I watched a grandmother take her toddler granddaughter up for ashes. The priest said, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Afterward, the little girl kept wiping her eye. Some black dust must have fallen in.
I watched the grandmother carry the girl, wiping her eye, back to their seat.
“We are creatures destined to die,” says Stanley Hauerwas. And mothers consent to give birth to such creatures.
Today marks four weeks exactly for the date I count as the “date of death,” the official day we lost our baby.
Today marks the first time I needed to write a sermon, post-loss. When it’s my turn to preach, I take Thursday morning to write from home, looking out at the drizzly rain. Today I couldn’t do it. The last time I preached at our church is the day the miscarriage began. I couldn’t conceive of going back to writing sermons — what would I say?
How do you talk of the Good News when sometimes there are no words? How do you reassure people they should have hope, when you might not have hope — or, at least, might not be ready to talk about hope just yet?
As with every other Thursday, I finally wrote the sermon. I decided to make this sermon’s Good News simply that we can express all our grief and pain to God — that God gave us books like Lamentations (a.k.a. “Complaints”) for just that reason. We have permission to bring it all to God and not force ourselves to rush to hope.
My comfort comes in knowing God gives us this freedom.
* a quote from my dad after I called him for help this afternoon
He wrote these poems while receiving cancer treatment that made his skin sensitive to the sun. If he wanted to take a daily walk, he had to do so in the dark.
I read these poems four years ago, on increasingly dark mornings. I read them slowly, aloud, while taking slow steps around my bedroom. I came across one I copied in my journal on October 22, 2014. Will God grace me with a marriage someday, I’d asked, — a good one? Will my childhood self finally know what she has only daydreamed about? Will it be all she hoped?
Windy and cold.
All night, in gusty winds, the house has cupped its hands around the steady candle of our marriage, the two of us braided together in sleep, and burning, yes, but slowly, giving off just enough light so that one of us, awakening frightened in darkness, can see.
I had gotten an MRI and was viewing the results: a bulging disc near the top of my spine. Even as the doctor tapped her pen on the offending bump, my eyes strayed to other bones, other features. My jaw, especially. My jaw convinced me I will one day die. It was the jaw of a corpse.
The MRI revealed something I knew but didn’t realize: There was a skeleton in there, with a skull like the kind on a skinless body. There were empty black eye sockets. Teeth that would fall out and turn to powder. There was a brain that might nourish a tumor, which would press on nerves. Meanwhile the doctor tapped her pen on the screen, its plastic tip hitting the slipped disc where a nerve was already being pressed. She suggested physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractics, maybe an anti-inflammatory diet.
I came home and e-mailed my 74-year-old friend. He wrote back, “That was pretty scary, thinking of becoming a corpse.” And he’s a Buddhist who meditates on his death regularly.
Happy All Souls’ Day, everyone.
The entire braid of the self is coming unwound in a rush.
– Advice for Future Corpses * * And Those Who Love Them
It’s 12:30 in the restaurant that has a cookbook named after it, 12:30 on a spring Thursday in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Yes, we’ll wait for the outdoor seating.
A spillage of white Styrofoam peanuts flits over the sidewalk like scattered petals. Scattered petals, helicopter seeds, swirl in the air like snowflakes. People with name badges walk with a hand over their badges, to press them down in the wind. Dogs on leashes bite other dogs on leashes. A young reporter in heels speaks into a microphone. Three mothers, pushing strollers, all look at their phones. A woman leans out a second-story window to clear tangled peat moss from a window box. The dust drifts down. Two men in polos and khakis get on skateboards and coast down the sidewalk; one wears an unstrapped helmet and pushes a button on a remote to power the board beneath. Women in headscarves, their rounded heads like pastel Easter eggs, open the door of a café. A man in a white clerical collar stops to greet a woman.
I zoom out enough to notice how diverse is everyone and everything. Some women have shoulders exposed in round cut-outs, others have shoulders under pads in blazers. Some men wear pants with a hole in the seat, some wear suspenders and a belt for their walkie-talkie gear, some have butts that look like skinny frogs, and some women do too. In the zooming, it suddenly occurs to me that every one of these people will die, and I wonder if there is such a thing as heaven, and room enough.