Ash Wednesday: What a difference a year makes…

Ash Wednesday…in preparation for…


I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. As such, we did not observe Ash Wednesday. I think I probably had heard about it — in passing — but as a freshman in college, I didn’t really know what it was, what it meant, and certainly nothing about the dark cross of ashes on peoples’ foreheads.

My first encounter with Ash Wednesday is when my freshman college dorm next-door-neighbor had a visit from her mother on the evening of Ash Wednesday. I was friendly with her mother and noticed the mark on her forehead. I said to her, “Oh, you have a little something on your forehead,” as I reached toward her to wipe the mark away . Ignorant of the meaning, my friend and her mother were slightly mortified.

Fast forward a two decades and I’m a practicing Episcopalian. Episcopalians observe Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent. This is a time of the year we find more time to focus on our relationships with God. I’d always heard about people forgoing meat, save fish, on Fridays, or giving up alcohol, chocolate, television. I didn’t understand, but now I do. It’s less about taking away vices {although certainly that helps you as a human being} and more about making room for your relationship with God. Adding prayer, community service, or encouraging our children to give to others, it’s about getting closer to Him.

Last year was challenging. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and on Ash Wednesday was in between surgeries. I had the tumors removed in January 2015 and was awaiting the second surgery to complete staging of the cancer by my oncologist.

I was thankful to be alive. I was thankful to have the opportunity to be a cancer survivor. The doctors were surprised to find the cancer and were confident that all affected tissues could be removed, thereby minimizing reoccurrence. I put my faith in my doctors. I tried to minimize my fears. However, at the Ash Wednesday service, as the ashes were placed on my forehead, I wept.

It was the beginning of a year of a lot of ugly weeping for me. I was scared, I was vulnerable, I wondered if this was my last Ash Wednesday, my last February, the final days before my surgery. I wasn’t, and am not, afraid to die. I just don’t want to die. I have young children, how would they be affected if I died? My husband? My parents?

And in that moment, when our priest put the ashes on my forehead in the shape of the cross, the words from Ecclesiastes 3:20, “We all go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” {King James Version, KJV} I wept. I wept for the surgery I was going to have in the coming weeks, for the fear I had in my heart, for the children I may leave behind, for the pain it would cause my husband, my parents, my family, my friends. As I walked slowly back to my pew, I continued to weep. The tears flowing uncontrollably. Although I hadn’t felt sad, I was overcome with the finality of life, the reality that these could be my last days. It was overwhelming to cross from the confident young person I had been to the reality of my age, my health, my condition and that although I’d likely survive the surgery, I may not survive the cancer.

A year later, the feelings came flooding back to me as we entered the church. Those feelings of fear, despair. However, this time I smiled. This time I felt full of the grace of God upon my heart. I felt His sweet embrace as I prayerfully and with great thanks sat in the very pews where just a year before I wept. I thanked God for His mercy in the surgery being a success. I thanked God for his grace as He allowed me to be afraid, and face my fears. To not be in control, to not know what was going to happen, and yet believing He had my future well in hand. I smiled when the words from Ecclesiastes were spoken because I knew, now, my relationship with my children, my family, God — these relationships are stronger than they’ve ever been.

If I were to die tomorrow, if the cancer was to return, I am ready to go. I have so much more that I’d like to do with my life, not only for the people I love, but for myself. In church we say a prayer which, in part says forgive me, “for all that I have done, and all that I have left undone.” Before my surgeries, my diagnosis, I think I had the arrogant opinion that I would tie up loose ends, that I could affect change and always be there for those that I love. The truth is, we are never promised tomorrow. I still make a lot of mistakes. I’m still striving to be a better mother, spouse, daughter, sister, friend — but I’m also content with the fact that I have done my best. I am content that my best may not be good enough. I am thankful for the days I am given and am {most days!} living them with no regrets.

I’m still not perfect, I never will be. I still make a ton of mistakes, as is the mark of being human. However, I am content. I do my best, I apologize for mistakes, I love the people I’m with when I’m with them, and I carry on. Life is short. Life is full. Life is for the living. I won’t be shackled with regret, unhappiness, and hatred. When I’m tested by the doldrums of winter {as has been the last few weeks being overscheduled}, I’m making a change to be lighter, forgiving, and letting go.

I harness the happiness, the brightness of the sun – I live my days to the fullest. As this season of Lent, of washing-ourselves-clean has begun, I am renewing my commitment to myself to be thankful, not sweat the small stuff, and enjoy the life I’ve been given.


Do you celebrate Lent? What are your feelings on the season this year?

6 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday: What a difference a year makes…

  1. Wow, what a story. And what a difference a year makes, indeed. It seems words are so inadequate to respond to what it must be like to go through such intense life (and death) experiences and to gain new perspective on life as a whole and the meaning found in each day. May you have a wonderful lenten season!
    I, too, grew up in a tradition that didn’t put much emphasis on Lent. Since then I’ve observed it occasionally (I gave up coffee once and ended drinking loads of tea) and have come to appreciate Ash Wednesday services, although I didn’t go to one this year. As I think about it, the most profound times of spiritual growth for me haven’t been tied to any particular season like Lent or Advent or Easter, etc……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am writing to work through my journey the last year. My guilt, my joy, my failures, my humble thankfulness. Every time I write about it, I can’t really get to what the core of my feelings are. However, it’s cathartic to write, and rewrite, about it looping closer to the heart of my thoughts, feelings, and experience. Thank you so much for your candid thoughts and stopping by!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Really touching piece. You are so honest. I have a friend who is in the position you are/were in. She is struggling with C and has a child she is worrying about too. I’m happy for both of you because you have faith in Jesus and know what awaits you on the other side. Just the same I wish you good health and no more cancer for you or your family. It’s okay to cry, it’s good for you. Think of it like laughing, it is the same. Have a great weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

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