Essay: I Remember Exactly What I Was Wearing When My Brother Died

But pretty much everything else was a blur.

Before my brother died, I never paid much attention to my outfits, other than what I wore to my Senior Gala and my college graduation. For the Senior Gala, I wore a sky blue qipao, a traditional Chinese silk dress, partly as a metaphorical middle finger to all the students who had asked, “But where are you really from?” I’d been born and raised in the United States, half an hour away from my small liberal arts college, yet everyone assumed I’d emigrated from China. For graduation, beneath the hideous, oversized polyester gown, I wore a ModCloth ivory dress printed with all the famous Parisian landmarks. It embodied my French major perfectly, plus it had pockets.

The outfit I was wearing the day I learned my brother died had no significance beyond my attempt to stay warm in northern France. Yet I recall every detail perfectly: the light blue Forever 21 beanie; a lavender knit scarf from my mom; white Sonoma touchscreen gloves; a teal Sonoma long sleeve shirt layered beneath a blue Faded Glory flannel from the boys’ section at Wal-Mart; a navy blue Sonoma pea coat; dark wash Forever 21 jeans, and the only pair of boots that would fit my children’s size 4 feet at Saxon Shoes in Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up.

I wasn’t thinking about my clothes when, on that Sunday morning, in an email from my mom, I learned that I’d become a brother-less little sister. Apparently, Justin had never come back from class that Friday night, and an anonymous passerby alerted the police when he found his body on the railroad tracks on Saturday morning. The police showed up on my parents’ doorstep that evening with no answers except a piece of his broken glasses frame. My mom told me all this via email because I was teaching English in France, thousands of miles and five time zones from our childhood home. No one knows precisely when my brother died that December, or whether it was an accident, a suicide, or a homicide—not the police, not the coroner, not my parents, and not me.

I do vaguely know what shirt Justin wore to his cremation, though I didn’t return home to see it happen. Emotionally, I didn’t think I could handle seeing my friends and family, then have to leave them all again to go back to my job in France. And my parents didn’t want me to abandon my dreams of teaching abroad for this tragedy. So I helped my mother pick out Justin’s shirt over FaceTime, while standing in the middle of the purple-illuminated courtyard of the Musée Alsacien during my winter break in Strasbourg. My brother hated shopping, so the shirt was one my mom had purchased, probably from the sale rack at Macy’s, her favorite store. I don’t remember the color or brand. I was crying too hard.

Memories are all I have left of Justin now, and I’m doing my hardest to hold on to them.

I do remember what my brother was wearing in the last picture we took together because the photo sits framed on my desk today. Justin is grinning in black dress shoes, khakis, and a dark green plaid Ralph Lauren dress shirt, his arms nonchalantly crossed as his little sister leans on him. For a few minutes, in that FaceTime call, my mom debated whether or not to cremate Justin in that plaid shirt because it had been one of his favorites, but I convinced her to go with the other one. Even in the midst of my tears, I knew I wanted to keep that green one for myself.

I don’t remember what I wore while I was grieving Justin. The days were long, and everything melted together. I only remember where I’d been: Lyon, Dijon, Laon, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Caen, Bayeux, Galway, Dublin, Howth, Rouen, Giverny.  

When I flew back to the U.S. in May, five months after my brother’s death, I don’t remember what I was wearing. I only remember that the blue and white ceramic urn my mother handed me was too heavy for something so small, yet too light to contain the weight of my brother’s bones. Justin was never supposed to fit between my fingers. He was supposed to be at home, eating all the food at dinner and drawing in his sketchbook and helping me edit my graduate school applications.

One day, when my parents were at work, I opened Justin’s closet and slipped on that green plaid Ralph Lauren shirt. It swallowed me because he’d been a lanky 5’11” and I was only 5’5”. As I examined myself in the bathroom mirror, surrounded by plaid, I couldn’t tell if I looked older because of the color, because my 23rd birthday had passed, or because grief had aged me.

I remember what I wore to my brother’s funeral. A plain, short-sleeved black cotton dress that I’d somehow acquired while studying abroad in Nice, under a sheer black Aéropostale button-down, with black Pop wedges. An amethyst pendant hung around my neck—my mom had let me pick it out in a jewelry store during a family trip to Hong Kong, while Justin grumbled about how boring the place was. I’ve forgotten what my mom, my dad, or Justin’s friends were wearing. In the framed picture that my parents picked out for the funeral, Justin was in a light blue Ralph Lauren polo that he’d worn to my graduation. In the grave, he wore nothing but dirt and rain and tears and then, finally, flowers and his grave marker.

After burying one of his two urns along with some of his prized possessions—0.5mm mechanical pencils, The Legend of Luke, and a Game Boy Advance SP—a group of us went to an escape room, where we had to solve a series of riddles and puzzles in order to unlock the door. We made the decision on a whim, an old habit from an era when Justin had been there to shrug and accept whatever was happening. We took a photo there, but I’m the only one still dressed in mourning clothes. Everyone else had changed.

I haven’t worn that black dress and shirt since that cold, rainy day in May. I’m not sure if I ever will. Yet they hang in my closet, the repository of too many memories for me to discard them.

Memories are all I have left of Justin now, and I’m doing my hardest to hold on to them, seizing unraveling threads and knotting them back together before they fray completely. Unless I’m dressed in my red, white, and khaki AmeriCorps uniform, with my brother’s black leather belt around my waist, I don’t remember any of my outfits. Grief is a finicky mistress, demanding total control of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. But I always remember to wear two specific pieces: a white, pink, and green urn necklace filled with my brother’s ashes, and a rose gold ring, half a size too big for my finger, engraved with his name.

Sarena Tien is a queer Chinese-American feminist and Francophile. Her work has appeared in online publications such as Transitions Abroad, The Feminist Wire, Bustle, On She Goes, and Argot. She currently works in an elementary school where her students always make her laugh, usually unintentionally.

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