I had planned to worship beside my husband on Ash Wednesday. For the almost-decade of our marriage, we have never once been to my favorite service of the year together. He’s had to work late or go out of town or somebody’s been sick. This was finally the year he would sit beside me and he’d know, understand, what moves me so deeply about this service. The ashes and the honesty and the hymns and the way the Church aches together.
Part way through Brooks’ afternoon with the babysitter, my almost-two-year-old, who’d been succumbing to a virus for a little over a week, began crying hard enough to demand a stroller ride home from the park. The day before he’d had a fever, but that morning he’d appeared happy, near-healthy.
But by the time they reached the sidewalks of our street, my babysitter was calling me frantic.
“You should probably come meet us outside. Something’s wrong with Brooksie.”
So I jumped from my desk rushed down the stairs and out into the sunshine, where she was running the stroller down hill toward me.
“Brooksie!” I shouted at the slumped boy beside his oblivious brother in the double stroller. The eyes that had been gazing off into some secret distance, refocused on me. “Mommy, Daddy, Buppy,” he cried. “Mommy, Daddy, Buppy!”
I pulled him out of the stroller and looked at my babysitter’s worried eyes.
“He wouldn’t respond to me, Micha,” she said. “I was kneeling in front of him and he was limp with his eyes open.”
I brought him in the house. His skin was fire hot. I took his temperature, 104.3.
Yes, no wonder he was gazing off into the nothing.
You do what you have to and you worry later. I poured Tylenol down his throat. I called the doctor. I waited for her return call. By then it was after five and my husband was on his long commute home, stuck in traffic. As the medicine kicked in, Brooksie began to engage with me. We read stories and rocked in the rocking chair. He asked to eat.
The after-hours clinic said to bring him in at 6:50. The babysitter went home.
Brooks had been easing into a Daddy-phase for the past couple of weeks. But on Ash Wednesday day he came into it with all his heart.
“My need Daddy! My need Daddy!” he cried.
“Daddy’s coming soon, baby,” I said as I rocked his fevery body. “You want to go to the doctor?” I asked.
“Wid Daddy,” he mumbled.
“Yes,” I said. I texted Chris. Would he like to take our boy to the doctor?
Of course he would, he said. Of course.
August had been excited all day for the Ash Wednesday service. Unlike my childhood, where church was a place I spent every Wednesday night, this going in the middle of the week thing (and at night!) is fantastical to him.
By the time my husband arrived home from his two hours stuck in traffic on a bus, Brooksie was in his pjs, his Tylenol fully at work in his body. August was dressed for church. And I was handing a piece of paper to my husband in which I’d scratched out every single thing that had happened to our sick child that day. I not only gave it to him, I read it aloud, just in case.
What kind of mother leaves her baby with a fever of 104 and goes to an Ash Wednesday service?
Chris dropped us off and I took August to the room where the children were listening to a story about Adam and Eve, about a Terrible Lie they chose to believe, about their broken spirits and minds, how desperate we’ve all been ever since.
While he listened, I sang slow hymns in the sanctuary. There, in the back of the balcony where the late-comers huddled together, I felt like I was singing alone, with only the violinist there to accompany me:
Jesus I long for thee
And sigh for Canaan’s shore
Thy lovely face to see
And all my warfare o’er…
I pant, I groan, I grieve
For my untoward heart;
How full of doubts I live,
Though full of grace thou art
I cry every year on Ash Wednesday. Maybe it’s because I’m alone. Always alone, always late.
Last year in Austin, Chris was away for work and I couldn’t get myself together to get the boys to the service and forfeit our baby’s bedtime, knowing I’d spend the whole service nursing and hushing.
That afternoon, after August woke from nap time, I took leaves burned them in a pan in the backyard. And I marked myself. I said, “Micha, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
It felt like most of my moments of personal prayer: distracted, not quite complete, the little boy playing cars around me.
“I want ashes too,” August said.
“Okay, but this is only something we do if we are serious. It’s not a game. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said and sat before me on the deck.
“It’s to remind us that we have broken hearts that only Jesus can fix.”
Then, as a priest-mama, no different than any other day I have held up Gospel and broken bread before my boys, I sealed my son with ashes. I called him to some future repentance he could never then understand. I marked him with the cross, a stumbling block for some, foolishness to others. Or to us, there in the backyard, a symbol of wholeness, a symbol that everything sad will come untrue.
I reminded August (and myself) that his life is ashes.
And like that, our service was over. He was back on the grass with his cars, a mess of a cross on his forehead.
While my husband and toddler sat on the doctor cot in an after-hours clinic, I watched the first rows of worshippers snake toward the priests in front. And there, coming down the aisle was the row of children, my oldest boy in his black zip-up hoodie looking around the big room at all the faces.
I stood where I was, longing to walk through the line beside him. I rushed down the balcony stairs and cut in front of those in the middle section. August’s line was veering left, mine right.
I was marked. Reminded of my mortality, of hope against death. I walked the side of the great room and across the back, met August’s line as they headed back to their room. I caught the eye of the children’s pastor and August was released back to me. We sat on the floor in the back the sanctuary, my four-year-old in my lap, and we sang:
Out of unrest and arrogant pride,
Jesus I come, Jesus I come
Into Thy blessed will to abide,
Jesus I come to Thee.
I thought of how many nights of my childhood I stood behind a pew and sang low and heavy, “All to Jesus I surrender…I surrender all…” I’d rock side to side or back and forth while the pastor begged the people to come forward, to be saved. How many nights did I rock under that brass lit chandelier dangling above my head and make promises? How often did I say, Whatever you ask of me, Lord? How many times did I pray, Make me brave?
There, right there in that moment on the floor with my back to the wall, my son in my lap, I remembered to own the grace that’s been given to me. I remembered that I am ashes and so is my boy. But we are going to be made whole. We are mortal and weak. But, still, we are going to know completely, even as we are known. I remembered to believe.
Out of myself to dwell in Thy love,
Out of despair into raptures above,
Upward forever on wings of a dove,
Jesus I come to Thee
We sat on the floor and I sang those words. Across town, my husband and baby walked the aisles of Walgreens and waited for the antibiotic. And all of us were ashes. All of us were recipients of grace. All of us were coming to Jesus.
I come, I come, I sang, my face in August’s hair, our heads covered in grime.