As a teenager, I spent hours scouring the Salvation Army and Goodwill shops for the perfect retro T-shirt: musty, holey, faded. Size didn’t matter nearly as much as insignia: Yoda, the Three Stooges, and my long time favorite ‘china’ written in kanji. I wore that shirt until it literally fell off of me and then I tied it back together and wore it some more. Some of my prized possessions from my dad’s collection of old travel t-shirts and his letterman jacket. It’s amazing how, as a kid, you can be nostalgic for a time you never experienced first-hand.
This basic garment has been around since the early 1900’s. Beginning as a basic under layer, the T-shirt has morphed into a visible form of comfort and self-expression. The T-shirt is now worn as badge of honor, a tactile history of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. A collection of good T-shirts is essential to every wardrobe, and the one we choose to wear each morning is a declaration of what we are willing to share with the world that day.
When I became a mother, my Tee collection shifted. I traded my Salvation Army treasures for a more refined basic solid colored V-neck collection. Apparently I didn’t have much to say to the world at this time, and comfort and ease were more my priority. Sure, I still kept the occasional Red Sox T or travel shirt lying around, but those were used mostly for sleeping or going to the gym.
And then my collection shifted again, without my even realizing it.
It started shortly after Diagnosis. I was cold and lonely at the tail-end of a long, unexpected hospital admission and we took our daily walk down to the gift shop where I decided to purchase a sweatshirt. It was a grey and blue-stripped zip-up with the words “Children’s Hospital Boston” screen-printed on the front. Not my usual attire as of late, but draping myself in that fluffy new sweatshirt fleece was the warm yet safe, artificial hug I had been longing for. “It’s okay,” the fuzzy fleece whispered, “You are safe here. You are doing the right thing. This is where you belong.”
An actual hug at that moment would have been too much to bear; a sweatshirt hug was just about all I could handle.
My world was shifting rapidly, minute to minute, and I could hardly keep up. In two short months I went from play dates to hospital stays, and my idyllic identity as a new mom was being stripped away rapidly. As we made our way back to our room, a nurse noticed my new purchase and smiled, “It’s official, you’re one of us now!”
I glanced at our reflection in the glass-paneled door in front of us. My baby was sleeping, momentarily unaware of the wires and tube that had become a permanent extension of his little body, his new identity: Cancer. I stood behind him, glaringly aware of my new identity. I stared at my shiny, all-access, VIP parent badge that proved my status within the hospital walls. My badge of honor. And now this commemorative Children’s Hospital Boston sweatshirt would prove my status to the rest of the world. A tactile history of Where I’d Been and the new Who I Was. I am the mom of a sick kid. I am now one of them.
This was just the beginning.
As the months went on and my son’s cancer was treated and treated, the colors and insignia that filled my drawers shifted from Red Sox and travel T-shirts to those of fundraising walks and cancer camps. I found myself wearing butterflies, awareness ribbons and tie die everyday. Even the color of a simple solid V-neck T now meant something different to me: gold for childhood cancer awareness, grey for brain tumor, green for Cerebral Palsy, blue for Rare Disorder awareness day. Each cause has its own color, logo, month, T-shirt, and I wanted to support them all—plastered across my chest for the world to see. I was identifying with all of it. They were all becoming a part of me.
Before I knew it, my entire wardrobe had morphed into a walking billboard for children fighting for their lives. Awareness, support and fundraising had become my identity inside and out. These T-shirts, hats, and accessories became a new and complicated status symbol, trying to keep up with each new diagnosis and death. As the rest of the world was collecting Alex & Ani, my wrist was filling up with precious and prized silicone wristbands—friendship, connectedness, identity— each one representing another child’s struggle and story. The ornaments I adorned all had specific meaning and purpose, eliciting conversation, creating awareness, and advocating not just for my son, but for all our families. I felt a part of something bigger.
These symbols, colors and awareness days connect us to people across the world, allowing us to not feel so alone. Our T-shirts tell our story. And for me, they provide me with an outward unspoken identity that I so desperately want everyone to know: “My son had cancer.” “I am still a mom.” “I continue to advocate for all of our kids.” This is who I am. This is who I was meant to be. And I am nostalgic for the time that will never be, letting the T-shirts speak for me: his life and my grief.