An Ash Wednesday Memoir of Mortality
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Some months later I wrote a short memoir about my parents, death, dying, and faith. I say I wrote it, but at the time it felt like I tore it out of my chest. It is the most real thing I have ever written. U.S. Catholic magazine published it for Ash Wednesday 1996. Today, Ash Wednesday 2010, I share it with you.
To Dust You Will Return
From U.S. Catholic (March 1996), pp. 34-36, © 1996 LaVonne Neff
The deacon dipped his thumb in the ashes and marked my forehead with a cross. It was Ash Wednesday 1995, and I was having no trouble remembering my mortality. Less than 24 hours earlier, I had buried my father.
Nine or ten years ago, my father began showing signs of forgetfulness. Nothing serious, I thought. I have trouble remembering things myself.
A year or two passed, and his memory lapses became more noticeable. "I may have already mentioned this," he would say, and I would cringe, knowing he was about to embark on a story he had just finished telling five minutes ago. Maybe he needs his thyroid checked, I said to myself.
In 1989, when my parents were 79, my husband and I flew 2,000 miles to help them close up their condominium and move into a retirement apartment. My father met us at the airport. He could not remember where he had left the car, and on the way home he got lost three times. As we packed and moved their things, we continually ran across small portents: a comb neatly tucked in a shoe, a pan lid on the bookshelf. In the pantry, next to 17 jars of Metamucil, were 37 bottles of hand lotion. And everywhere were reminder notes scrawled in my father's hand: "Harold phoned." "Go shopping." "The bread is in the refrigerator."
Obviously something was wrong, but I was not ready to name it. For two more years I pushed the dust of my parents' mortality under the rug of my own unwillingness to see.
Then came the crisis year: seven hospitalizations between them, a move to Illinois, placement in a nursing home. My eyes were pried open. As my parents continued to forget the details of daily living, I was forced to remember that they -- and I -- are dust.
My father clearly had the disease he most feared: Alzheimer's. My mother, though still seeming quite normal, had a similar disorder: multi infarct dementia. No longer could I pretend that my parents' troubles were minor or fleeting. Their illnesses were real. They would get worse. Disease would strip my parents not only of their memories but also of their independence, dignity, faith, and very lives.
O my God, l cry out by day, and you answer not;
by night, and there is no relief for me.
I wept. Not in front of people, but when I was alone in the car or after my husband began to snore at night. My father, of all men the kindest and most upright, had earned an honorable old age marked with wisdom, serenity, and love. A retired professor, writer, and bookworm, he did not deserve to have his mind peeled away. A man who always put others first, he did not deserve the terrible isolation of Alzheimer's, from moment to moment never sure where he was or whom he was with or sometimes -- I suspect -- even who he was.
My heart ached when my father looked at a fellow resident in a wheelchair and said, "There is no one more lonely than an old man in a nursing home." It isn't fair, I raged.
And my mother -- a queenly woman of dignity, self control, and quiet humor, one who had for over 50 years presided with grace over church activities or social functions or office business -- why should she be stripped of her ability to walk, to talk, to chew and swallow, to control her emotions and her bladder, to understand and to trust and to smile? Was this her reward for a lifetime of careful eating and exercising and practicing her faith?
With Saint Teresa of Avila I prayed, "God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few."
When the pillars are overthrown, what can the just man do?
"Are you afraid of dying?" I asked my father several months before he died.
"Dying?" he said, considering. "No, not of dying. I live an abbreviated life."
I asked him what he meant. "A little taken away here. A little taken away there," he explained patiently, as if to a student needing help. "I do the best I can with what's left."
I, however, found it hard to do my best with what was left of him. "This man was my rock, my foundation," I said to my daughters. "I feel as if the ground has crumbled underneath my feet."
They looked at me strangely. "Uh oh," I said. "Am I your foundation?"
They nodded in unison. "I don't want to be," I protested. "I'm not anybody's foundation. This is not part of my job description."
"Sorry, Mom," said Molly. "That's just the way it is."
I couldn't tell if the next generation knew that their source of security was uprooted, off balance, in free fall, shaken, and shaking. Perhaps that is something that can be understood only when one has become, against one's will, a pillar. Perhaps my father would have been amazed and troubled to know how much I depended on him, how much I longed for his unabbreviated, uncondensed, unabridged, whole and total self.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
In northern climes, Lent is the bleakest time of year. Once the trees in my yard blossomed, sprouted leaves, bore fruit. Once the ground was covered with green grass and yellow dandelions, or blinding white snow scattering midwinter sunshine. During Lent, however, the trees are bare. The grass, dirt colored, lies flat against the earth. The sky is gray; the wind bites. The earth and its people are in mourning for their losses and for their sins.
My sins were many.
Some were sins of attitude. I did not like going to the nursing home. I did not want to sit next to my mother, inhaling nursing-home odors and her own atmosphere of gloom. I had not wanted to carry on endless circular conversations with my father. I was ashamed of the lies I sometimes told so I could leave without alarming him.
Some were sins of omission. I had not stopped and listened to my father the day he sat in the La-Z-Boy in the corner and chanted softly to himself, "Alone. Lonely. Frightened." He had lost his glasses for at least the 14th time, and I was out of patience. I left him huddled there, hugging himself for solace.
Nor had I visited my father the day before he died, a day when -- unbeknownst to me -- he was crying out in pain and confusion. I had a cold, I rationalized, and I wouldn't want to risk spreading it -- an odd self-justification from one who, exhausted by her parents' misery, was regularly if guiltily praying that the Lord would take them.
I was a good daughter, so everyone said. Their words offered no comfort; I did not want well-meaning chaplains and social workers and nurses to rob me of my contrition. I knew I had met only a small portion of my parents' vast and insatiable needs. I -- and only I -- knew the muck pervading my soul: depression, irritation, resentment, anger, and an insistent, terrifying invocation of my parents' death. And I knew I could not rise with Christ in the forgiveness of Easter morning if I refused to walk with him through the Lenten world of shame and sorrow.
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die.
(Ecclesiastes. 3:1 2)
With nerves raw from my father's death, I had to return to the nursing home to sit with my mother at death's still open gates. We had thought she would die months earlier, after a serious stroke robbed her of speech and most understanding.
Now, on some level aware of her widowhood, she shut her eyes and her mouth, refusing to look at us or to eat her meals. In a month her already frail body shed 20 pounds. "Be prepared," said the doctor. "Any day now, " said the hospice nurse.
Meanwhile, new life was stirring elsewhere in our family, just as crocus shoots were hesitantly testing the gray mud of early spring. "Be prepared," said our daughter's midwife. "Any day now," her husband said.
Whenever the phone rang, my husband and I jumped. Would it announce another death or a new life? When its ring awakened us from sleep early in the morning of April 7, we looked long at each other before my husband picked up the receiver. This call, we knew, would change our family forever.
Exactly one week later, on Good Friday, my daughter Molly, new granddaughter Kate, and I sat together in church and listened to readings from scripture about "a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity," "smitten by God and afflicted," "cut off from the land of the living"; one who became "an object of reproach . . . a dread to [his] friends . . . forgotten like the unremembered dead" -- one very much like the lonely old men and women lining the halls of the nursing home where my mother still lived.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord.
Lent is a season bounded by death, from Ash Wednesday's dust to Good Friday's cross. Now Lent was over. The Lord had taken away my father; the Lord had given us Kate. The Lord had done nothing about my mother, whose skin was bruised and peeling, whose meals were interrupted by racking coughs, whose eyes no longer flickered in recognition but sometimes seemed to be lost in the contemplation of deep sorrow beyond time or place.
At my father's memorial service my brother had read one of my father's favorite texts from his well worn King James Bible: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15). My father -- bent nearly double with osteoporosis, hanging onto the wall rail while wandering the halls in search of his cane, his wife, his misplaced life -- had continued, Job-like, to trust. "I went into his room a day or two before he died," his nurse told me, "and he was sitting in his rocking chair, his head resting on his cane, talking to God."
A few weeks earlier he had looked at my mother, unmoving and uncomprehending in her Geri chair, and said, "She is a patient woman." I studied her still profile and thought bitterly, She has been struck patient.
And yet maybe my father was right. Her face showed no sign of worry or restlessness. Perhaps, having descended into the Lenten world and drunk of its horrors, she could no longer be touched by anxiety. Perhaps she was patiently waiting, submissive in heart as well as mind and body, to be "set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God." As Saint Paul went on to point out, "If we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Rom. 8:21, 25).
Perhaps Mother was resting and hoping; looking with -- or without -- her unfocused eyes beyond this world and into the next. I can't know: her face had become totally unresponsive. But I do know that on Mother's Day, when we put baby Kate in my mother's arms, she gave her great-granddaughter a gentle kiss.
(LaVonne Neff's mother died peacefully two months after Easter.)
LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.