Tucked away in boxes piled in a corner of a storage building are what’s left of my brother’s personal belongings. The thin layer of dust that’s settled over crates and his work shirts stands as a reminder of his passing more than three years ago.
As I rummage through one box that holds a crucifix and a Madonna statue, testaments of his Christianity, I catch the faint scent of baby powder beneath the nearly overpowering smell of must. He loved baby powder. His fondness for it began years before a stroke changed the course of his life. He used it unsparingly on his body, so much so that the talcum powder had wafted through his apartment and settled like a soft, white veil over everything in his three-room bungalow. The smell of baby powder always lingered in the air when I visited him. It was warm, welcoming, comforting.
And now, I am transported back to his tiny apartment with just a slight whiff of baby powder, emanating from this box of disturbed trinkets literally covered in a thin layer of feathery white dust. Tears well up as I remember this sweet unique detail about my brother. Something so simple as a dusting of baby powder had such a profound effect as I sat in the middle of my brother’s stuff and wept. Smells have a way of reconnecting us with mostly pleasant memories. And this was no exception albeit a bittersweet recollection.
When my brother lay dying in the hospital in July 2017, I stopped by the gift shop one morning to buy baby powder on my way up to his room. I could no longer bear the medicinal smells circulating in and out of his hospital room. He deserved better than this sterile environment that reeked of sickness and death. He deserved hints of home, a safe place where baby powder hung in the air and settled into the wrinkles of his comforter and bed pillows.
That morning, he could not speak and could barely open his eyes, but I lifted the baby powder bottle up to his nose for a sniff, and he responded with a gentle smile. Oh, that familiar scent he loved so dearly beat back the less pleasant hospital smells drifting in and out of his room and I believe took him back to a kinder, gentler time in his life. I rubbed the powder on his shoulders, neck, arms and hands, and sprinkled it onto his pillow so it would permeate the space around where he laid. I wanted so much to bring him comforts of home because I knew he’d never make it home again.
As I sifted through the boxes in the storage building, I chose a few things that I thought would bring me comfort when I returned to my home. I also plucked a shirt of his and a jacket dangling from a clothing rod. I had hoped and I tried, but neither garment smelled of him as I buried my face into the folds of fabric. The years of being stored away had stolen away his scent and left in its place a musty smell, a painful reminder of his forever absence.
When we lose someone we love, we so desperately cling to those things that remind us of them. We are so eager to keep their memory alive by posting photos and stories about them on social media on the anniversary of their birthday and their passing as well as recounting their shenanigans when gathered around the dinner table during the holidays with family. We laugh. We cry. We remember. And we miss them so very much. We try our best to keep them very much alive with every story we recount, every photograph we display and every video we watch time and time again.
I think having bits and pieces of our loved ones who have passed—their clothing or trinkets they treasured—add something tangible to the memories we cherish. I wonder whether we relish the things that once belonged to them so fiercely because we fear the memories might fade. Their things somehow keep us connected.
And maybe choosing things from their stuff helps us deal with the grief of losing them. Maybe it’s a way to maintain a bond with them beyond the best memories we have banked. Whatever reason we find ourselves sifting through what’s left of our loved ones, it speaks to the everlasting and undying love for them that we hold dear. Love never dies. And that’s a beautiful thing.
My brother’s stuff keeps him close right along with the fond memories. Every day that I pass by the shelf that holds my brother’s police badge, his crucifix and some photos, I am reminded of a vibrant life once lived. Some days are heavy with sadness that his life was cut short. But more often, there are smiles for the memories of a brother who loved to cut up, laugh and tell crazy stories about the years he served as a police officer. And whenever I wrap myself up in his jacket, I imagine him hugging me. And I feel safe.