My parents bought me my first fine suit when I was a senior in college. It was for me to wear to my regional interview for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate school. I think when I viewed the suit in the dressing room mirror as I first tried it on, it was the one and only time in my life that I actually ogled myself. Clothes can indeed make the man or, in my case, the nervous twenty-one year old fellowship candidate.
I wore that handsome suit only once before the interview to “break it in” at a restaurant dinner. Big mistake. As I was entering the place, I caught my suit jacket on the door latch. I assumed there was no damage done, and so it was not until I returned back to my room that I noticed the bottom button on my suit jacket had been torn off.
“No problem!” said my best friend, who prided himself on being the Beau Brummell of Indiana University. “Don’t forget the sacred suit rule.” “Huh?” I responded. “The suit button rule ,” he patiently explained, as if he were instructing a young child. “Always, sometimes, never.”
“Huh?” I unoriginally refrained.
“Always fasten the top button, sometimes the middle one, but never the bottom one. You’ve lost the Never button. Just remove those tiny dangling threads around that button hole and nobody will notice.”
“Huh!” I exclaimed gratefully, varying my monosyllabic grunt with an exclamation point this time.
My friend now waxed philosophical, as only an undergraduate philosophy major would be inclined to do. “Suit buttons are like blind dates, Elliot. When you lose one from the bottom, nobody even notices, so there’s no need to replace her right away.”
I stifled a fourth “HUH?” and instead started de-threading the lonely looking button hole.
“At least now I don’t have to worry about finding a look-alike replacement button,” I told him.
“Ell-i-ot!” he chided me again and, taking the suit jacket away from me, reached into the right breast pocket and — voila! — pulled out a little plastic slip containing three buttons identical to the lost one.
Who knew that purchasing a fine suit entitled you to three replacement buttons? Not I, since my previous couturier had been Men’s Warehouse Off The Rack. Strangely, no replacement buttons had come with their suits.
And so in my younger years I occasionally had the problem of replacing a button for a suit. But as I’ve aged, I have discovered that metaphorically I am now often faced with the impossible challenge of trying to replace a whole suit when all I possess is its button. Let me explain.
Now that I’m in my 70’s, my life is defined more and more by losses. First it was my grandparents and parents years ago, and now it is mentors, colleagues, neighbors, and friends, longtime and dear. And with the death so recently of my beloved partner of forty years, I have experienced my ultimate loss.
With those most dear to me, when they lived, I wore their love as a gorgeous, perfectly-fitted suit, protecting me from the vicissitudes of life and allowing me proudly to display the beautiful lining of inner security that they provided me.
But with every death, I have lost an invaluable piece of clothing that was their loving presence. What I have left is the bright shiny memory of their unique personality. It is that one small nub I carry of each soul that once actively clothed mine.
It is as if I am left with just the button of all they once were to me, and I realize how fruitless it is to search for a perfect match to that suit from which it is now irretrievably detached. The button itself — the palpable memory — is so precious, but what it was once attached to is sometimes unbearably more precious and ever beyond my reach.
But I have come to realize that the joy of the memory can sometimes be almost as comforting as the person who inspired it when we once shared our lives. As usual, if we can only view it properly, our life journey can be trusted to work itself out perfectly — right on the button.
For those of you who would like to know more about LeRoy’s life, below is a link to the obituary which I wrote. I’m biased, of course, but I think you’ll find him to be extraordinarily accomplished, and, more importantly, amazingly loving in countless ways.
Email Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here.