I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. — John 13:34-35
“Precious child,” he intoned, needling me with his teasing British accent.
“Come here, Prodigal Daughter.”
And with that, he pulled me into his warm open embrace and wrapped me in the heavy folds of his stiff chasuble.
With his hands around my back and my ear pulled close to his mouth he whispered in a gruff voice the crowd of priests surrounding us in the small hallway couldn’t hear, “Welcome back, my lamb. You really must stop wandering off. Stay here with us where you belong or we will hunt you down and bring you home. And you know I don’t make idle threats..”
And that is how this year’s Lenten journey began for me. Later in the Ash Wednesday service, when the time came for the imposition of the ashes, I knelt before him at the altar rail. He paused to consider me. He fixed me with his eyes before I lowered mine as he ground his thumb forcefully into my forehead making the sign of the cross with extra pressure and soot so as to make a forceful impression with his mark as his low, serious tone admonished, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I haven’t forgotten. In fact, it’s been all I have thought about for the past forty days. Today marks two year from the day I made the decision to end my father’s life. Two years since I got the phone call from the doctor telling me I was defeated. That I’d fought the good fight and lost. That the perfect storm of the injuries from the car wreck and the cirrhosis and the cancer had joined forces and licked me but good. That they had tag-teamed pneumonia into the ring and Dad was on the ropes and what did I want to do?
“Pull it,” I said. “Pull everything. I’m getting on a plane.”
My decision was unilateral and final. No one else will ever have to answer for it. It’s was all me.
I called my brother and told him to drop what he was doing and drive south right away. By the time he got home from work to pack his bags, he found that his fiancee had beat him to it and they were on the road.
I called my mother, who immediately walked out the door of her unit and only called the floor to tell them she’d left work and was going to her ex-husband’s bedside — his deathbed — once she was in the car so that he wouldn’t be without family for a minute more than he had to be. From the moment she got to him, he was never alone, never without his loved ones until he exited this world the following day in peace and surrounded by all three of us.
Neither of them questioned my decision. Neither of them asked any questions at all. They just did as I said. They dropped everything and went. Good soldiers who weren’t going to let loneliness stand between Dad and his fast-approaching end. When I finally arrived in the middle of the night almost 12 hours later, exhausted and numb and completely strung out, I found the nurses had left the last tube — my father’s feeding tube — for me to pull myself. So with that and the series of decisions I made over the 18 hours that followed, I ended my father’s life. And as I leaned over his comatose body and drew the painfully long length of rubber from his stomach through his dry, raw nostril, and finally set him free from all the machines except the IV that unflinchingly pumped the morphine into his veins in ever-increasing doses, I whispered to myself, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
That’s the funny thing about grief. You don’t process things in any logical, meaningful order. You’d think I’d be done, but I keep discovering I’m not. I’m so very not. Not even close. Last year, the anniversary of his death didn’t faze me in the slightest, but Father’s Day came out of left field and knocked me for a loop that lasted months. And despite the fact that my Dad has been gone for two years now, his death has been raw for me this spring, as the warm weather came early and the light and air felt and smelled like those horrible, painful, stressful weeks of 24 months ago. The PTSD kicked in in mid-March, and things haven’t been the same. I’ve been breaking down. Slowly coming apart more and more daily ever since. Hiding it well, but unraveling. Shutting down and pulling inward. But it’s good. It means I have been conserving my energy for other, more important work. It means that my psyche is finally digging deeper into the dirt and taking a torch to the bones of a ghost I don’t want to live with anymore. That I might not be forgetting, but I’m forgiving myself for all the things I did and didn’t do. Not that that makes it any easier.
And in my acceptance that I am dust, I just deepened my handshake with Death and how she comes for us all. The gift she gives and how she gave it to my Dad. The gift that made me her instrument. The Angel of Death. The Angel of Mercy. My sword terrible and mighty. The gift she’ll one day give me in what I hope will be a brief, blinding flash I won’t even see coming. Maybe it will be peacefully in my sleep. Maybe something violent and bloody like a plane crash or a headshot from the burgler I’ll mistakenly walk in on one night. I’ll gladly take either rather than languish ill and tied to a bed, devoid of my dignity in the in-between days like I made my father suffer. I kept him in a needless Purgatory for months, and if I knew then what I know now, I would do many things differently. I can’t be bothered with regret, though. It’s a useless waste of energy and emotion. I did the best I could at the time. I did what he asked me to do. All I can do is make my peace with Death and my partnership with her and prepare myself for what I hope with be the quick and merciful inevitable for me with all of my intellect and faith unchecked and intact. I hope that I can have some power over when I shuffle off my mortal coil and be accepting of the fact. Possibly even run to it with my arms open wide. We all have to go, so why not rush to it when the time comes?
And so, in the processing of processing, I didn’t follow my Ash Wednesday instructions. I pulled back again. Didn’t attend Sunday services. Dropped off the map. Disappeared from the parish. Spent Lent largely alone, both with in worship and in general. I needed the time apart to deal with things, a pause from the life around me, and so I took it. God doesn’t need me in church to see, hear, and feel me. Wherever I am, God is there, and we holed up together this Lent and got some important work done. I might have appeared to be solitary, but I wasn’t.
Last night was Maundy Thursday, though, and so I crept back into to the Cathedral to make my Holy Week return. I arrived late and slipped into my regular seat in the back on the left-hand side of the sanctuary in the pew beneath of the blue stained glass window depicting the appearance of the angel and his revelation of the Resurrection to the women at Jesus’ tomb. As before, everyone was glad to see me and welcomed me with open arms. Former co-workers, vestry members, and parishoners alike all greeted me with smiles and winks and held me close with hugs at the Peace, reminded me that I do indeed have the church home here that I’ve been seeking. At communion, the Dean nodded at me when I wrapped my hand around his as he passed me the wafer. No admonishment. Just a silent, subtle hello. Just the message that I am more than dust. That I am marked as Christ’s own and that the flock is always waiting for me whenever I see fit to return. That He knows his sheep and his sheep know Him.
The funny thing is that I didn’t want to be there at all. It took every ounce of strength I’ve had all week not to book a last-minute flight to DC and run away to worship the Triduum with who I still consider my priest and “home parish” back in Arlington. I have been feeling weak and scared and fragile and like the only place I could gather my strength was in the Christian routine I built there when I was young and my father was still alive. In the before-time when I was still “me.” There, where Maundy Thursday means the priests wash every foot in the parish while we sing “Jesu, Jesu” surrounded by our loving neighbors. Where I see grandparents wait in the aisle with their arms around the grandchildren I have watched grow up from tots. Where beautiful, familiar ice blue eyes look up at me from the bowl on before the chair after she kisses my lovingly washed foot. Where I could be sure I would hear the exact sermon I needed to hear at the exact moment I needed to hear it from The Best Preacher In The World. Where I later sit the dark midnight hour in the chapel with Jesus alone in prayer and meditation and exit into the night at 1am to find that, without fail and regardless of the date on the calendar, the dogwood trees surrounding the church have bloomed while I kept my watch in Gethsemane. Where I know what to expect with every service, know every face in the pews and welcome the company of the familiar, of those who know me intimately and support me unconditionally. Where I could await the inevitable celebratory Easter brunch at the Diner, complete with a crabcake deluxe sandwich. Where I could wrap myself in the comfort of routine and nostalgia. My urge to flee was serious. I even priced flights and considered paying the asking price. I was sure I was going to pack my bags and bolt. That I would darken the door of St. Michael’s, suitcase in hand, on Maundy Thursday. Even told my friend, my priest, to half expect me. To have my room at the rectory ready for me in case I showed.
I didn’t show, though. I gritted my teeth and gutted it out and stayed put. I white-knuckled it and dug in. I almost didn’t go to church at all, until a friend scolded me. Reminded me how important my faith is to me. Reminded me how much Holy Week is a crucial part of who I am. “I think you need to go,” he warned. And he was right. His words rattled around in my head all day, and come the evening, my car steered its way to the cathedral. To the place where they only wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation, most of whom are members of the vestry (and men). To the place where a random guest preacher, usually a bishop of some sort, gives the homilies during Holy Week. To the place that doesn’t sing “Jesu, Jesu.” To the place where I was sure I would be a face in the crowd. In the town where there are no dogwood trees at all. And yet, despite all of this, the Maundy Thursday service was precisely the experience I needed.
I was not a face in the crowd. I was among family. The sermon was eloquent, beautiful, and powerful. A truly lovely and moving surprise. There were no dogwoods, but the scent of the early-blooming cheery blossoms all around the grounds wafted into the cathedral through the open doors and windows and greeted us as the entire congregation walked en masse under the bright, full moon across the grounds singing and carrying the reserved sacrament to the chapel where parishioners would sit vigil with it an hour at a time throughout the night.
Moreso, I had a true religious experience. Per usual, I attended church alone, but I found myself in the company of two other single women roughly my age sitting near me. One was tall and willowy with her long, dark hair bundled into a bun at the top of her head revealing a long, aristocratic neck and sweeping bare the fine features and alabaster skin of her face. The other was a petite African American woman with flawless light brown skin, beautiful, noble-looking features and her hair wrapped in a colorful scarf. Both women had angelic voices, and the three of us boldly sang each hymn together in harmony, basking in the vibrations of our joined voices filling our chests, calling each other to rise to the occasion and sing out for everyone to hear. The effect was particularly pronounced when the parish sang “Now My Tongue, The Mystery Telling” as all hundred or so congregants followed the sacrament across the grounds in the night from the cathedral to the chapel with the men and women taking alternating the verses of the ancient hymn.
As we walked and sang together, at times the only women singing in the back of the crowd, we finally had a chance to look each other in the eye. We watched each other as we sang and walked — three single women attending church alone, three women complete strangers to each other, three women who had never spoken to one another except in that moment through song — connected by music and faith. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how it was for the women who followed Jesus. If they found each other like this on the road to hear Him preach. If they met and traveled together and kept each other safe on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and search for the young rabbi everyone was talking about. If they locked eyes with each other in dumbstruck horror when they arrived there and found the terrible scenes of the Passion playing out on the streets. If they shared a mute communication of sisterhood as witnesses at Golgotha. If this is how it was for the three Marys at the foot of the cross. For the women at the tomb on Easter morning. If this is how it felt for all the women who followed Jesus, who were his truly loyal disciples, who never forsook him. We were the three Marys in our dress, our silk blouse, our khakis and jean jacket as we walked the moonlit path across the grounds and knelt together on the cold, hard stones in the aisle of the chapel, the edges and mortar biting into our skin. We were the three Marys as we bowed our heads and belted out the final stanzas and then fled into the night. When I returned to the cathedral for the stripping of the altar and final psalm, the women were gone. Disappeared like a dream that slipped from my grasp upon waking.
It wasn’t a dream, though. It was a miracle. A miracle that when I’ve been so hoarse and asthmatic, I was able to sing loud and clear and strong without so much as a single cough. That my chest finally felt unbound and loose. That I felt relaxed. That my head felt clearer than it had in weeks. It’s no surprise that singing did that to me, for what is singing except controlled screaming? The ladies and I screamed it all out at the top of our lungs, and what could be more appropriate on the evening when our Lord was handed over to suffering and death? What better way to fulfill the new commandment given to us on Maundy Thursday to love one another than to join your voice with strangers in songs of mourning and remembrance? It was like sex; catharsis in its purest form.
I spent my Lent alone and went into Holy Week with its shared anniversary of my father’s death scared to celebrate it here in my current home for sure that I would be lonely and find that this wasn’t my home after all. I am a traditional, smell-and-bells Episcopalian who likes her safe routine. I am a coward. I find comfort in the easy rhythm of the familiar liturgy. I sit in the same pew every service. I say the same greetings at the Peace. I like the same hymns over and over. I want to know what to expect. Instead of taking the safe route, however, I stuck my neck out and gave new traditions a chance this Holy Week. I went to the Maundy Thursday service I thought I wouldn’t like. I didn’t sit watch at the vigil. I attended the evening Good Friday Mass instead of the noon service as I’ve done for over a decade. Every experience has stretched me as a person, as a woman, as a Christian, as a parishioner. Every experience has surrounded me with people and reminded me that I’m not just ashes and that I’m not alone. It has been the perfect antithesis to my solo Lenten practice this year. God has decided that I’ve spent enough time in the wilderness tempted by the Devil and has led me home again and, in the process, has reminded me that home is always wherever I am for He remolds and remakes me for the place and the moment. While I still miss DC, ache for it and the people there and will light out for the Coast the very minute this semester is over, I’m not going there yet. I will stay put and worship, and I am comforted to find what I needed right here, even if I didn’t recognize it as such. I am a different person now, and I needed new roots. The changes never erase my other homes, they just simply expand my experience and resources.
And so, I went to the Good Friday service tonight in the same manner I always do: barefaced and dressed in simple black with no jewelry except the long silver chain that holds the St. Christopher’s medal that belonged to my great aunt and the small cross and medallion I received at my baptism. We sang a hymn to the tune of one of my father’s favorite Tallis pieces, one that was used in the score to the movie “Master and Commander.” The last movie my father and I saw together. The score we played over and over again in his hospital room. One of the last pieces of music my music-loving father ever heard. It was a like having him there in church with me, and the message and its comfort was not lost on me. The sermon was on the collect of the day:
“Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen”
The message being “this your family.” For that is what we are. That is what I found this Lenten season. This Holy Week. I have spent copious amounts of time thinking and praying on what that means. What my family lost two years ago. What it’s found in the two years since. How it has grown and changed. What family I have had around me all along. What family I miss. What family I have gained. How there is the family you are given and the family you choose, and how sometimes those can include one and the same. How family doesn’t end with blood. How I’m surrounded by family all the time in the people who love me, sacrifice for me, give to me without my asking, take from me without obligation, make me smile and laugh, and come running when I need them. How, wherever I call home, I have a family in Christ to worship and love and sing with. How for every thing there is a season, an ebb and flow in my life. How, when I am shattered, the pieces might not always fit back together the same way but they’re all still always me. How there’s always a warm embrace waiting in the flock wither I may wander upon my inevitable return. How the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here; faith our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear.