I held the dirt in my hand. It was humus and dust, damp enough to clump, dry enough to crumble. I stared at it for a moment, a wave of comprehension and grief washing over me as I opened my palm to release it. I can still hear the sound as it hit the top of my mother’s casket.
…for dust you are and to dust you will return. (Gen. 3:19)
My mother’s death more than a decade ago was for me a reckoning with my own mortality. When my father died after battling leukemia for more than a year, I was in my late thirties, in the thick of my active childrearing years, and the grief embedded itself into the crevices of my busy life. It was a different experience entirely when my mom passed, in part because of the shock surrounding the way in which she chose to die. My mom hid her breast cancer from everyone around her, revealing it only when she was too sick to care for herself any longer. At her funeral six weeks later, it was the sound of dirt hitting burial vault that preached to me the reality that in all likelihood, I was next.
Luci Shaw’s poem “When Your Last Parent Dies”* indelibly imprinted me the sense that I was standing now on the top rung of a ladder, looking down to see “…the replicas from (my) own body crowding all the way down”, simultaneously realizing now that I’m at the top, my hands reach for…what? There is no longer any generation above me on that ladder, serving as an existential buffer between me and death. I am now for my children and grandchildren “…the final clasp that buckles earth to heaven”.
The sound of dirt landing on casket pulled me onto that top rung. The air is a little thinner up here.
It strikes me as something worthy of reflection that we at midlife are in a season of life that is imprinted with reminder that we are dust; we are all moving to the top rung of the ladder. For those attending liturgical churches, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, first movement of the forty-day period of reflection, fasting, and charity leading up to the celebration of the Resurrection. Ash Wednesday is a shofar call to repentance, a day in which we are invited to recognize our sin and remember our mortality. The losses and shifts that accompany this time of life, the deaths not just of parents but of siblings and friends, do not allow us to mute the message that Ash Wednesday and the days of Lent that follow are proclaiming to us. As we trace the journey of Jesus to the cross, we open our hands and find that clump of dirt in it, reminding us created ones that that we will eventually find ourselves on the top rung of that ladder.
Shallow interpretations of Jesus’ promise of abundant life have just enough room for happiness, but draw a boundary line when it comes to coming to terms with our own mortality. Jesus spoke those words knowing he was on his way to die for a world of crimes he didn’t commit. Even as he was promising life, he was journeying into the valley of the shadow of death with us. For us.
There is much to savor at midlife, but it is no longer untainted sweetness for many of us. Dust and ash leave an acrid aftertaste in our mouths. This season in our lives may feel like extended Lent. We do well to recognize it as such, even as we teeter on the top rung, glancing down perhaps, then reaching up like a child does, waiting for the resurrection that is certain to come.
*PerGen contributor Michele Morin referenced this excellent poem here.