• Changing out the paper towels I remembered by habit to set aside the empty roll for Hattie’s gerbil. Hattie is my thirteen-year-old and I am under oft-repeated instructions to save the cardboard tube. The little creature enjoys running through the tube before settling down to chew it up into more bedding. Should you wonder—and I can’t think why you would—we can figure about twenty minutes for a toilet roll tube and maybe forty-five and more for an empty roll from paper towels. Um, yes; we have timed it.
And then I felt a small stab of grief. The gerbil had died some few days before. Was the girl eight or nine when we went to the pet store for this one? I can’t remember.
My sadness was not for the gerbil. My seven kids have been through snakes, lizards, guinea pigs, gerbils galore, a wounded pigeon, an orphaned swallow and an orphaned robin, mice, and crickets. Hattie is my last child, nearly fourteen. She used to call herself “Nature Girl.” Now she’s “Girlie-Girl.” There won’t be any more gerbils tended by children at my house. That is the grief.
• Our friend Andrea was just seventeen when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. There followed surgery and a round of chemo and by the last spring of her life, enjoying a short remission, she was a picture of health. Raised in a farm family she could drive a tractor (often in a bikini), plow a field, and cuss at cattle.
She bought some spring lambs, thinking to feed them up and sell them in the fall to help pay for the college loans we were all hoping she would owe. She died, age eighteen verging on nineteen, with the lambs but half grown. Her parents sold them some short while after. Her mother told me selling those lambs, watching them go away in that truck as the silence of their bleating settled over the farm, was as hard as the funeral.
• “I guess,” the fellow told me, “I’ll be selling The Boat, maybe by April.” That’s how he said it, The Boat. It wasn’t much, just an old aluminum fishing boat with an outboard sitting on a trailer next to his garage. But The Boat, the name set out in adhesive lettering on both sides of the bow, is what he lived on in good fishing weather following retirement. At this point, though, it hadn’t been moved in a good six months. The cancer grinding at him had finally confined him to home.
He couldn’t talk about his death, not directly, and never had, not with me. “That’s gotta be a sad thing to think about,” I said. “Aw, in a way, I guess,” he started. “But then, it never was worth much and, really, I know it was often a bother, especially for the wife.” He wasn’t talking about The Boat anymore.
Time, I thought, to speak of sparrows that fall. “If He watches over sparrows, He’s got an eye out for you, I’d suppose, whether that boat gets sold or not.”
“You may be right,” is all he said, that day.
There was an Ash Wednesday when the only oil I had to mix with the ashes was clove oil, an unwise choice as I learned. I didn’t know the stuff burned crazy on the skin, and if left on too long would leave a red mark one could see in the mirror the next morning. I didn’t really start feeling it until about halfway through the sermon. I had been the first one to receive ashes, and then my parishioners started catching up with me. They did let me stay on a while longer as pastor, but I still think my farewell reception was poorly attended.
But then we call the central act of Ash Wednesday the Imposition of Ashes, don’t we? Maybe it should burn a little and leave a mark—no pain, no gain, they say; no cross, no crown. Death intrusively imposes itself upon us, sometimes in the oddest ways, with aged gerbils and sheep disappearing down the road and boats a man will never sail in again. “Remember,” I will say as I impose the ashes upon my people next Wednesday, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They do not need me to remind them. “Change and decay around is all I see,” intones the old hymn.
For all the losses we endure in life until we have lost life itself there is, we will say in our liturgy, this hope: “Bring us with all your saints to the joy of Christ’s resurrection.” Never are we left in the dust.
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.