by Jeff Oaks

My father always used what we called a handkerchief, which I later learned was really called a bandana. It was usually red. I seem to remember paisleys in the interior space and a more complicated border. Something like this:


Of course it never looked this smooth or fresh. It was folded, sneezed into, refilled, used to swipe sweat, refolded, unfolded to sneeze into a dry area, refolded, and so on all day long.

I thought it was gross, of course, because I was a child. He couldn’t have used the Kleenex that my mother and I used when we were sick; he suffered, like I do, from allergies and had no real place to carry around the hundreds of tissues he’d need to keep his nose dry. He worked largely outside and in a man’s world of payloaders, dump trucks, cranes, and bulldozers. He wore jeans and boots and shirts that all smelled like gas by the end of the day. It was convenient to have this cloth instead, always in his back pocket, always slightly exposed. It was washable, iron-able, a bit of color always at hand, and seemingly indestructible. It was anything but glamorous, which gave it a rough nobility, a cowboy’s.

My mother and I used tissues, which we called Kleenex, although I’m betting they were mostly generic brands, my mother being the bargain shopper she is. Mostly we paid them little mind. They sat in the bathroom, near the sink, like a tiny casket with a wisp of smoke, a frozen genii, ready to be snatched up and sneezed into, sneezed into again, then folded up and thrown away.

When I got sick, the Kleenex box was parked by my bed. I was sick a lot as a kid, a regular cold in the fall and spring that no one thought might be allergies but probably began as such. I don’t know. But much of my childhood does seem to revolve around sneezing. And having Vicks rubbed on my chest before bed, the stickiness of my pajamas, which I disliked but put up with. And the Robitussin for coughs, the orange juice in the morning, the extraordinary morning double consciousness of feeling like a wrung-out rag on one hand, and on the other, the excitement of getting to skip school that day as long as I said I had a headache. My mother would set me up in front of the television all day, under a blanket, a paper bag at my side for the cast-off Kleenex, and frankly, in case I threw up. She was an easy touch about this: since I got good grades, she didn’t worry about a day here and there, and I think she loved the company, a delicious weakness she could fix with soup and sandwiches.

I know I’m really grieving when I don’t even think about reaching for a Kleenex, but let instead my face fall apart, myself feel molten. There is a joyful element in it, in throwing away any dignity I might have been holding up.

There was the battle between Kleenex and Puffs when I was growing up. It was the disposable tissue version of the Coke/Pepsi fight. Because colds always went for my head first, I had at least four days of sneezing every time I got sick. On top of that, I had problems with bloody noses at some point in my growth spurts. So, in an effort to avoid them, my mother bought me Puffs, which were much softer, but after a few days made me break out around the nose. God knows what chemicals they used to make it so soft, but although my poor nose was less red, my cheeks were red and blotchy. After that, it was Kleenex all the time.

I hated seeing red in the Kleenex. I was supposed to pinch my nose and tip my head back, which resulted in a rush of blood down my throat, which made me gag. There was no winning. Without warning, right in the midst of my adolescence, my nose could let loose a torrent of blood. The embarrassment was awful, to be so vulnerable, so ugly, so inside-out in front of everyone. Much like grief feels now. Broken open.

At the end of a box of tissues, there are often four or five that have been so folded into each other that they all come out together. You get a big handful, in other words, and a suddenly empty box you have to stick a finger into, like Thomas did Jesus’ wounds, before you realize you’re screwed.