Saying Goodbye to My Father and the Closet He Left Behind

I struggled to let it go until I got one final look.

closet items
Johnny Miller for Reader’s Digest

Pause for a moment and imagine what’s in your closet. There might be an old pair of shoes, a ratty denim jacket that you wore on a memorable first date, and a box of junk you wouldn’t know how to sell or get rid of.

And that’s exactly as it should be: A closet is haphazard, untamed—a slow, years-long collection of exactly what makes you the person you are. So the tension rose in my chest when my mom recently decided to move because it meant we would have to clean out Dad’s closet, nearly a decade after his death.

Dad’s closet remained a constant for the 18 years I knew him, though I had no idea how important it would one day become. A brain tumor ate away at the parts of the mind that made Louis Harry Beres the special person he was—sharp, warm, and the best kind of always-prepared worrier—until he was bound, mostly silent, to a hospice-provided chair. But when your body goes, your closet stays.

In the years after his death, I would sometimes walk into that closet when I was home visiting for the holidays. I had moved many miles away, starting a life elsewhere as my mom took pains to slowly evolve her home—upgrading the decor, sweeping away the dust of grief, and making it once again a place for warmth and gathering.

When I opened the door to Dad’s closet last Christmas, I saw so many ties, any number of too-big shirts, and more loafers than I had remembered. And there were the vital things: a burgundy handkerchief I’d rip out of his jacket pocket when he’d lift me up after arriving home from work, the bright red Windbreaker he’d wear golfing and on family vacations. Beneath all of that were massive jars of pennies, clearly worth far less now than he’d thought they would be when he’d started the stockpile. Even these germy bits of currency were a part of this man, the son of an immigrant candy-shop owner who would get on his hands and knees to retrieve any wayward coins we left on our bedroom floors.

In the closet, I could remember the dad I had before I knew the words malignant glioblastoma multiforme. I worried that would go away when my mom moved.

I talked to my girlfriend about it. I rolled around nervously in bed. Could I stand to see this closet one last time before Mom moved? Would I find the strength to help clear that stuff out?
Then, a shock: “I had no idea,” my mom said. “I cleaned it out already.”

The announcement knocked me sideways. What had she thrown out? Was the Windbreaker safe? What about the hankie? Would seeing this empty closet to which I’d secretly ascribed such meaning jolt my heart and cause me to have a meltdown?

I flew home shortly thereafter, trying to keep my mind off it with fitful naps on the plane. It was all I could think about during the car ride home. When we finally got through the front door, I knew where I was going: to see this hollow closet that I swore would crush me.

I pulled the doors open. What happened next surprised me: There was no panic—just peace. Sure, Dad’s stuff was mostly gone, but I realized then that I didn’t need to see the handkerchief and Windbreaker to remember what we had. (My mom had known to save these things for me anyway.) The objects were just an outer layer above the warm memories I held within.

This closet had been a connection to him, but it was more a relic I couldn’t let go of. What I found, standing in what remained, was that it was easy to move on from old shirts and jackets. After all, clothes don’t make the man, and though objects may help us tell a story, they are not stories themselves.

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