In My Mom's Shoes

A writer reflects on grieving the sudden death of her mother and the experience of walking in her shoes.

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It's a few months after I've graduated college, and I'm home in Connecticut with my dad. We're at the mall, and he's trailing me through the makeup counters at Macy's like a ghost. I dragged him along for some inexplicable reason — he's never been a shopper.

I pass by a rack of shoes, looking for something comfortable for a stint abroad. I gravitate toward Sperrys, the boat shoes, which are somehow trendy again. There are hot-pink Sperrys, nautical Sperrys, gold blingy Sperrys. Wow, my dad says. He tugs on a price tag. Ninety-five dollars? I got your mom a pair of these once.

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By once, he must mean decades ago. My mom died from cancer in 2004, two weeks after her diagnosis.

We return home empty-handed. I fiddle around on my laptop. Meanwhile, my dad rummages through the shoe closet and emerges with a pair of light-brown shoes. Sperrys. My mom's.

You can have these, he says, unceremoniously.

They're soft, beige, stretched leather, the soles beginning to split, all the grip gone.

It's easy to remember her wearing these shoes — and not for yachting. They were as much a part of her look as her wry grin and the way she'd try to wink but instead only be able to blink both eyes. They were on her feet at the barn when she would take me to ride. She would spend her nights leaning on the arena railing, eyes watching over me. She wore these shoes on that trip to Vancouver, when her stomach and bowel gave way while we explored a garden in Chinatown, before we knew that the weakness ebbing at her was cancer. It wasn't irritable bowel syndrome, like our family doctor thought, and it could not be cured, as we discovered, with Chinese soups and medicines.

It's no surprise that my dad still has the shoes, since nothing in this house has changed since she died. My father has always collected things, which he attributes to his scrappy upbringing in Guangzhou. But I swear that urge — along with the lack of any other urge at all — has amplified since her death. These days, newspapers and fliers of coupons from the early 2000s carpet the floors. Upstairs, in a bedroom closet, a basket of her dirty laundry is a landing pad for dust.

Though my mother's things remain as she left them, this is the first and only time he's given me anything of hers. In the past, I've filched things without asking: a jade ring I swear I didn't lose; a denim button-up shirt I found hanging in her closet with its sleeves still cuffed that I'm terrified to mess with; and, more recently, an old check from her desk that she'd marked up in her lazy cursive.

Though my mother's things remain as she left them, this is the first and only time he's given me anything of hers.

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I sit in the dusty office of a therapist. It's been a year or so since my mom died. I'm rambling, somewhat incoherently, about a fight with my dad. He told me that grief isn't real, I tell her.

I'd just relayed a story of how, recently, after a long day at school, my dad and I were driving in his car. I was crying. I can't remember what started the tears, just that I was upset and flailing around in the seat, the safety belt a straitjacket. Don't you miss her? Don't you miss Mommy? I'd shouted at him as he wheeled through a turn.

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It's been a year since she died. This is all in your head, he'd told me.

In that moment, I refused to let him define my grief. I shouted. Screamed, kicked at his car rugs. Said I wished he were the one who'd died.

Maybe it's a cultural thing, the therapist offers.

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The shoes don't cross my mind again until after I move to Washington, D.C. Here there are many people in boat shoes, the newer version, which are often paired with khaki shorts and button-up shirts. People here sputter out things like What do you do?, and you are judged not on who you are but how you spend your days.

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It seems like a fitting time to assimilate. I tug the shoes from my closet on a warm spring morning. Everybody's moved their clocks ahead an hour, but I haven't bothered fiddling with the hands on my watch, because it's hard to read, and I tell myself it'll all even out in half a year anyway. Daylight savings means the day will stretch for a long while, so I plan for a luxurious walk to match. On go the shoes and some jeans and a nondescript T-shirt, along with a jacket I've since misplaced.

I shuffle. The bounce has disappeared itself from the shoes. They're flat, a little wide, much wider than the new Sperrys, and without the slight heel of the newer versions. They're exceptionally bad for walking fast, and God help you if you want to wear them while chasing after a bus.

They're still impeccably soft, though. I can feel her imprint in them; my big toe aligns with hers, and the backs of my heels are cupped by the dents her own must have formed.

Down a street I go, and down another. Doesn't matter where. I punch my dad's number into my phone as I sidestep sidewalk cracks, a childhood game I've never shaken. My dad and I run through the old conversation regulars — Lei sik dzo fan mei a? Have you eaten yet? Our talk wraps up within two blocks.

When it's warm in D.C., I sweat everywhere. Feet, armpits, tips of my fingers, small of my back. I imagine all this perspiration and what's captured in it — bits of skin and lint, maybe — mingling with the remnants of my mom's, hers decades old. One part disgusting, one part time-traveling magic. The dirt gathered from her steps is already embedded into the leather, the soles. If I believed in qi, the Chinese energy flow my relatives are always talking about, I could imagine it circulating out of my feet and into the shoes, and hers seeping into my own. I don't even know if qi works like that, but that sort of personification freaks me out.

I wear them again maybe one or two more times before I notice traces of a spilled gin and tonic, a step into an oily puddle, an indiscreet jaunt in the rain.

This is all a little too much. For months, the shoes sit at the foot of the stairs in my group house, parked next to my roommates' sneakers and sandals. Week by week, they are buried as other things accumulate. I don't notice.

Week by week, they are buried as other things accumulate. I don't notice.

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A year and a half elapses. I become happy and sad and happy and sad, as I'm told is normal when you're 24, then 25.

I find an apartment that is all my own, because I want the quiet of my own space. I move out of the group house in a frenzy, grabbing what I remember from the common areas. In college, I lived alone in an old studio with vaulted ceilings only two blocks from campus. There were many thoughts to sit with, surrounded by things.

I imagine this is how my dad feels constantly, in his cookie-cutter home in the town where there are so few people who look like us.

As I unpack in my new place, I sort through my shoes. There are new places to walk in my new neighborhood, new things to see. I have my own special closet for my heels and boots and flats now.

Suddenly I remember the Sperrys. I dig through suitcases, wondering where I tucked them. I find one — just one — of my mom's shoes.

I catch myself thinking that, in a way, it would be nice if the shoe had somehow found a home in a trash can or in an obscure corner of an alley without my having to place it there. It might be freeing to not have to cling to it. I consider a hypothetical conversation with my dad about the missing shoe, and how I could use it to address his housekeeping habits. So I lost this thing. I didn't need it anyway. So you could lose these things too. You didn't need them anyway.

But later, in a fit of panic, I hear that a former roommate is moving out, and I worry they might launch a cleaning at my old house. I compose a text: Hey, have you seen this other shoe? And I attach a photo of the shoe, my hand wrapped around it like I'm holding a fish.

This is the complicated, ugly thing about grief. It attaches to you; it is a barnacle, relentless. To be in a state of grief, I used to think, was to remain in the hazy embrace of the dead. But then I found myself constantly wishing I could scrape those feelings away from my body, like trying to scrub a shell clean.

This is the complicated, ugly thing about grief. It attaches to you; it is a barnacle, relentless.

One of my old roommates finds the shoe a couple of days after I send my text. She hands it to me in a plastic shopping bag, and I toss it into a closet — me, the unceremonious one this time. It is impossible to lose. But at least it's there.

So I can't seem to shake these shoes, but maybe this is how it's supposed to be. So you can't seem to shake these feelings, but maybe this is how you're allowed to be.

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It's starting to get warm again. We've already shifted the clocks forward. I've set my watch to the correct time, as most people do. Maybe tomorrow I'll pull the shoes out again, take a few steps. Wear them in an air-conditioned room, when my skin is dry and I'm sure there's nothing to stain them. Or maybe all that can wait until the next day, or the next.

Kat Chow is a journalist with NPR's Code Switch and helps make the team's new podcast.

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