The first death I can truly remember is my grandma’s. I was maybe 10 years old. I remember the nursing home most of all: the spacious hallways, the smell of sterilized illness and plates of cafeteria food, the blue light of TV screens coming from every patient’s door. There was a bird cage set into one of the walls near the entrance. Canaries and parakeets dangled on colored ropes and vines like trapeze artists. They sang and chirped and tilted their heads at the people coming and going. Whenever my grandma’s nurses needed the room cleared, my mom would say, “Let’s go look at the birds,” and we’d walk down the hallway to the bird cage and listen to them sing.
My grandma was in her late 80’s and she had liver cancer. It moved, not too fast, but not too slowly, either. I remember there being a calm in her room on that last day. Her life was ending, but that was no reason to panic, no cause for concern. We simply stood with her and took turns holding her hand as she moved from the world with beige walls and the smell of meatloaf to the world where Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us.
I was a child, but I felt the significance of that moment as best I could. They told me that my grandma might be able to hear. And so, when it was my turn to hold her hand, for whatever reason, I began singing:
“Heaven is a wonderful place
filled with glory and grace,
I want to see my savior’s face,
so heaven is a wonderful place.
I wanna be there.
Heaven is a wonderful place…”
Over and over again, I sang, because this song is a nonstop loop. It has no end. When I began, I didn’t know where it would go, but I thought, “If Grandma can hear me at all, I think this would be a good thing to hear. And besides, if I was dying, I think I’d want to hear about where I was going.” So I held her hand and sang on repeat like the birds in the cage at the entrance of the nursing home or like the birds of the field that Jesus tells us to be like. “Look at the birds,” Jesus says. “They do not toil or sow, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Look at the birds.
Be like the birds.
Sing like the birds.
At Ash Wednesday we confess that great evolutionary reality: we are not so different from birds. From dust we were made, and to dust we shall return, the preacher says as he places the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the old and young alike. It is offensive at first. The sign of the cross in ashes is an affront to our desire to be more than mortal. I am more than dust and dirt. I am more, I am more, I am…
“No. Hush child,” my grandma may have said. “Sit a while.”
The ashes plant in us what Annie Dillard calls a healthy poverty. “Cultivate a healthy poverty,” Dillard writes, “so that finding a penny will literally make your day…then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a life time of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”
Ash Wednesday offers to us a lifetime of days and to receive this gift, we only need to look at the birds, to be like them in their nesting and in their singing. My grandma died that day in the nursing home, some hours after I sang to her. She returned to dust and so will I someday. If I’m lucky perhaps there will be a child singing me all the way home.