Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I look up from my place leading worship to see my kid the moment after the ashy cross is smudged across his forehead. He is teenage-swaggery, a slight smile as he moves toward the table for bread and cup, so very alive, his youth making death worry a little.
To remember that he will return to dust is harder than to remember that I will.
If life works out as it should, he will die someday after I am long dead.
He is so on the cusp of everything that it’s hard to imagine who he will be even ten years from now, let alone by the end of his days. Who will be with him when he dies? I think. Who will be for him after? Perhaps children yet unborn, a spouse not yet met, or friends who perhaps have not yet come to mean everything to him. Please God, give him good people.
And if life works out as it should, he will be with me when I die.
Or at the very least, he will be tasked with me after my death. My mind flashes forward to him as a silver fox, same swagger but with a taste of the humility that hopefully increases with age, lines around his eyes, a black suit, words scribbled on a scrap of paper in his pocket.
At least I hope this is how it goes, that we get this far. I am a fool probably to predict we will make it that far.
We have talked about this, the what to do when I die – not that I will ever be able to sufficiently prepare him, but I will try.
One of my realities has been the persistence of darkness, and in my fear of succumbing to it, leaving the ending of my own life to his own interpretation or someone else’s on his behalf, I have been open (perhaps too open) about my mental health.
Certain seasons have felt hit or miss, and I needed him to know that no matter what, he is so ridiculously loved, and that nothing he could have done would change the outcome.
I needed him to know that if he ever found himself in similar darkness, that there is no shame, but he should reach for love in any way he can find it, and try with everything to stay alive.
One of the sweetest memories I have was a morning when he was eleven or so. He’d dreamt the future, the last moments of my life on my deathbed, some cancer’s final victory. As I slipped from life to death, taking my last breaths, he sang lines from Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.”
As he told me, we cried, a wet tangle of arms and legs and love in the corner of the couch, neither of us certain how to go on. I felt as if I was ruining his childhood, being so honest, death feeling real at such a young age.
He wiped his tears, and then mine, looked me in the eye and said, “Tell me what to do. When you die, what do you want?”
What did I want?
“Don’t pump me full of chemicals, and maybe don’t put me in a box. Cremation is okay. Or wrap me in a quilt, put me in the ground, and plant a tree over me. Something like that.”
“This is what I thought you would say, something like this. It’s what I want too.”
And I was undone all over again. I know that whatever happens to me, if life goes as it should, even after death, I will be in remarkably good hands.
Ash Wednesday isn’t the only day I consider my mortality then. With the temptations of darkness, it has been ever before me. And because of those temptations, considering it with beloved others has been one way of staying alive. In some ways, Ash Wednesday feels like a relief, solidarity in what is my reality.
In other ways, it’s made me wonder about how to wisely and theologically consider my mortality with intention, in light of mental health struggles and a propensity to ruminate in the dark.
I have come to think that the temptation toward suicide has very little to do with death itself, as it turns out, but instead is bound up in navigating the unpredictability of life. It becomes a way of control, a way of truncating chaos that has become unbearable, a sense often shouldered in isolation, because to invite others in risks being perceived as a burden. Some of the worst pain I have witnessed is beloved others who failed at suicide, who were rescued last minute, or who planned poorly. In them is a deep, deep sense of helplessness, a paralysis, because even in trying to gain the ultimate control, they could not.
(And also, once the emergency subsides and they are no longer alone, the gratitude at failure is overwhelming. What they needed was not death, but compassionate and unrelenting presence.)
Ironically, it’s a fear of death’s circumstances that lurks within the draw to end one’s own life. Somehow living with the knowledge of one’s mortality and the fact that death could come unbidden at any moment is part of what drives the darkness. Despair is bound up somehow in the fear of possibility and how concrete the impossible seems. Suicide is a failure of imagination.
When I am honest with myself about what has pulled me back from the brink time and again, it has ultimately been the possibilities of love. One of my standing rules for myself is to reach early and reach no matter what. The times I have survived have been because someone has, unexpectedly but graciously, broken into my darkness and the surprise of this has been the seed of hope and the safety to imagine what next.
Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
It is love, after all, that draws me back from the darkness. I could go alone, even death within my control. Or I could wait and see how it is that death comes, and who might be with me in the final moments.
Paradoxically, rightfully remembering that I am dust and to dust I will return, considering my mortality in a holy way, requires that I first remember love and to whom my life is indebted.
To remember dust is to also remember my beginning, where I was made by love for love, and that the dust I am is raw material for making. I am formed from the stuff of creating, and love is my only meaning, my only calling and vocation. To succumb to the darkness is to foreclose on the only thing that matters.
Ironically, yesterday and its rememberings led me to the Song of Songs, these lines:
Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labor with you. There she who bore you was in labor.
I love this garden image, and perhaps God as mother in labor, forming from the dust of the earth, forming in her own image, bringing to life under the tree of life.
And I wonder if at least a piece of the gospel is what I felt last night, flesh of my flesh with the ashes on his forehead, and the ways remembering his mortality was harder than remembering my own – if God has felt this, and for this, has overcome death.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.
I imagine for many, to remember mortality is a strange thing, unusual in a world hellbent on preserving youth forever.
But for others, to remember mortality is a persistent activity, and what it is we need to remember most is that we come from love, are accompanied by love, and return to love, on Love’s timeline. We are not as alone as we feel, resurrection can be now, and the dust we remember is the medium of our own creation.