Dipping my thumb into the small container of inky black ash, I would try to remember the name, find the name tag, or take a peek at the patient’s info board in the room. Deep breath. “You are beloved, [name]. Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” As I walked around the hospital, imposing ashes on those who so desired, I encountered people from multiple denominations and various seasons of faith, all wanting this moment. Whether from their tradition, their devotion, their superstition or their desperation, they all said yes to a moment of mortal, embodied holy observance. Is there any other kind? It was Ash Wednesday. One lady would die later that evening. One mother was nursing her newborn child. One nurse said she had been kicked out of the church. And one chaplain approached each moment so moved by the presence of death.
Earlier that day, I saw my son on a gurney, still and changing colors. It was not my son exactly but it could have been. A mother beating her chest, falling to the floor. She had given birth, lost her breath in the pain of labor, and now losing it in the pain of the unthinkable. Grandparents, obsessively stroking, stroking, as though life might reignite, unconsciously acting in a soothing rhythm the way fetuses know heartbeats and fathers rock their children. And other family, flying in, fleeing the room, trying to both enter and exit the nightmare at once.
To dust you will return.
It was not the child’s time. God was not giving them what they could handle. There was no window opening. And heaven did not need them early. The child was dust, and we all became powder, crumbling because we forgot and we had hoped that the older ones would go before the younger ones and they had done everything right and nothing was as it should be.
I joined the mother on the emergency room floor. I remembered my hint of experience of what it felt like to lose a child. I knew losing one’s mind seemed the most sane thing…that Crazy became a member of the room. I scrolled through the photos on a proud, brokenhearted Grandpa’s phone. I was the first to say angry.
Remember you are dust.
After that morning, the tasks seemed more daunting and less at the same time. We could do our very best to serve other people, to dispense ashes, to chart and celebrate, observe and pray, but the already substantial weight of Ash Wednesday was soaked in recent tears. Multiple disciplines planned their best, responded their best, and anticipated another family visit to their body in the evening, but there were no solutions regardless, no real relief anyway. Our coordination efforts, the most beautiful art made from fingerprints, the soundest of all grief handouts—it was dust in comparison.
Everywhere people were walking around with dust on their foreheads, ash on our fingertips, as though collectively the souls in the hospital knew without knowing. We did our jobs as we always do–imperfectly and earnestly–more humbled than before.
You are beloved.
Two days later, after some debriefing, after a pair of mornings when parents woke up again to their new nightmare and I woke up to my sons, after more patient visits and the tyranny of the urgent, I was on call during the day. The chaplain on call responds to codes and special department requests in addition to their regular role. In the middle of charting I received a phone call from security: would I go down to the morgue to help escort a body off the premises. In keeping with our hospital’s values of compassion and dignity, Spiritual Care hopes to be notified by security in order to accompany staff from the morgue when they walk a person’s body out. Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I headed downstairs.
In the cold room, where a clock broke and a new one was hung right below it, I was startled out of my “normal” day to hear the name of Ash Wednesday. Of course.
Everyone was doing their best; we would do everything in light of not being able to do anything. And we would be called for this escort. My throat was caught up with emotion. I again found a place beside this beloved one, so small under the cover. I walked with the man in the suit, doors along the hallway like pews as we quietly, respectfully spoke words of love and empathy. Somehow I was there in the beginning of this child’s time within those walls and at the end. There was not enough in between. In the narrow middle of the unwanted bookends were the company of hundreds who had asked to be told they were dust too–a collective and messy act joining body and soul, past and present. Lullabies were played and hospice was started, ash was added and ash wiped away. The space in a hospital is indeed too sacred.
As I reentered the hospital and walked back down the same hallway, this time alone, the tears came. My phone rang again. Had I made it in time to walk with the body? Yes, their body is gone.
This is Lent. This is the With journey.
You are beloved.
Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.