Dirty Clothes by Roberta F. King

close up of old dresser drawer and handleIn the bottom drawer of a dresser in our bedroom I keep two Ziploc bags with some of Noah’s dirty clothes inside—a tee shirt, a pair of mittens, some hand splints and a winter hat. They smell just like Noah. I wish there were more items, but I washed things up too soon after he died.

When I’m longing, I’ll open the bags and breathe in the scent that is him.

We have a DVD of him at summer camp and once a year or so my husband Mike and I will play it. We can hear his voice and see him zipping around in his wheelchair with his friends; he looks so happy, tan and independent.  We have at least a thousand photographs of him; I started taking pictures of him the day he was born until just a few weeks before he died.  We keep our favorite images of him throughout the house and in our offices. What I really miss, though, is his smell. I think because we had to lift him so much, and to lift safely is to hold close, I was always very conscious of his scent. I could tell by how he smelled if he’d been sweating at night, if he’d eaten garlic or if he’d gone swimming at the Y. I could tell if we’d used a scented soap in the shower or if the clothes he was wearing had just come off the clothesline or out of a plastic box for the change of season. I loved the smell of his head. Through the mess of blonde curls I could detect a little bit of sweat, a little oil, and the flowery smell of Aveda shampoo mixed with the scent of clean air from the pillowcase. His hands were always clenched because of cerebral palsy and they smelled damp, but never dirty—more like something he’d held and then eaten—like an apple slice. At times they would smell like a crayon or pencil he had used in school. Often his hands smelled like neoprene from his hand splints.  When I would kiss him good night after reading I’d lean over and take in some of the air around him, it was sweet and soft, almost undetectable to anyone other than a mother.

After all these years the dirty clothes in the sealed bags still smell potent. When I’m missing him more than usual I’ll go to the dresser drawer, opening one bag I’ll breathe in the air, then seal it up quickly. I don’t want to scent of Noah to be diluted by new air. I’ll do the same with the other. They don’t contain notes of grass, licorice, chocolate, fall leaves or beach air like wine does. The bags smell like love, that’s all. Just love.

robert f. king outsideRoberta F. King lives close to water in Muskegon, Mich. and is the vice president of PR & marketing at Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Outside of her professional PR writing, her articles and essays have been (or will be) published in Boiler Journal, Hippocampus and Atticus Review, The Rapidian and in Solace magazine She is working on a memoir about her son, Noah. Visit her online: www.robertafking.com
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  • ronnccox

    Poignant piece. Eyes definitely watery thoughout. Very sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing this. BTW, my wife’s father lives in Muskegon. It’s beautiful there!

    • Roberta F. King

       Thank you for reading, I know I’ve succeeded when people feel emotional about the story. Making people teary isn’t my goal, it means as much as anything to hear this.
      Muskegon is lovely–the beaches and lakes make it a great place to live.

  • Lynne

    Oh my Roberta . . . this was . . . no words. I can’t imagine what Noah’s death, the loss, the loss of dreams must be like.

    This stirred my past and I remembered my Gary, in his favorite light blue and/or yellow crew neck sweaters. I have them tucked away in my cedar chest. I have gone to them many times in the past 32 years, pulling them to my face to catch, just maybe, a whiff of him. Your writing made me want to talk about what loss felt like. Not what happened but what I FELT.

    You stirred me . . . tearfully,
    Love, Lynne

    • Roberta F. King

      Lynne,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. It encourages me greatly to know that my writing meant something to you and made you think and feel. Talking and writing about loss is ungodly painful, but so very necessary.
      Peace,
      Roberta

  • JJOHNSO1

    Although I only had this sweet boy in my class for two years, I am so lucky that he was in my life…. Teaching me. I often tell stories of my time with him. Roberta, I look forward to reading more.
    -Johnson

    • Roberta F. King

      Johnson (as Noah would say),
      Thank you for commenting and reading, Dirty Clothes. I so look forward to sharing more with you and having you read the Bluffton School piece in the future. It has been difficult to write these stories, but I love every minute of the pain.

  • What a beautiful essay, so very full of emotion and detail. I can’t imagine this loss. You’ve written the shape of love with such grace.

    • Roberta

      Lisa,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Noah’s death is so much a part of me now that I can’t imagine life any other way. Seems oddly sad to write this…

  • Oh, Roberta…so beautiful. Made me cry. And hug my boys. Thank you for sharing your pain and love for Noah so eloquently. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Anne

    Lovely, poignant, brave.