I remember the first Ash Wednesday service I went to after Madeleine was born. I was caught off-guard when my introspection swerved into an image of the face of my baby smeared with ashes. She wasn’t with me, but the image was stark, a cross swiped in black ash, off-center on her forehead.
That year I had been thinking of the ashes, reminder as they are of the certainty of death, as if they were human ashes. I know, kind of weird. In reality of course, they’re the charred remnants of the fronds that adorn the air on Palm Sunday, hailing the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem, before people realized why he has come. But the idea of human ash, human dust, still holds in my mind. That year I saw people walking across my Jesuit university campus in the drifting snow, with their own incinerated bones scrawled on their foreheads. I don’t know. I was studying trauma. I was writing a dissertation. I was nursing a baby at night instead of sleeping. From dust you are and to dust you shall return. This is a true statement, no matter how you understand your creation or evolution, and it is equally true of my daughters as of myself. Who needs to be reminded of that? We all know this, every minute of the day, right? But don’t we also structure our days and our lives to blur out this reality?
What struck me that first Ash Wednesday as a parent was that I was being asked to love my daughter as someone who would always be passing away from me. How do I hold someone— whom I love with such ferocity, with such need that it frightens me—loosely, like a butterfly, not like a body pillow or a rope hanging from a cliff?
I vacillate between living the days in awareness of their beauty—this sweet time together, cuddled in the mornings, reading books and drinking coffee, and hiking in the evening, sharing our awe at the unfolding, tender leaves on every tree—and terror mixed with existential nausea that these days will end. (Of course, there are days too, and many moments within the day, that are like a marsh of paralysis and inability to inhabit the present, but it’s the other poles I’m thinking about right now).
There’s a song, “Come Home,” by the band Cloud Cult that I love, even though, and perhaps because, it makes me weep nearly each time I really listen to it. It always comes as a shock, like a wave—the wave that is the reason for the cliché—that hits you from behind, or in the face, just at the moment you came up for air and had yet to open your eyes. I learned of the band from Krista Tippet’s On Being, where I also learned that the lead singer and his wife, also in the band, lost their 2 year old son, and their grief permeates much of their music in the years since his loss. This knowledge, with the swelling orchestral background, the hauntingly simple piano melody, and the poetic lyrics that inscribe the loss into images of longing so strange that I’m able to see them, combine to knock me off balance enough that I’ll be singing along one moment and weeping in the middle of traffic the next.
“I gave my skin back to the prairie
So in the coldest thundershowers
You can see me in the flowers
I gave my soul back to the breeze
So when you’re feeling down, you
You know I’m all around you
And though your hand I’ll never get to hold
Just give me one more chance to say
I love my baby, so
The way I keep returning to the song, again and again to experience that flood of tears and raw emotion, has led me to think that I need to connect with this grief for some reason. What am I crying over when I hear this music? I feel foolish on one level, or like some poseur, because I haven’t lost a child. They’re right here, in fact, wrestling noisily on the reclining chair behind me. Some part of it is an empathetic grief, experiencing vicariously the unimaginable loss that this couple faces and brings out in the open. Mostly, though, I think the music connects with my fear and certainty of losing them. I think this fear, this certainty, and the grief that accompanies it, rises so overwhelmingly because it’s always with me and I will not or cannot acknowledge it. The images and the music in “Come Home” provide a way to access the nerve fibers of grief that run through the reality of loving someone deeply. We can’t always connect with these nerves; we wouldn’t be able to get through the daily tasks. But the catharsis brought about by being able to weep over the passing of my children feels like cleansing, like it helps me see the tender and fragile beauty of holding these bodies for this time.
Ash Wednesday brings the sign of death into the everyday, marking me and my children at lunchtime in the middle of the week, my toddler receiving the smear on her forehead while asleep in my arms. At the same time, the ritual begins the season of Lent—the lengthening toward the coming dawn, which asks people to look closely at the things that we hold tightly, the things that we hold onto to keep from feeling the feeling of falling. The ash streaks on my children’s faces tell me starkly, all this is passing away. What can we hold to?
Yesterday morning was one of those days when I woke in a haze of discontent and paralysis, groggy and ungrateful. Instead of ignoring my heaviness, I actually pulled myself to my yoga mat and breathed and prayed into it. I felt lighter, like I could breathe again and sat for a while breathing and cupping my coffee in my palms. I wrote about the moment earlier: ‘Madeleine came and stood in front of me smiling. I gave her a hug and looked at her in the morning light. “I love you.” “You said I love you like I’m leaving,” she said. “That’s true,” I said. “I did.”’
How do you love someone who is leaving?
We ended the day with a hike in the woods, winding along a footpath through glossy, silver persimmon trees and cypress. I had thought the sun was already down, because the sky had been darkening since we left the house. Then we came around a bend and Madeleine shouted, “Look at that light!” The cypress grove in front of us was flaming with mandarin-rose light. The three of us gasped and turned around to see the fireball of the sun emerging from the cloud bank. Just then, Erick careened around the corner on his mountain bike and stopped to watch the light with us. He took Madeleine with him up the trail on her bike, and Catherine and I followed on foot. Catherine reached an open field and sat down, carefully and deliberately crossing one leg over the other. She actually said, “Let’s just sit and breathe.” Of course I sat next to her, in the dry grass, and took deep gulps of evening air, watching the flaming light scatter over the treetops, over the grass, and recede beyond the horizon.