Last Ash Wednesday, my mother went to church to receive ashes and was told by her priest that she was going to die: ‘You are dust and to dust you will return.’

A couple of days later, a young physician with a too-loud voice told her the same thing—‘You have stage four metastatic cancer and at best eight weeks to live.’

It was six.

Pastors explain Ash Wednesday as the day the church reminds us that we’re mortal, that someday we’re all going to die. I used to say that too, but after last year it feels a bit too theoretical. Now I think of Ash Wednesday as the day we receive a terminal diagnosis: You’re dying now, and it won’t be long.

When my mother first got the news, all she could say was ‘Unbelievable.’ Over and over: ‘Unbelievable.’ So fast. She was ninety, but she felt cheated. So did I.

After a day or so of digesting the news, she told us that the only way she could do it, her dying, was if she took things one day at a time. It’s the way we’re all doing it, I thought to myself, except we try not to know.

She also told us she couldn’t do it alone. She asked us not to leave her. We didn’t. From the day she entered Hospice House until the moment she died, we accompanied her in round-the-clock shifts. We did it for her, but not just for her: she wasn’t the only one who couldn’t do it alone.

Tomorrow I’ll go to church and get a terminal diagnosis. I hope the minister won’t get all progressive about it, change up the old words to soften the blow, use flowers instead of ashes, or mingle them with glitter to remind me I’m stardust, or some such trendy thing. It will ring really false to me after last year when things suddenly got real. I might get visibly pissed, and that would mess up the contemplative atmosphere.

Just give me my burnt cross of ashes and let me cling to it grieving for a while. In time I’ll come to. I’ll decide I can do it one day at a time. I had a good example. I’ll ask for the company I know I’ll need, and with any luck I’ll have it.

Christ, in whom I died to rise, will take it from there.



















28 thoughts on “Terminal

  1. Amy

    I don’t know how to thank you for your beautiful, moving writing. You have inspired me and made my eyes fill with tears. Thank you… thank you.

  2. John Hardy

    We need to get death in its proper perspective….it is not abnormal it is perfectly normal …..dying is exactly the same process as living….every moment we live is a moment less to live. What matters is not the number of seconds we have but what we do with those seconds

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  4. Ann

    My dad died a couple of years ago. His funeral was on Monday, and that Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. It was overwhelming to be in the same worship space on that Ash Wednesday, where only two days earlier my dad’s cremated body had been for his service. Ashes and dust.

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  6. Adele Crawford

    Thank you for this beautiful and poignant relfection. Receiving ashes or giving them hasn’t been part of my faith practice for very long, and I find it really uncomfortable to remind people they are dust, are dying. I’d really like to say something softer and “change up the words.” But I stick to the book on this holy day, trusting God knows what God is doing. Thanks for reminding me to sit with and walk through dusty ashey grief–my own or others’–no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

    1. sicutlocutusest Post author

      I know it’s hard. I was always surprised, ‘though, by how many parishioners actually appreciated the truth: they look you in the eye and wait for it. I tried to say it tenderly, but firmly, always calling them by name. Not all, of course–some voted with their feet and just didn’t come. But if they’re there, it’s because they know… and they want the church–you, in this case–to confirm the worst, and provide the best–company, assurance, and the grounding love of Christ. God bless you.

  7. Sue Irwin

    As the pastor of a very small church in the Great Lakes snow belt, I expect that very few (if any) will show up tomorrow evening for the imposition of ashes. It may be the snow that is even now falling outside my office window, but I suspect it will more likely be that the folks just don’t want to think about their mortality. I will, once again, tell the story, but they just won’t want to believe it. I think that is a shame; without the assurance of our terminal condition, how can we truly celebrate the gift of immortality?

    1. revgramma

      I hope this doesn’t soften it up for you but I have an entirely different take on Ash Wednesday. My son, who is an astro physicist told me the church had it all wrong. “Mom, a long time ago people thought you turned to dust. That’s not true. The smallest particle your body is reduced to is the same stuff the stars are made of – in other words, you change into star sturr.” Yes, he’s right and why does Ash Wednesday have to stick us in the ground when we can have the hope of resurrection and fly up instead of down. As a chaplain for the differently able – I used this idea for many years. And, instead of ashes, I signed them with extra fine silver glitter. “Remember brother/sister that you are on a journey and some day you will die, but that is not the end. You will go back to God who created you with the stars.”

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