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Photos: Brittany Holloway-Brown
Photos: Brittany Holloway-Brown

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The Blue Leather Jacket My Grandmother Wore While Dying

After a cancer diagnosis, wearing bright colors was a celebration of life

While my grandmother was dying, she wore a blue leather jacket. Actually, that's not really fair to say. She wore a lot of things while dying; that's just one that stood out. Unlike the soft pastel jackets that are left hanging in her closet and packed away in cardboard boxes, this was an electric-blue slim-fit number with silvery zippers down the front and across the pockets. It's from the period of time when she still filled out her clothing.

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Blue Jacket

Three years ago, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and many of the moments after are marked in my memory by how she dressed herself. In that faction of my visual mind, I tallied our remaining time through pattern and shape and texture, through concrete items that I knew would be tangible even after she died.

The blue leather jacket was a celebration of life. The night she wore it, we —€” my immediate and extended family, which included my mom, dad, siblings, aunt, uncle, and cousin —€” were going to dinner (Red Lobster; downtown Huntington, West Virginia; her choice).

It was one of the first dinners we went for after the diagnosis and I don't remember much from the meal, other than that conversation was typical and warm and punctuated with debates over who had the right to the last cheddar biscuit. However, I do remember driving home the three hours to Louisville the next morning, hopeful then because she dressed so brightly and ate plenty that night.

Pink Cap

She wore the pink baseball cap on days that she didn't wear her wig, which itched her scalp like crazy. My grandmother was in the midst of chemotherapy, which left her nauseated and balding. Yet the wig, a cropped blonde style similar to the way she wore her natural hair, wasn't so much for her personal comfort, as for the comfort of those around her. It was a counter to her baldness, which was a constant visual reminder that she was slipping away.

The cap was made of a brushed baby pink canvas material. We brought it to her as a souvenir from a trip to Disney World. A small Mickey Mouse patch was woven on the rim, complete with his pudgy black belly and rounded canary-colored shoes. We chose it because it was feminine and practical, much like her. She would occasionally take it off for my sister, who was 10 at the time, and jokingly ask her to count the remaining wispy hairs on her head.

Last night I dreamed about my grandmother for the first time since she died. She had hair again and the pink cap was nowhere in sight.

Silk PJs

My grandmother always loved silk pajamas, and this particular pair, a deep purple with a simple wide-leg cut and tiny buttons running down the shirt, swam on her in her final days. She told us that they were a gift from my mother, given to her when she came to help care for me and my brother right after our younger siblings, the twins, were born.

We were living in Chicago then. It was November and icy. While my mom spent those first few weeks adjusting to life with two newborns —€” the nursing, the bathing, the bedtime rituals —€” my grandmother placed me in a straight-backed kitchen chair and set to untangling my mess of curly hair. I didn't much care for brushing my own hair, as the strands would tangle around themselves and the bristles, forming little knots that I left untouched for days.

She deftly cut the worst of them out with a small, sharp pair of brow-shaping scissors, and instructed me to brush my hair at least 100 times after getting out of the shower, advice she would also give my then-newborn sister, once she grew hair.

The last time I saw her she was sitting on her couch wearing those pajamas, the silk pooling around her thin limbs, while she ran her fingers absentmindedly through my sister's hair.

Dolphin Necklace

In my grandmother's eulogy, delivered with Winter Storm Jonas raging outside the thin walls of Barboursville Baptist Church, my dad mentioned how much she had loved the beach. She would go every year with her two sisters (she was one of six siblings total). That was the only moment he choked up while speaking, when he had to say how heartbroken she was because she hadn't gotten to go back to the beach one more time.

My grandmother grew up in Beckley, West Virginia, a coal-mining town in a landlocked state. Not many people got out, but she and her siblings did. They went to school and started families, and eventually drifted, settling up and down the coast. The annual trip moved from beach to beach, but was simultaneously a reminder of what they had accomplished —€” being able to get out of that landlocked town — and, in spending time together, a reminder of from where they had come.

I remember there was a necklace she wore occasionally in her final years, one with a gold chain and a little glass dolphin charm, that she brought back from a beachside gift shop one year. My sister would sit on her lap and toy with the dangling bauble as though it were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Before the funeral, my cousin slipped a plastic bag out of her coat with a coil of gold inside and wrapped the dolphin necklace around my sister's neck.

Nurse's Cape

My grandmother wrote out the specifications for her funeral months before she died. She created a list of hymns to be played at the piano, wrote her own obituary, and chose photos from her life to display. One of the photos was from her time as a nurse at St. Mary's Hospital in Huntington, where she ultimately worked as a clinical instructor for 39 years. In this picture, she was freshly graduated and beaming, wearing a crisp, white uniform —€” the kind you see in old '50s movies with a starchy collar and neat cuffs.

As a young girl, my grandmother would watch across the street as her friend's aunt put on her nurse's cap and cape and headed off to work at a tuberculosis sanitarium; she knew soon after that there was no other job that she would be content having.

One of the final specifications that my grandmother gave was that she did not want a wreath of flowers dangling from the casket, which was to be centered below the pulpit. Instead, she wanted her own navy nurse's cap and cape draped over it, crossed over with a single red rose, dressing herself in memories even after she was gone.

It has only been a few weeks since that day, and many of my grandmother's items are exactly where she left them: The leather jacket still hangs in the closet, her pink baseball cap rests on a stack of crossword puzzle books on an end table, and her collection of silk pajamas are split between the laundry room and her dresser drawer. For now, these articles are at rest and it's not the time to disturb the order she left behind.

However, others are taking on new life: There's talk that her cap and cape will be given to the hospital to include in its hall of fame, meant to inspire other young nurses in their profession. My sister is connected to her through the shimmery dolphin necklace, which she wears tucked into her own starchy school uniform shirt.

As for me, I was left a box of clothes. "True vintage," she joked about it before she was gone. It's packed with delicate crinoline underskirts, tailored handmade suits, and silk gloves. My favorite item might be a thick fur coat —€” hers from before she was married. The outside is brown and sumptuous, the inside accented with a silky, brown and steel-blue pinstriped fabric. Embroidered into the lining are three creamy letters, her maiden initials in swirly, cursive font. BJB, Barbara Jo Bales, who will be with me always.

Ashlie Stevens is a writer based in Lexington, Kentucky, whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, National Geographic’s food platform "The Plate," Slate, Salon, and Hyperallergic.


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