On school “Career Day,” she sat at the back of the third-grade classroom. Her bright face was framed by two glittery barrettes. “What’s the funniest things you’ve ever written?” she asked.
“The funniest?” I said. Quiet settled around us like a fog, filling up one second, then another.
“To be honest, I tend to write about sad things. Those are the things that snag in my heart and make me want to understand them. I guess I write about sad things because sad things happen to all of us.”
She sat up straight in her desk and almost shouted, “My cat died!” She looked toward a corner of the room and then back into my eyes. No longer shouting, she said, “My grandmother died, too.”
On Valentine’s Day, our youngest will give her preschool friends paper cards covered in glitter glue and sparkly stickers. Her bedroom floor has become a Milky Way of pink and purple dust.
Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday. That afternoon, Jonathan and I will gather four children and drive to church. “Dust to dust” and a cross of ashes on all our foreheads. Pizza dinner with our church family. Heart candies in pastel shades pulled from linty pockets.
Last year, I was not prepared for the terrible sight of a black cross on my little girl’s tiny, white forehead.
No, your heart says.
Yes, your mind insists.
This year, I am prepared. I know I will want to wipe it off. I will want to say to her, I’m sorry. But I will not.
Five years ago, she was born into this breathing world, and it is too late for apologies.
You are dust, Elsa Spring.
And so am I.
Christmas at Maplehurst was the glitter of snowfall. Epiphany was the sparkle of ice on the dark water of the neighborhood retention ponds. With my sister and her children, we feasted. We skated. We laughed, and though we did not talk about it, I know we also remembered.
Only two years ago, my nieces and nephews celebrated Christmas with their Dad in the house with the mango tree. Only two years ago, I celebrated Christmas with my parents, their grandparents. “We’ll slow down,” they said. “Maybe we’ll travel!” they said. We didn’t know we were all walking nearer to the edge of a cliff.
Each Christmastime, I find myself bracing for bad news. “What’s coming?” my body asks. “Nothing,” my mind says. “You’re only remembering.”
“Sorrow is always coming,” my heart insists.
The sparkle of Epiphany has been washed away by rain. There is no snow at Maplehurst, and the ice over the dark water is thin and broken. Now there is only fog.
“This is bad,” Jonathan says, driving our car toward church on Sunday morning.
“Ice would be worse,” I say. I mean it to be comforting, but the words slip away, and we are both quiet peering ahead along a road we can no longer see.
I turn toward my sons seated at the back of the minivan. “Remember, you may notice some of our friends at church crying. We are sad right now, and it’s okay to be sad. Do you have any questions?”
They have no questions.
Or maybe they do. Maybe it is only that they know by now their parents do not have the answers. At least, not the easy ones they may want.
These past two years, grief has visited family and grief has visited friend after friend, and though these four children are mine to care for, I cannot protect them from sorrow. I cannot pretend this world is different than it is.
If they must know sorrow, I pray, let them know comfort, too.
I’ve always imagined Lent as a season of subtraction. We do without. We live with less.
But the word itself is an old word for spring, and spring is a season of more. In spring, there is a very little bit more every day—more light and more life, as if joy were a buried seed and this is our one chance to watch it take root and grow.
Lent is related to lengthen, and this is the season of lengthening days.
I tried to explain all this to my kids at dinner, but I failed. Shrove Tuesday they love. “Let’s eat all the pancakes in the world!” Elsa said. But Lent? No, thank you. Though my boys were less polite than that.
Maybe that’s why I kicked them out of the room halfway through our post-dinner reading of C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. They disrupted our family reading with laughter instead of their usual bickering, but that somehow made it worse. As if anything were more fun than listening to Mom read about lions and dancing trees.
Still, I wish they’d been there. I wish we could have talked about the turning point in this story, and how it all began when Lucy recognized her failure and stopped trying to defend herself. “I’m sorry, Aslan. I’m ready now,“ she said.
“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed. But come. We have no time to lose.”
Come! We have no time to lose.
Time is flowing on, but time is also moving backwards. This is the meaning of renewal.
Renewal is spring made visible, but it is also winter undone. The tangled threads of the past are set right. Our mistakes are rewoven. Even the power of death itself has begun to be unraveled.
And we can participate.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke … (Isaiah 58:6).
No doubt, I will long for some shortcut. No doubt, I will want to guide my children toward some other path. I will wish for them some easier way unmarked by grief or hunger or unanswered questions.
I will want to keep them comfortable, but comfort isn’t always our friend. Still, I think I’ll keep a few of those leftover candy hearts in my pocket. A little sweetness to share along the way.
What will we see when the fog rolls back and we arrive at Easter morning?
Perhaps not sunrise. Perhaps we must still wait for that. But even though we go on walking in the valley of the shadow, the sky above is pierced with starlight.
Look at that! we’ll say to one another. This night is more like noonday (Isaiah 58:10).
Then we will turn to our companions on the way, shining with so much reflected light, and we will say to one another: Remember that you are stardust, remember you are on your way home.