It had been 40 days since my first ashes. Well, almost 40 days. It was Good Friday and I was home from college for a long Easter weekend. My clandestine basement foray into lenten ashes was still gnawing at my soul. I was not in the custom of celebrating Good Friday, but when my dear friend Carlos called and asked me to have lunch with him, I eagerly said yes and wondered if we could go to Good Friday service together afterwards, a community ecumenical service that was going to be held in a local theatre.
I loved any opportunity to see Carlos. He had appeared in my life unexpectedly, through the church I attended with my parents. He had been in jail, had befriended another family in our congregation through prison ministry, and now released had come to live and worship in the community. He was older than I was, which drew me in even more…I was, after all, nineteen. We had an instantaneous and soulful connection that grew over time. I was mighty attracted to him, I must admit, but we weren’t involved romantically. In my mind, that seemed destined for the future, somehow, but not actualized in the present. What we did was talk for long hours into the night on the phone in my dorm or occasionally in person over long walks or endless cups of coffee. We spoke of God and poetry and theatre. But on this particular day, I was just excited for the opportunity to lunch with him, to share space and conversation.
He picked me up and we drove to a little diner the next town over. I ordered a tuna sandwich…it’s funny what detail sticks with you and how vivid that memory can be. He was quieter than usual. I look a bite and looked over at him, and it looked as if he had a tear in his eye. My tuna sandwich became a lump in my throat. “What’s wrong?” I asked, because obviously something was wrong. He shook his head. Being a teenager, I thought I was about to be dumped, or informed that he had fallen in love with someone other than me. As these adolescent thoughts were racing through my mind, he reached across the table and took my hand. “I have to tell you something. I am sick. I just went to the doctor. I had the tests. They told me I have AIDS. I am dying.” The tuna sandwich lump in my throat now seized my soul. It was the 1980’s. I was young and blissfully falling in love, or perhaps just trying to figure out what “love” really was. This was small town America and I was a naive pedestrian in it, strolling carefree toward adulthood. Then, suddenly, the world of grown-ups, of sickness and death and pain, that world was becoming my world. And I rose to the occasion, as best I could. “I want to know everything. And I want you to know I am not going anywhere.”
I learned the whole story that day, and we walked to the church-in-a-theatre and sat together, listening to the narrative of Good Friday. We held each other’s hand as if clinging to life itself…and perhaps we were. That day, like the ashes of lent placed on my brow 40 days earlier, was burned into my soul. Death was suddenly not a foreign concept to be avoided until a long way down the road. The shadow of death was present, and real.
But death is not the end.
Ironically, I was playing Mrs. Gibbs in a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at that time. I spent many rehearsals of Act III as the deceased Mrs. Gibbs, “detached but not maudlin” (Wilder’s specifically written stage direction) looking out onto the life still happening around her, the scenes of love and life and loss continuing to play on. I worked out a lot of inner monologue during this accidental drama therapy. Some lines from that play remain with me to this day: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute.” And, of course, my beloved friend Carlos came to watch every performance. Life becomes the drama, and the drama becomes life.
Every Good Friday, I go viscerally back to these moments in time, and I relive these stories. The passion narrative seems inextricably linked with my own life narrative. The words of Jesus take on personal and symbolic meaning…perhaps exactly as they are meant to.
We all have a time where our own mortality comes into clarity. It is one of the most frightening, yet most formative, moments of growing up. But, I also learned that looking death in the face was deeply liberating. The core of forming one’s soul, one’s sense of self means looking squarely at the fragile nature of human life, and choosing to live within that risk. It transformed everything about my daily life, it altered my perspective on life and living. It allowed me to choose to move forward into a life that could include death. It caused me to struggle and figure out by trial and error how to live…and love…in that world. It has not always been a smooth journey. But it has been filled with many, many lessons. And, as I have come to realize this Lenten season as I write these stories, many points of light.
Perhaps the ashes at the beginning of that first Lenten season were an anointing of my body and soul for what was to come. It was an invitation to grow, to live deeply and soulfully, even through the shadow of death.
Perhaps our time in the shadows of life allows us to see even faint rays of light more clearly.
And perhaps, that is the lesson within Good Friday.
“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
-stage manager, in the play OUR TOWN”
― Thornton Wilder, Our Town