Leaves of Ash
I wake with ashes in the shape of crosses on my eyelids. I wait; day will break. Priests will say Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. I’ll walk around—from church to work, lunch to the bank—strange with signs of death on my face. I’ll startle myself in the mirror. I’ll forget and then remember.
I wrote that prose poem for Ash Wednesday. My favorite holy day: I wake up excited to have the sign of the cross drawn with ashes on my forehead. I go to Mass early, start the day laden with the strangeness of being a Christian, of being part of this we who celebrate death and resurrection. After the ashes, Communion. After the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, it’s a relief to move on to bran flakes and coffee. But you’ve got a charcoal-colored cross on your forehead. You forget and then remember: you’re dying.
I fell for Ash Wednesday when I learned the tradition of making the ashes from palm branches that were saved seasons before. Fronds people wave in church on Palm Sunday, to commemorate the day Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, palm branches laid like a red carpet over his path, when only he knew how soon he was going to die. Youth groups and old ladies fold and tie the palm leaves into crosses. Jerusalem green turns to yellow as they dry; black as they burn; ash as the embers surrender.
I made my own ritual this year, to mark what I need to grieve—Sudan and cancer. I burned leaves. Three dried leaves I kept on my writing desk since last spring.
Last April, on a hike with a friend who’s a forester, I discovered the ash trees in New England are dying. An invasive beetle species, the Emerald Ash Borer, feeds just below the bark, damaging the vascular tissue that transports water and nutrients from the roots to the canopy. My friend showed me one of the sick trees. It looked healthy—until she showed me the spots on the leaves. Dead brown on living green.
The leaves were covered with specks of disease, like I imagine the lesions on my liver, metastases from the tumor in my esophagus. That week my oncologist told me not to get discouraged if the liver spots don’t keep shrinking with chemo treatments: CT scans don’t show what’s happening at the molecular level. The lesions can remain the same size, while the cancer cells are dead inside.
“This one might survive,” my forester friend said, looking up the ash tree. “It’s got a strong canopy.” She told me trees have a way of walling off malignant cells to protect the rest from disease. And all trees are dead inside: just the very outermost part, just below the bark, the vascular cambium, is the part that lives and grows and transports nutrients. The part the invasive beetle bores into, threatening the life of the tree. Like cancer invading vital organs. Trees with emerald ash disease can survive, if you catch it soon enough.
I was high on biological hope. Maybe the spots of cancer on my liver were dead inside. Maybe every dying cell was giving rise to life.
I pulled off an ash leaf—three leaflets at the near end of a branch, the part that divides into smaller and smaller vessels like capillaries. I brought it home, along with a wooden bird I bought at an estate sale that day, some beloved tchotchke of someone who died. I wanted to give that stranger and those ash leaves an afterlife. I set the frond stem in one of the holes in the wood of the bird, as if to hang the leaves out to dry. Maybe I would sketch them someday; maybe I would revive their green in watercolor. Maybe I would write their veins into a poem.
I never got around to turning those diseased leaves into art. It would’ve been a constructive thing to do during chemo fatigue. But I wasn’t having to sit still being sick anymore, since my oncologist scaled back on my chemo regimen in August. I was down to one drug I could take in pill form: No more afternoons in an infusion chair. No more 36-hour stretches of dead-to-the-world sleep. Not even a lick of nausea.
I was in full swing. Doing the refugee resettlement work I love, going to kickboxing class, staying out late dancing with friends. I was even making big travel plans again: a road trip through Georgia to the afterlives of Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks; a month-long writing residency in the Adirondacks; a trip back to the Holy Land, to keep following the stories of Sudanese refugees who’ve fled Egypt for Israel.
I was living as if I don’t have cancer, until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. After two years of no growth or spread —–good news for having incurable cancer–—my last scan showed tumor activity in a lymph node. I’d have to give up my unencumbered life, to plan my trips around chemo infusions every three weeks, then a spate of daily radiation.
I found myself, the night before Ash Wednesday, sitting still with those diseased leaves on my desk. I tried to look at the spots so long they would arrange themselves into some form—like the ancient aborigines apparently looked up at the dark star-clouds over Australia until they saw an emu in the sky. But I didn’t have the patience or the presence to see anything but erratic specks of death, a dark pointillist project gone awry. I was looking sick around the eyes, startling myself in the mirror.
I lit up my St. Anthony candle. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things and people. I needed to burn the leaves to grieve. Cancer and Sudan.
I’d been trying to get in touch with my Sudanese friend Lazarus, who lost his mother, an aunt, and two uncles when his hometown Bor was massacred in December. Houses were burned down, civilians killed. When we talked, Lazarus told me some of his relatives escaped: “In the days of running,” he said, they crossed the Nile from one bank to the other.
The first time Bor was massacred in 1991—in the days of running when Lazarus was escaping civil war as a child—there were no hospitals. People relied on traditional healing practices: Elders made medicine from roots and bark, leaves and seeds. Hibiscus for malaria; acacia for rheumatic pain; balsam for tumors.
When I brought each ash leaf to the candle, the disease-eaten parts lit up, like cancer cells on a PET scan. I watched the dark spots become holes the flame shone through, and for a moment I saw the sick specks as a constellation of firelight.
One of the dried leaves had drawn up. When I brought it to the St. Anthony flame, its main vein lit up, like lightning surging up a spine, then curved like the keel of a boat. I closed my eyes, the lids like curtains to the flame, filling my field of sight with ambient firelight. I imagined that drawn-up leaf taking on the body of a reed boat carrying Lazarus’ relatives from one bank of the Nile to the other.
I opened my Bible to read Ezekiel’s vision of a river whose waters are healed. “[E]very thing shall live whither the river cometh,” he prophesies. “And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees… and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.”
When the ashes cooled off, I drew the sign of the cross on my eyelids and on the inside of my right wrist. My eyes for all I see in light of dying. The wrist of my writing hand, for all I’ll scribble living with cancer.
I imagined the ashes on my eyelids as the ashes of Bor. I was commemorating death; maybe I would dream resurrection. Maybe I would see the ashes of Bor as garlands of a New Jerusalem.
Brushing my teeth before bed, I had to laugh at myself playing priest. Trying to be Ezekiel eating the scroll, hoping for visions. From Gilead to the east sea, the banks of the river lined with trees, their leaves healing tribes and strangers alike.
I did not have mystical visions in my sleep that night. I had an anxiety dream about being late somewhere. Then, I was buying too many clothes at a thrift store, which reminded me when my alarm went off that Wednesdays are 50% off at the Salvation Army on Crown Street. I pressed snooze until almost time to leave for Mass.
In church that morning, I remembered why I love Ash Wednesday Mass. Feeling the sign of the cross drawn in ashes on your forehead, then not feeling. Sensation evanescent as death. I wonder if that’s what last rites are like: a finger drawing the cross in holy oil on your forehead; hearing words you’ve heard over and over—“we celebrate the death and resurrection”; Communion if you can still swallow; labored breath maybe stopping at “we celebrate the death.”
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Dying is not dark to me; dying is a star, mourning.
Mourning bright and writing.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.