my growing. Wearing it warmed me emotionally as well as physically.
In the winter of 2010, I looked at the red dressing gown again, but something had changed. I didn’t feel as if I should wear it any longer. It seemed to represent turning back rather than looking forward, clinging to a grief that I needed to release, abrading a wound that was trying to heal. I bought a new robe and carefully placed the red dressing gown in the top cupboard, where I wouldn’t have to see it too much. I actually felt an aversion to looking at it – it caused me a kind of pain.
Well, the winter of 2011 has just ended in Brisbane, and today I suddenly realised the red dressing gown has lost its power. It doesn’t really comfort me any more in the powerful way that it did, but it doesn’t make me sad either. I was startled to discover that I’d barely thought of it this winter, other than to acknowledge that it’s a bit scratchy, really, and I have a new robe that I’d rather wear because it’s softer.
I felt like that sounded a bit callous, but then I realised that the red dressing gown isn’t my Dad to me any longer, it’s just pieces of fabric sewn together. My Dad is much more than that dressing gown, and my mind is now free to roam around looking at all its other memories of him. Sometimes these internal echoes make me shed a tear or two, but more often they lift my spirits as I think of the positive way he touched so many lives, including mine.
Today the dressing gown became a symbol to me of the fact that even a devastating grief can heal, if you give it time and space.
I’ll keep it, because one day I might like to wear it again, as a gentle reminder of a loving and godly father. Grief is a tidal thing, not a constant, and there might be a moment when that scratchy fabric comforts me through a surge. I’m not afraid to let it help me, if it works.
But I know Dad doesn’t mind what I do with it either way. He has much better things to wear now.