We all have life to live, even in facing death

Published 11:39 am Friday, February 23, 2007

The thumb pressed against my forehead and as it made a quick motion up and down and then across, a thin black residue of ashes were left behind.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those were not comfortable words for a young adult who had little time for being reminded of his mortality.

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I can remember the first time I participated in Ash Wednesday services at St. Andrew Episcopal Church in Jackson.

Having been raised a small town Alabama Methodist, I found the ritual of receiving ashes on my forehead a little morbid.

Not only did I have to hear those words but spending the rest of the day with a black mark on my felt a little conspicuous.

After all, the whole thing was all about death. “Isn’t church about life?” I can remember myself thinking.

Well, that was 15 years ago. Now an Episcopalian, I have made it to every Ash Wednesday service since. And each year the same questions run through my head.

Until this year.

As I knelt in church Wednesday night and the sounds of the priests’ ever present message rang through the space, my thoughts drifted hundreds of miles away to North Carolina and to my grandpa.

It has been a little more than a year and a half since we first were told of his cancer.

After several surgeries and many rounds of chemotherapy, the disease reappeared this January.

Doctors offered little hope.

With more chemotherapy he might live two months, without he might live one.

Grandpa chose to go without.

Soon after he made the decision, I traveled to North Carolina to see him.

Boarding the plane, I worried that when I saw my grandpa he would not be the same man that I have looked up to for all of my life.

Fear of what the disease had stripped away preoccupied my thoughts.

But when I finally made it to his house, I was relieved to see that, while the cancer had greatly affected his physical appearance, the disease had not taken away his spirit. And better yet, it had not taken away his smile.

As we were talking in the den, I looked at the hundreds of his wood carvings that filled the shelves and covered practically every available space in the room. From the large Pinocchio marionette to the tiny bird sculptures I remember from my childhood, each piece held a memory for me about my grandpa.

The conversation we had that afternoon never once talked about death. We talked about Natchez, the newspaper and other things in my life. We discussed North Carolina, the foxes living outside his door and the weather.

When we sat down to eat Japanese take-out, I had sushi, something he had never eaten, but wanted to try.

He reached his fork over to taste the wasabi, a green paste with a flavor similar to horseradish. When he tasted it a smile came over his face.

That is when I realized that in his final days, my grandpa was still living life, even in the face of death.

His sense of curiosity, imagination and discovery which I always cherished remained unchanged.

Thinking about the visit in church this week, I realized that maybe Ash Wednesday is not about death but about the blessing of life that God created out of dust and of eternal life that is promised after we return to ashes.

My grandpa wishes to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the land to which he dedicated most of his life.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, life to life. Amen.

Ben Hillyer is the web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.