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.
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.
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.
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.
* * * * *
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.