Most people who live on a farm or enjoy life in the country have an old tattered work coat hanging faithfully ready for the next cold weather job. Whether draped neatly on a hangar or tossed hastily on a hook, such an essential garment is often given a surprising amount of both gratitude and respect.
Now an old tattered work coat is not necessarily a pretty sight — I know because I have one — and with the weather turning chilly, I recently got it out. My faded shabby coat definitely isn’t pretty or in fashion. The color has long lost its vividness, the fabric is dated, and the style is obsolete. The cuffs are frayed, the zipper is a little tricky, and a button is missing. The wooly lining is now matted, there is a rip from where I caught a sleeve on a jagged fence and many curious stains from years of work.
But the coat is mine and I wear it — perhaps to the humor of my family — for fall and winter yard work, proudly aware of what I have accomplished in it through the years and eager to feel the satisfaction of more tasks well done. The fabric is tough and the pockets are deep enough to hold necessary items like a cell phone, dry gloves, warm eggs, or a pair of pliers. On frigid mornings of breaking ice and bringing water to animals, my elbows bend without restriction and there is always room across my back when I am reaching to bring in an armload of firewood. Best of all, while the coat provides delicious warmth and a familiar feel, I never have to worry that I might carelessly get another tear or acquire another odd smudge of dirt.
I suppose I could replace my coat. Every fall I think I might. But I never do. There is a sense of past found in its seams that I could never transfer into a new one — so many memories of chores, games, and projects. In that coat I played in the snow with my children, raked autumn leaves, stacked firewood, warmed newborn puppies, and moved rocks to make a garden path. If I ever tossed that old work coat into the trash and put on a stiff new one, would I even recognize myself? Would others take me for a serious worker unafraid to get her hands dirty? Would I lose my credibility for being able to complete difficult messy work?
It has been five and a half years since the suicide death of my son — and in a strange way that others may not understand or agree with — five years feels like that old raggedy coat. Death is mine. Fully mine. Tried and true. Like it or not. I put that work coat on every single day and although at times I am worn out from the exhausting and difficult work of grieving, there is an element of great pride that I am surviving. There is the feel of my family’s sturdy love and the warmth of all those ones who have touched my life with love and support. Quite ragged and ripped from my traumatic experience and fully understanding that any suicide death is blaringly wrong and out of society’s “style”, I wear my story with an honest authenticity that a new garment might only hide.
Does this coat fit me? Yes. Do I want it to? No. But my son’s death is my story. By forfeit and no choice of my own, I am left with this suicide death instead of my son’s life. It is a trade I did not choose or endore, but one I am incorporating into my life. While on some days I want a new role and wish to altogether avoid the complexity of death’s effect on my life, people recognize me in this coat. Wearing it, I exhibit knowledge, gritty experience, and resourcefulness.
The willingness to wear this coat allows me to carry out the ministry I believe God has set before me. For along with my own grieving, there are others who need whatever comfort or encouragement I have to offer. However messy or muddy, however vulnerable or painful, I have other lives to touch. I have work to do.
And most anyone who lives on a farm or enjoys life in the country knows that hard work can best be accomplished in a old, worn raggedy work coat.
May you, too, remain usefully tattered and authentically real,