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.