When the 9/11 attacks walloped us in 2001, I mourned the immediate, heart-rending losses: the children bereft of parents, the spouses turned widows and widowers, the parents having to bury their children, the families and friends plunged into grief. The whole country mourned. The attacks were a large-scale reminder of our mortality, of the sometimes-shocking brevity of life, of the folly of taking any moment for granted.
The morning after 9/11, a seemingly innocuous thing made me break down. I saw the dry cleaning slip tucked into the visor of my car, reminding me of the day to pick up my husband’s suit, and I wept. I was floored by the randomness and the unfairness of tragedy, the arbitrary and fickle way that death can storm into the picture. I thought of all the mundane things that the thousands of victims of 9/11 had left behind, had left undone, and that would break the hearts of their loved ones all over again, the school trip permission slips, the dishes in the sink, the casserole thawing on the counter, the dog waiting for a walk. And the dry cleaning slip noting the day and the payment due for clothes no longer needed in this life.
In our world of instant access to almost everything, a dry-clean-only item is one of the few remaining things that still require a waiting period. There are one-hour shops, but many small businesses still use a process that takes a turnaround of several days to get our cleaning done. Dropping off our dry cleaning is a bet with the universe: We gamble that we’ll be around to retrieve it. We bargain with the capriciousness of our own mortality.
We drop off our soiled belongings, the blouse with the ink stain and the slacks with the coffee spill and the Thanksgiving tablecloth with the traces of gravy and cranberry sauce, and we make a promise to come back for them. Some people don’t. Once I came across a rack outside my dry cleaning establishment. The clothes that had never been picked up by their owners were for sale. I bought a sweater. It was my size, lovely, practically new, a top brand. At $2, it was a steal. But maybe it actually was stealing. Someone had dropped it off in good faith. The sweater stayed in my closet for months. I found reasons not to wear it, knowing all along that really, I was afraid to. Maybe it wasn’t a dead woman’s sweater after all. Maybe the owner of the sweater had lost her receipt, or had amnesia. I worried that on the day I wore it, a strange woman would approach me and say, “Where did you get that sweater? That’s my sweater!”
Or not. The sweater might well have outlived its owner. In any case, the sweater eventually made its way to the Goodwill collection truck, unworn by me. I wished it well on its journey.
I recently watched the first season of “The Kominsky Method,” a Netflix series in which Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin play old friends, with an emphasis on the "old." In an early episode, one of the men, a new widower, picks up his dry cleaning. Hanging next to all his manly clothing, however, is an elegant gown that had not been picked up. He does a double take. Then he just completely breaks down, devastated by the sight of his dead wife’s dress.
It was a moving scene, and it struck me as so very true. I don’t know why, but it’s always the reference to the dry cleaning that gets me.
Maybe it’s the background knowledge that, for all our grand dreams and plans, there is the possibility that mortality will assert itself and catch us off-guard. We live in a world where young line dancers are gunned down, and people fleeing a wildfire are incinerated, and military drones drop lethal bombs on families, and that’s just in the last month. Our loved ones succumb to expected deaths from cancer and disease and terminal illness, and unexpected deaths from heart failure and car accidents and more. We are well acquainted with our mortality.
Yet, because we are human, we have faith that the next day will indeed dawn, and that we will wake up to its glory. We will plan a summer vacation. We will RSVP to a wedding. We will shop for the holidays. We will take out a 30-year mortgage. We will drop off our dry cleaning and, God willing, pick it up next week. With these small acts, we put our trust in life. Death may take the final curtain call, but for now we believe we still have some lines in this earthly play.