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Three stories of death for Ash Wednesday

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Russ Saltzman:
Three stories of death for Ash Wednesday by Russell E. Saltzman

Changing out the paper towel roll a few days back I remembered by habit to set aside the empty roll for Hattie's gerbil. Hattie is my twelve-year-old, of course, and I am under oft-repeated instructions to save the cardboard tubing. The little creature enjoys running through the tube several times before settling down to chew it up into more bedding. You can figure about twenty minutes for a toilet roll; maybe an hour for an empty roll from paper towels. I know; we’ve timed it. Gerbils are like that. So I set it aside.

And then, I felt a stab of mild grief. The gerbil had died a couple days before. Gerbils are like that too, and this one had survived beyond its normal life expectancy by some good while. These small little creatures of hyper-metabolism, they run like a top, and then of a sudden just stop. Was the girl seven or eight when we went to the pet store for this one? I can’t remember.

My sadness, however, wasn’t for the gerbil. With seven children, we’ve been through snakes, lizards, guinea pigs, gerbils galore, a wounded pigeon, an orphaned swallow and an orphaned robin, a couple dozen  mice, and, oh, crickets; lots and lot of crickets. Hattie had the crickets. They are called shelf pets, small little bundles of childhood responsibility that obligate children to care for the needs of something smaller than themselves – lessons that I rather hope have and will carry them into adulthood.

But Hattie is the last child, and now she’s twelve, nearly thirteen.  She used to call herself “nature girl.” Now she’s up to “girlie-girl.” There won’t be any more gerbils tended by children at my house. That is the grief.

The fellow told me, “Guess I’ll be selling the boat, maybe April.” The boat wasn’t much, just an old aluminum fishing boat with an outboard, sitting on a trailer next to his garage. But this boat, the boat he all but lived in during fishing seasons following his retirement, it hadn’t been moved in a year. The cancer eating at him for the last two years had finally confined him at home. To say he was selling it was his acknowledgment of impending mortality, maybe the only way he knew how. This was first time I had heard him say anything about it. He knew that, and he knew I knew it as well. But he couldn’t talk about his coming death, not directly. He would later, but this first time had to be a little tender, a little tentative. Talking about death in the abstract is one thing. Dealing with it looming up beside you is another.

“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, it was often a bother.” Time, I thought, to talk about sparrows. “Never. God marks the fall of sparrows; I’d suppose He will watch over you, whether that boat gets sold or not.” “You may be right,” is all he said, that day.

Andrea was seventeen when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In the last spring and summer of her life 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 that next year, thinking to feed them up and sell in the fall to help pay for the college expenses we were all hoping she would owe. She died, age eighteen verging to nineteen, with the lambs but half grown. Her parents sold them some months afterward. Her mother told me selling those lambs, watching them go, was as hard as the funeral.

As if we needed any fresh reminders of our mortality, Ash Wednesday coming tells us each we are “dust and to dust we shall return.”

The Good News of our faith is, God does not leave us in the dust. And for all the truly vexatious loses we endure in life until we have lost life itself, we may live “certain that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Dan Fienen:
Thank you.

Dan

Jeremy Loesch:
Thanks as well.

Jeremy

Lutheranistic:
A writer's ego doesn't allow saying it very often...but....I wish I'd written that. Thanks, Pr. Saltzman.

Tom:
Amen

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