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The After Series: Not a Mourning Person

by Maggie Downs

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We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.

I was in Dahab, Egypt—6,290 miles away from my family, six months into backpacking around the world, and one bite into a platter of lemon pancakes—when I received an email saying my mom was dead.

I knew I had to travel home to say goodbye to my mom, comfort my family, and do the things that bereaved daughters do. But even in that instant, scorched by grief, I took stock of myself and recognized my sartorial quandary: I couldn’t dare show up in flip-flops to an event where my mom was the guest of honor, even if she wasn’t alive to see it.

I was a full-time backpacker, and all my possessions fit into a single blue pack that I carried through South America, then Africa, leaving items behind as they became too heavy or expendable. I pared down to the essentials, or so I thought. Now, my one necessity was the only thing I lacked—clothes to wear to my mother’s funeral.

Some may say it doesn’t matter what you wear to a funeral. But they didn’t know my mom. She never left the house without her makeup done and perfectly coiffed hair. Sometimes that meant waking up at 5 a.m. to set her curlers, powder her face, and apply two coats of Revlon lipstick in Poppysilk Red.

There was no time to shop before catching my flight home, so I landed in Columbus, Ohio, during a winter storm, wearing $1.99 Old Navy flip-flops, a pilled fleece hoodie, and hiking pants crusted with two continents’ worth of dirt.

My dad took a long look at me and said, “We’re going shopping.”

The normalcy of the department store felt cruel and almost intentional. My eyes were puffy and hot, and I could barely form sentences. I felt hungry and wanted to be held. The salespeople were invasive.

“Give me all your black dresses,” I instructed one of them, too bereaved for niceties.

I tried on a dozen dresses, one after the other, my body as limp as a wet paper doll. I remembered countless shopping trips with my mom, decades of standing in dressing rooms just like this one. Naked, I leaned against a full-length mirror for support, and that’s where I cried for a very long time.

I selected a black, knit sheath with a cowl neck. The price was the equivalent of five nights at a hostel in Cairo, well beyond my backpacker budget, but it was something my mom would have liked. Then I found shoes that were comfortable but not cute, a pair of chunky-heeled Mary Janes marked down to $15. They fit.

I barely remember the bleary days that followed, though I do remember the friend who drove across Ohio to take me out for a perfect bloody mary, a stack of salty casseroles from my parents’ neighbors, and the way I howled as the casket was lowered into the frozen ground. It snowed, and I wore a pair of my mom’s old boots to fend off the cold. Around my shoulders was my mom’s wool peacoat, the scent of her austere jasmine perfume both comforting and infuriating.

Afterward, my dad boxed up my funeral clothes and mailed them to my apartment in California. I returned to Egypt.

My backpacking trip ended six years ago. My mom is long gone, but the remnants of her funeral endure. The dress still hangs with my other garments, slightly faded from the sunlight that streams through my closet window. I’ve worn it twice—both times to grim business meetings.

The Mary Janes weren’t great to begin with, and I wore them long past the expiration date, heels scuffed, and fake leather toes worn thin. I colored in the scars with black Sharpie and continued to wear the shoes; the dog chewed one of the heels, and it didn’t make them look any worse.

Every time I grabbed them from the shoe rack, I thought, “Funeral shoes, funeral shoes, funeral shoes,” until it became a mantra. Sometimes I wondered if it was healthy to continue wearing the same heels that walked me through low and miserable times. But since they were my only black shoes, I had little choice.

I could have purchased new shoes, I suppose, but one side effect of long-term budget travel has been a changed relationship with money. It’s not just that I’m tighter with cash now, it’s that I know money can do so much more than put items in my closet.

But I suspect I hung on to the funeral shoes for reasons that went well beyond the financial. Living more than 2,000 miles from my mother’s grave, the shoes offered me a place to store my sorrow.

There was something reassuring about stepping into my grief each day. It was like pressing on a bruise—a reminder that I was still capable of feeling, even when it brought me pain. Maybe it helped that the shoes appeared as tattered and ruined as I felt. They acted as my black lace mantilla, a visible symbol of bereavement.

And then, last week, I abruptly threw the funeral shoes away.

I don’t think this is what people mean when they talk about closure or healing because nothing has changed. I miss my mom. If anything, the sorrow has deepened with time, as I’m forced to acknowledge the loss of her life as mine continues. My mom didn’t attend my wedding. She didn’t see me receive my master’s degree. She’ll never know the 3-year-old who looks at her photograph and murmurs, “Grandma.”

So I can’t say why I finally ditched those Mary Janes. I only know that I’ve walked thousands of miles on this earth since my mom left it, and with any luck, I’ll walk thousands more. For that, I’ll need better shoes.

. . .

Submissions for The After Series are now closed. We continue to explore and discuss mental health (and everything else that occurs around life and death) on The Orange Dot. To get a sense of what else we might be looking for, read our guidelines for submissions.


Artwork by KYLE BECK

Maggie Downs

Maggie Downs is a journalist and essayist in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet's True Stories From the World's Best Writers, and The Best Women's Travel Writing anthology, among others.

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