Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ashes and Dust

On Wednesday evening I sat behind the altar at St. Paul's in the role of Eucharistic Minister (chalice bearer), and pondered my mortality. I had ashes smeared into my forehead with the ritual words, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I was distracted by my own strong physical desire to cough, and my equally strong desire to suppress my cough - a cough that is due at least in part to the dust in our demolished living room.

On Thursday my father called to tell me that his sister had died. My Aunt Jackie had been battling cancer for the past fifteen years. In that time I've received more phone calls than I can remember from either my mother or father telling me that she was about to pass, but she always rallied. She always refused to go, and I can still hear her raspy voice declaring that she wouldn't, until she was damn ready. This past Christmas when we were down to visit I looked in her eyes and knew that she was. Still, there was a part of me that never expected to get that final call.

There is thing, this spirit, that women on my father's side of the family have. We don't do what we're told all the time. We make our own mistakes and don't learn well from the experiences of others. We are headstrong, independent, and smart. We are manipulative, crafty, and melodramatic. We are fiercely loyal. We drive our quieter, mellower brothers just a little mad. Jackie was a supernova version of all of those qualities, and nothing in her life could dim that brightness: not poverty, not the many punishments that life brought to a woman of her generation with that sort of independent mind, and no not even cancer. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Friday I spent the day with my own daughter. I thought about how new she was when she met Jackie - just two months old - and how Jackie was two months away from the end of her life at the same moment. I thought about what it means to be a woman in our family, and wondered what she will learn from me, and what she already has within her that I will watch bloom all on its own as she grows. I thought about Jackie's two grown daughters, and my own mother, and all of the little ones we love so much, whose beginnings herald in their way the endings that we all face, the mystery of life whose shadow is the line over which my beloved aunt crossed this week.Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Today I looked out at the cloudless blue sky and the daffodils and was blinded by the energy of the naked sun. We went to the zoo, and wandered about fighting crowds of winter-pale Seattle families who had the very same idea. In the midst of the crush of strollers and sounds of overtired sun-drunk children I thought about Life, how it begins and ends and the ways in which we turn towards or away from that final reality. I thought about the yoga class I'm starting next week, a Lenten attempt to get closer to my own physical self. I want to last. I want to turn towards life, even the shadow parts, like the fields of brave early daffodils turn their heads up, into light.


  1. This is beautiful. I'm sorry for your loss, but it truly sounds like your aunt had such a strength of character that will continue to resonate long after she is gone.

  2. My condolences to you and your family.

  3. Grace and Peace of the Lord with you and your family, very sorry for your loss. Prayers are being sent to your family!

  4. A, this is a beautiful post. It sounds as though you have found some peace with your aunt's passing, but it still must be really hard. I'm so glad that she and baby J got to meet the short time they were on this planet together.