It WASN’T AN UGLY SWEATER. Not really. I mean, it wasn’t attractive, and it was pretty generic. But I wouldn’t call it ugly.
One day it just showed up.
I’d gone over to my parents’ assisted-living facility north of Pittsburgh to do the usual — see if there was anything they needed, bring any of their mail from the house, sit with them during the meal that my father insisted on calling “the midday repast.”
This was early 2014. By then, my father had been living under an Alzheimer’s diagnosis for nearly five years, and his brain had gone from faltering to outright failing. He still dressed himself, but barely. In conversations, he “looped” about once every three minutes (“So what’s new in your corner of the world?”). His laundry — done by my mother for far too many years — was now entirely in the hands of the caregivers and relegated to his Sharpie™-personalized plastic basket.
The facility, called Sunrise, cared for those in the sunset of their lives. It was competent and amiable but sometimes, as the name suggests, a shade Orwellian. The memory-care unit had been christened ”Reminiscence,” which reminded me of the developers who cut down a copse of towering oak trees on a swath of land near my house, then christened the subdivision that rose in its place “Tall Oak Estates.”
I walked into their apartment. Per usual, he was sitting next to my mother on the black leatherette couch in the living room, the one that had accompanied them from their home of 42 years — where I and my family now lived — to “independent living” two townships away and finally to this place, the anodyne cul-de-sac of their nine-decade lives.
She was wearing her usual thin blue cardigan, which she was never spotted without. She’d spend the last five years of her life inhabiting it until late 2018, when her final eight days forced her into clothing more suitable for dying. On this day, she smiled at me as always. I looked from her over to him and noticed what he was wearing.
It didn’t really register with me at first. Then I looked closer. It was a forest-green sweater, cotton, encircled with thick grayish-blue stripes and thin white ones. It looked well-worn but not at all ratty. Like so many of his clothes, it hung on his fading body somewhat forlornly. I didn’t recognize it.
Then I realized: I didn’t recognize it for a reason. It wasn’t his.
He hadn’t bought it. My mother hadn’t bought it. Neither of them drove or shopped any more. And neither my sisters nor I had procured it. So where had it come from? What moments in someone else’s life had happened while they wore it? Who had inserted it into my father’s shrinking world, and how?
Suddenly I felt sick and a bit lightheaded. It has taken me nine years — eight of them spent after he left the world — to understand precisely why.
My father entered the world in an era of dressing up. In the early 1920s, when he was born, even low-end criminals were often wearing suits and ties when the mug-shot camera caught them. I have early photos of my father at about age 5, dressed up in crisp white shirt, loopy ribbon bowtie, shiny saddle shoes — and shorts.
Later, in images of him as a young man, his sartorial choices were always on point. Living in Southeast Asia in the 1950s, he even pulled off a white suit with aplomb — not an easy achievement. And after the 1960s made everyday life less formal than it used to be, he still wore jackets and ties on appropriate occasions but also adopted a batik-driven sensibility that — while casual — was a specific and mindful reflection of his quirky choices and preferences.
Which is a wordy way of saying that my father had a specific style that was decidedly his own.
So it was with some resignation that I watched, between 2008 and 2012, as his Alzheimer’s progressed and his clothing choices ebbed from collared shirts and smart cardigans into sweatpants and Champion sweatshirts, often the same ones on successive days. Occasionally I gently intervened, but mostly I left him to his own choices. By 2013, he was doing no more shopping and I was hitting Walmart regularly, buying him pre-softened, pre-washed superhero T-shirts that featured Captain America and Green Lantern logos. They, like him, were distressed and arrived already decayed.
The mix of his laundry evolved accordingly. I’d get asked by the caregivers at Sunrise, “This Green Lantern T-shirt isn’t your dad’s, is it?” Yes it is, I’d answer — and tell them I’d bought it for him because it was comfortable and brightly colored and he seemed to like it. Increasingly, he existed in a nonagenarian netherworld between aggressively casual daytime clothing and outright pajamas — the “breakfast all day” of fashion.
At the same time, I started noticing things missing. A shirt here, a decorative pair of socks there. Nothing major. At one point my mother was certain that her pants were being pilfered. “That woman,” she’d whisper in the dining room — “that woman is wearing my pants.” I assured her that wasn’t the case and ordered her more of the same pants from the same website. But I wasn’t so certain. Was there, perhaps, a bit of … fluidity in laundry ownership around the building? Were items getting cross-pollinated? Were the clothes off one resident’s back ending up on the backs of others?
In the middle of this environment of wardrobe uncertainty, The Uninvited Sweater made its appearance.
“Clothes make the man, the old saying goes. But when the clothes belong to someone else, what is the man made of?
I recognize that even the act of pondering this is done from a position of privilege. My younger son’s recent forays into “thrifting” at Goodwill and other stores have me thinking lately about the opportunities and ethics, economic and otherwise, of the secondhand clothing economy. I know that even the notion of “ownership” in a discussion like this is reserved for the economically fortunate.
And yet: I realized recently that ownership, and its deeper meaning, were the reasons why the appearance of the sweater had sent my head spinning all those years ago.
Extreme old age often exists at the far end of a parabola of indignity. The same “Oh, look, how cute” treatment you received as a child tends to emerge again from those people who generally represent the core and power base of American society — humans between the ages of, say, 18 and 65.
I can’t tell you how many times medical technicians, nurses and other caregivers — strangers to my parents — referred to my accomplished father as “sweetie” or “honey” or even “pumpkin” rather than using his name. I posted about that on Facebook years ago and received a torrent of energetic pushback from folks who — reasonably, I suppose — called such characterizations a kindness rather than a misdeed.
I do not see it as such, even if the intent was good. I see it as disempowering, another example of how the elderly are “othered” from the rest of us in subtle ways and made smaller. Active old men are “spry” and “sprightly.” Old women with strong opinions are “feisty.” Headlines invoke age as a shorthand to express implicit surprise that somehow, people manage to still be competent despite the passing of the years: “Ohio grandma becomes a lifeguard to keep community pool open amid staffing shortage.”
The Tale of The Uninvited Sweater is a distant, inadvertent cousin to these things.
I totally understand how it could happen: Young men and women who work as caregivers for elderly people are overwhelmed and underpaid. We ask them to become our surrogates, to dispense tender care to our parents and grandparents as a product that we pay for. It’s not surprising that articles of clothing could get mixed up along the way, that your grandfather’s sweater could end up on my father’s back and neither of them would be any the wiser. It is a quirk of communal living; it does not anger me, nor do I hold anyone responsible.
But the very aged are gradually losing so many things already: autonomy, agency, even — in the case of dementia — specificity. To see one’s Alzheimer’s-addled father enter the room wearing a sweater from the closet of an unknown fellow “inmate” (his preferred term, not mine) — and to see that he doesn’t even realize it — is a fuzzy cotton reminder that we do not control our lives, that personality can fade not only through the loss of cognitive ability but through the gradual attrition of the tiny things that make you you.
In his comic-book epic “The Sandman,” Neil Gaiman, one of the best writers going, has one of his characters describe death in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else. I think of it often.
“Death’s a funny thing. I used to think it was a big, sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off. I don’t anymore. I think it’s a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there. And one day you walk ‘round your house and there’s nothing there to keep you, nothing to make you want to stay. And then you lie down and shut up for ever.”
I realize now, after all this time: On that day in early 2014, Death paid a fleeting visit to my parents in Apartment 223 on Lincoln Club Drive outside Pittsburgh. But it didn’t stay. I think it was just scouting out the terrain for later. It slipped away unnoticed, and it took nothing.
No, that’s not exactly right. It took something, but it did so in an unusual way — by leaving something behind. A quiet calling card, shaped like a striped green cotton sweater.
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
The Century Club
Nature, memories and the lonely death of Jay Gatsby. Notes from the woods on my father’s 100th birthday.
Gazing into a long-ago Polaroid taken by my father, and finding multitudes.