I am thinking about death. And ashes. Possibly this is because Easter is looming on the horizon, and if you have any truck with Jesus and think that what happened to him really happened, going through the Triduum is scary. Relentless. Deeply emotional, riveting, and scouring out of one’s emotional innards. Because in order to get from the Last Supper to the cool part where Jesus shares grilled fish on a beach with his disciples, you have to go through the crucifixion. And I so don’t want to do that.
I’ve been rereading Kate Braestrup’s amazing and emotional memoir, HereIf You Need Me, which chronicles the sudden and surprising death of her husband, Drew, a state trooper, as he chased a speeding motorist. One moment, here, with your cereal bowl still in the sink, its spoon leaning against the side; the next, just left, with the bed still warm where you slept, your smell and shape impressed on the mattress. Then, dead — as Kate bathes her husband’s face, dresses him in his uniform, and watches him be cremated because her fierce love for him calls her to witness it all, no matter how painful. Like Mary. That’s about as close to a personal crucifixion as I care to get.
What sticks to our fingers when we lift to the wind the remains of those we deeply love? Anne Lamott talks about scattering her mom’s ashes off a small mountain in California, as well as shaking the ashes of her dearest friend, Pammie, off a boat. (If I remember this correctly.)
Ashes stick. And are heavy. There are bone fragments in the box, as I discovered to my horror when I picked up my mom’s cremated remains, and my dad’s years later. There is something so undeniably solid about those fragments. They knock against the side of the box and keep us from getting dreamy and talking drivel about seeing each other in the next life — not that I don’t believe that, mind you, but it feels like drivel when you are sifting the remains of someone you adored through your fingers.
In the boxes of our hearts
So — in the end, what is left? My brother Nick made a beautiful pine box to hold Dad’s ashes; some of us chose to add things before burying it. Nick put in a shiny beetle, to remind us of how Dad shared his son’s love of insects. My stepmother put in a piece of paper covered with writing. (A last message to my father?) I just wanted to say goodbye, and anything I had to say to Dad could not be represented by something physical.
As I think about these ashes in boxes and Jesus sagging on the cross, all breath gone, I wonder what I will hold in my heart, like Mary. Here are some things that stick for me, which I expect to find nestled inside my heart once it stops beating:
- the look in a friend’s eyes when she took my hand after great sorrow;
- the feel of a warm baby nursing at my breast as the sun set outside the window;
- my husband touching me silently after a miscarriage;
- my kids skating around our living room, shrieking with laughter;
- the feel of our “therapy dog” lying on my lap, twitching in sleep;
- the sound of geese as they call to each other over the pond;
- how my dad’s voice lifted at the end of my name when I came in the door to visit;
- God’s presence inside, closer than my own breath.
God’s creation, family, friends, pets and more are stored in the boxes of our hearts as reminders of God’s deep love for us and His world. And I expect Jesus to have some really fine sliced lemon (no tartar sauce, please) and maybe a splash of good wine to accompany that grilled fish when we celebrate our resurrection on the beach when time is no more.
Originally published on April 18, 2011.