The Red Handkerchief

In the story The Giver, they had a phrase “precision of language”. This was an admonition when people used an irrelevant term, something their culture didn’t believe in anymore. We have antiquated words that don’t serve us or even offend us now, and we have phrases whose etymologies are hard to trace. I’m captivated by this idea of precision of language. How often are we careless with our words?

Odor vs. scent

Fear vs. trepidation

Alt-right vs. white supremacy

Passed away vs. died

When my dad got sick, I found that my words were inadequate to describe the depth of pain we were living. I wanted to write, wanted to turn loose those words which had always served to help me figure things out and think things through. My dad had always affirmed my writing, encouraged my stories, and commented on my tiny blog. I knew he loved reading what I came up with, loved discovering how my mind worked.

There was no making sense of this though, and my feeble words got choked out by pain. When my dad died, I couldn’t say my dad died, could barely type the announcement. I had to say he passed away if someone asked about him, if I could even muster the strength to get through that phrase. At that point, “died” was too sharp a word, too harsh and I couldn’t face it forward even though it was the reality. I had to use my peripheral vision to approach it at all.

Shortly after the funeral, we were packing away my dad’s things and I found his one fancy red silk handkerchief. It was the kind you wear in the breast pocket of a blazer or suit coat. Even now remembering makes my arms zingy and numb; they feel like I’m recovering from hitting both my funny bones. Without thinking, I quickly put the handkerchief in my pocket and then forgot about it as we folded up coats, button-down shirts, and the numerous t-shirts he’d collected from church events and his airplane club.

I kept the handkerchief with me, at first all the time, usually smushed into a wad in my pocket, keeping him close, keeping him with me. When it wasn’t with me, I kept it in a small green jewelry bag that closed with a ribbon drawstring to keep it safely inside. As time passed I brought it with me less frequently, brought it only when going somewhere he would have appreciated, brought it if I had a special event and wished he could’ve joined me; I brought it when missing him felt like it would cloud all my days, even those of the sunniest blue-sky summers.

I carried that silk handkerchief around with me for two years. When my family finally got up the strength to bury my dad’s ashes, I organized the memorial service. I helped move us through the service as he had done for so many other families, with his handkerchief folded safely in my purse because my dress lacked pockets. We had music, shared stories, cried together, and put special cards next to a box my brother-in-law lovingly crafted, a box to hold my father’s ashes.

After the service, I approached my mom. Unsure she even knew I had it, I took out the handkerchief and handed it to her. I said, “I have needed this until now. I thought you might want to have it back.”

She answered, “I don’t need that to help me remember him. You keep it.” She handed it back to me.

I didn’t need the handkerchief to remember him. I missed him every day, with or without feeling the silk of the handkerchief when I searched my pocket for chapstick or change. I didn’t need a reminder to think of my dad, I thought of him when I saw my oldest son rest his hand on his hip that certain way or my daughter cried before bed because she missed him. I thought of him when I learned new ideas or weird things happened in the world and I would have called him up to talk about them. I didn’t need some cloth trinket to bring him to mind, he was there all the time. Our conversations wouldn’t end if I gave the handkerchief back to my mom. In her grief, she thought she was the only one who thought of him, that the rest of us needed an old photograph or a song to come on to remind us to think of him.

I needed no external prompt. The red silk handkerchief was a way to keep him close, but the further away I got from his passing, the better I got at keeping him with me all the time without being burdened by my inability to see him physically.

It’s almost been three years now, and my words are starting to return. They’re wobbly with fresh legs and blurry vision, but they’re taking their first steps and will gain strength with practice and time. Isn’t that how it often goes? We have to veer away from something we’ve loved so we can circle back and discover it again. The words are more precise now, facing forward again even when doing so fills me with the sting of loss. As I write, I think of my dad and the connection we had over words and their power, and I know it’s worth the sting.

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