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Roxane B. Salonen, Published April 19 2013

Living faith: Kept cozy by father’s flannel shirt

Though he died Jan. 11, my father managed to keep me warm and cozy through this never-ending North Dakota winter.

It came as a second-thought while loading up the van just before heading back to Fargo after his funeral. In a rush, I went to grab the clothes I’d hung in his closet, and there it was, Dad’s red flannel Pendleton shirt.

“Mom, I’m going to take one of Dad’s shirts,” I hollered. In just a few days she’d be combing through his belongings with my sister to prepare a few boxes for the Salvation Army.

Although I’m sure she dreaded the task, Mom’s always been practical. She’s also learned not to hang on. The fire that consumed our family home in 2006 helped remind her that tangibles, though important, cannot replace the soul of something.

Nevertheless, the earthly ties into the spiritual; we are part one and the other. And I’ve always needed the tangible.

I needed, for example, to see my father before his casket was closed up forever. Even knowing it wasn’t really him lying there, his body represented the man who helped bring me into this world, the father I love.

So after the priest prayed over his body and before the casket clamped shut, in a spontaneous moment I reached down and hugged him one last time.

The day prior, I’d helped my mother choose clothes for his final resting. Dad preferred casual attire to what he called “monkey suits,” so we honored him by selecting some plain, brown slacks and shirt.

But the red one remained in his closet, and it called to me that cold afternoon as I prepared to peel away from Mom, now a widow, leaving her to grieve alone.

I’d barely had time to exhale when it was time to pack up again for a long-planned trip with my daughter’s school. The journey would involve 50 hours on a bus. Suddenly, I dreaded hanging for a week with a bunch of potentially rowdy teenagers.

Maybe I shouldn’t go, I thought. I was a freshly-grieving daughter, after all. And yet Dad would have insisted I push forward, for his granddaughter if nothing else.

So I forced myself to pack, and while grabbing outfits from my closet, the red flannel shirt popped out again. Removing it tenderly from the hanger, I brought it close and remembered.

It was my third Christmas and I’d fallen asleep nestled in my father’s lap in front of the fireplace at my grandparents’. I awoke a couple hours later to the peaceful, rhythmic rising and falling of his breathing and the cozy feel of that warm flannel shirt.

There was no place better in the world.

“I guess you’re coming with me, Dad,” I said, laying out the shirt to wear the following day.

Throughout the journey that shirt kept me warm and comforted. And after returning, as the winter wore on, I frequently donned the flannel shirt, heartened to feel my father’s protective embrace. When the weather warmed for a few days, I flung it on over a T-shirt as a pseudo spring jacket.

I know Dad isn’t with us anymore and that a shirt won’t bring him back. But in a way I’ve welcomed the long winter because, throughout, I’ve been warmed by something that once warmed him.

If, in my grieving, thoughts of things left unsaid or undone have threatened, the shirt has promptly shooed them away, reminding me that death, though commanding, is not powerful enough to separate a girl from the love and protection of her Daddy.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.