It’s noon and I wonder, have I eaten anything today? My mouth tastes like ash, dusty and acrid. I’m told this persistent bitterness may be one symptom of the beginnings of menopause, and I have others as well, signaling a shift from the first half of life to the second. I’ve never expected to make it to eighty anyway, but I am suddenly more aware that more of my life has passed than remains. I’m not angry about it, or afraid. I feel pragmatic about my own mortality: death is always a day closer than it was the day before.
These are things I don’t normally say. People find them morbid. But it is Ash Wednesday, and today I will speak plainly about death.
I will say with equal frankness that I do not feel at all pragmatic about the mortality that surrounds me. I can’t escape its smell. My dog’s slow decline has come with endless bodily fluids, and there’s only so much carpet cleaners can do. There is blood in her urine now, a new sign of the proximity of death, and this morning she didn’t finish all of the chicken she’s eating now that she refuses dog food. Today may not be the last day of her life, although we are going to the vet in an hour and the receptionist called this appointment an “exam and possible euthanasia.” I’m sorry; I did warn you I’d speak plainly. But she has rallied for sausage and a very slow walk, so it’s hard to tell. Even in her final days she is still herself, and has no interest in making this easier on me. She’s going out as she has lived every day of her nearly sixteen years, doing exactly as she pleases. I can appreciate that. And yet, the anticipation of her absence fills my mouth with ash.
Ash Wednesday is a bit too on the mark this year, as I watch Laila die up close every day, and also know from a distance that it is likely my dad is dying too, although maybe not and I’m not ready to write about that beyond saying that it’s also weighing on my mind, as I remind people that they are dust, that these lives of ours are temporary. It’s not about me and I’ll do it anyway, but I for one don’t currently need the reminder. Nor does it feel terribly necessary to have ashes smeared on my forehead when I’ve carried the sulfurous stink of them for months.
The preacher in me wants to arc this toward hope, to say the dust of Ash Wednesday is only the beginning of a Lenten journey that, yes, brings us toward death, but ultimately ends in resurrection. These are the words I wrote for the liturgy we will speak tonight, and it is a good promise and one I cling to, and they need to be there too, because people who are not sitting in ash freak out if the service feels too dour. But today I’m not there. I am well and truly in Ash Wednesday, mouth full of ashes, feeling like dust – and this holy day is for me and for those in the ash heap beside me, not yet hoping to rise again.