Memento Mori

Author: Rev. Robin W. Bartlett

Crosscurrents Bartlett Illustration by Charlotte Ager

Last night I dreamed that my girls, ages 15 and 11, both died. I don’t remember much about the dream, or what led to their untimely demise, but I could feel the tight panic in my body even as I slept.

Right before I woke up, I dreamed that I, too, was dying. I was alone in a hospital bed somewhere. I wasn’t scared so much as sad that the whole thing was over, and that no one was there to witness it. I could even see the warm, white light the movies always talk about. I am embarrassed that I am nothing more than a cliché in my dreams.

I wakened with something heavy on my chest, unable to take a full breath. I wondered if I was actually dying, or if it was just indigestion from the cold New England IPA and Trader Joe’s pickle-flavored popcorn I had eaten before bed. Like Scrooge, I grumbled at the visiting ghosts.

It took me a while to realize my girls are still alive. It is true, they are — although their chubby-handed silly sticky childhood slips through my fingertips, every day a little death. (I have missed most of it, since I live inside my own head.) I briefly wondered why I didn’t dream about my son’s death. Maybe it’s because he’s 7, and I still have more wonder years with him. Or maybe it’s because his father hasn’t left me yet like the father before him did.

I got up, made a cup of too-strong coffee in an unfamiliar French press and went for a walk in the green hills of Vermont, where I am staying for a few days in an Airbnb. I am finally away from the clamor of the old 1780s parsonage I live in, so full of ghosts and bodies. I’m alone, but I see evidence of people everywhere I turn: farmhouses with big red barns and potting sheds; “No Trespassing” signs on land teeming with unmowed grass; graveyards and gardens; stop signs spray-painted to read “STOP WAR.”

A part of me died this year. I can feel it in my breathlessness, the way I move, the way I’m not as certain as I used to be about what comes next. I’m not sure if it’s the death-soaked year we’ve all experienced together and very much apart. I’m not sure if it’s middle age. It’s probably both.

Part of me has come alive, too. My characteristic impatience with the nonsensical has overtaken me like a crisis. I am restless. I have become boring to myself. I am a prison I cannot escape.

For as long as I have been alive, I have hated being alone. I fear I do not exist without someone else standing close by, holding up a mirror for me to look at. My fear is why I cried bitterly as a 5-year-old when I realized my mother would die before me. It is why I read so many books in elementary school during the years when I had few friends.

Fear of being alone is why, in my early 20s, I befriended alcoholics in dive bars every day after work instead of going home to an empty apartment. Why, when I returned home, I watched television on high volume to drown out the loud sex my roommate was always having. The TV kept me company with bright flashes of untouchable connection while she mocked me daily with her manic sensuality.

Fear of being alone is why I married a man six months after I found out he betrayed me. Fear of being alone is why I took to social media like a moth to flame with the invention of Friendster in 2003. (Finally, an audience of people who talked back to me in the middle of the night!) Fear of being alone is why I had babies, and why I began mourning their deaths as soon as they were born.

Fear of being alone is why I was single for about five minutes in 2011 after I divorced my first husband and before I met my new one. Fear of being alone is probably why I became a pastor, too. I can’t write without an audience. It feels like dying.

And I do not want to die, because I will have to do it alone.

Whenever I begin something, like a vacation or a relationship, my first feeling is melancholy: This, too, will end. I spend much of my time calculating how many days or hours I have left doing a thing I would love, if only I would let myself treasure it.

We got a dog in August 2019. Her name is Holly. She is a rescue, a 4-year-old hound dog, white with brown spots and silky brown ears. I have never been an animal person, but we have invested a lot in Holly: thousands in vet bills, training with a friendly giant named Dan, walking in the woods, hours of Googling “dog-reactive dogs.”

My first thought when I saw Holly’s questioning brown eyes staring up at me was: I love you. How long will you live?

Toward the beginning of the Ash Wednesday service at my church, we take water and, making the sign of the cross, bless each other with it, saying, “You are God’s child, the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.”

We say this before we rend our hearts. We say this before we confess our sin. We say this before we come to the cross. We say this before we receive the ashes of our humanity, the knowledge that we are but dust. It gives us the courage to utter this terrible admission that everything beloved will die.

Our Ash Wednesday service is beautifully intergenerational, which is how it should be. I put ashes on the heads of children. “You are God’s beloved dust, and to dust you shall return,” I say both to infants and to the children I created in my own womb.

This truth is cold and relentless: “To dust you shall return.” Everything worthy of your love will die.

And yet I find a strange comfort in acknowledging my mortality. A strange humility in knowing I’m no different than everyone else. A strange sameness in placing ash on a 92-year-old’s forehead right after a 2-year-old’s forehead. Both people know better than you what it’s like to be close to God. You can see it in their faces as you gently tell them they are God’s beloved dust. They already know.

The day I gave birth to my oldest girl, Cecilia, I realized I was going to die and she would, too. I wept at the thought of it. We would one day be rent from one another. And please God, I thought, let it be me who dies first. Her belovedness stung. She is mine and not mine. She is finite.

How could I have brought this beautiful child into this brutal world, knowing this? I wondered upon seeing her scrunched-up newborn face. I was filled with terror and awe. For the first six weeks, I hid the 12-month onesies people gave me. Something inside me was sure she wouldn’t make it that long, so close was the fact of her death to the fact of her life. Some people call that postpartum depression. I call it postpartum truth.

This also is postpartum truth: the softness of grass, the sound of birdcall, the curve of my children’s smiles, the arms of my beloved.

I want to be a person God finds alert in the kingdom, comforted by the sameness of mortality. I want to find, like the poet Louise Glück, at the end of suffering, a door. I want to know how to be both idle and blessed. I want to know that my treasure is not in what I have kept to myself, but in the love I’ve shared with others . . . so that even as I go down to the grave I will make my song “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Robin Bartlett is senior pastor of First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.