10/16/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

The Funeral Costume

Seven years ago, we got the call. "You'd better come now," my mother said. "I think this is the end." She was referring to my father, who'd had a devastating reaction to the mood-stabilizing medication Risperdal, leaving him in a dense haze of catatonia. During the previous month, my father's frontal-lobe dementia had morphed into a relentless, primal rage. He was violent, dangerous and uncontrollable. The new drug was supposed to bring calm. Instead, it brought him close to death.

I hung up the phone and stared at my husband with sudden panic. "What if he dies?" I croaked. My father was only 72 years old. His body was in excellent health. It seemed impossible that we would say our goodbyes.

We traveled that night in a winter's storm with only a carry-on bag between us. My husband had on a business suit. I wore an old wool dress; part of the hem was hanging down. In an airport bathroom, I realized I was wearing mismatched shoes.

My father rallied, but he was decidedly diminished. He could no longer walk or speak clearly (unless, of course, you count shrieking in expletives, which he seemed to do with no difficulty whatsoever). The hospital transported him to a rehabilitation facility nearby. He would never again live at home.

Afterwards, my husband bought a black suit. I did the same. For a year, our suits lived in the empty closet in my grown son's room, zipped safely away in a garment bag. I called mine 'my funeral costume.'

The next call came. My father had bronchitis and was not responding to the antibiotics. "It looks bad," my sister reported. "You'd better come."

This time, we were ready. We traveled in comfortable clothes and carried our suits, still in the garment bag, onto the plane. Again, my father recovered. So far, we've made the funeral trip four times. Each time we were sure the agony of losing a beloved parent was imminent and sure. Each time, we were wrong.

I started to use parts of my funeral costume for other events. I wore the jacket with jeans and with slacks. As a fan of the television show What Not to Wear, I know that a fitted blazer is the 'go to' garment in every woman's wardrobe and I've made good use of mine. The skirt came in handy a bunch of times too -- black goes with everything, after all. Of course, we also go to funerals.

Seven years have passed since that first call and my funeral costume still hangs at the ready. We got a call this week that my father in law is gravely ill; my stomach is knotted with dread. My husband calmed himself with logistics: "I hope my suit still fits." That evening after dinner, we slogged upstairs and tried them on. Though we had not donned them in many months, the suits slid onto our bodies like jeans worn yesterday. My suit looked a little haggard. The fabric under the arms was pilled and ragged, the button on the skirt hung loose. I smoothed it with my hands and zipped the garment bag closed. It hangs there now, waiting.

Sometimes, before I go to bed, I look at the suit and wonder: When will we be together again? Not today.