• Courtney Ellis

To Dust

There are twenty-eight vultures in the tree behind the abandoned house across the street. The neighbor kids call it “the bee house” because it’s also home to a massive, throbbing beehive. Not the pretty kind you see in storybooks with Winnie-the-Pooh reaching for his honey, but one that will haunt your dreams with its feverish intensity of whirring black bodies and many-thousand-chambered papery recesses. Big beehives aren’t beautiful. They are profound, weighty, demanding.


But it’s the vultures that concern me. Twenty-eight turkey vultures with bare, red heads and black, shaggy bodies sitting in the tree and keeping watch as though aggrieved. The collective term for these big birds is a “committee,” and it’s hard not to picture them as black-robed judges or dour senators sitting on high deciding how to best clean up the neighborhood.


Their calls are low and raspy. The sound from the trees is mostly silence, punctuated every few moments by a noise like a toppling bookshelf filled with paperbacks—pages and pages rifling haphazardly to the ground. Vultures are clumsy, you see, and taking off for flight is a laborious affair that involves almost as much falling—and hitting branches—as flying, until they finally get those ragged wings underneath them.


Moody and unkempt as the vultures are, I haven’t seen any road kill linger since they took up residence back in December. Our neighborhood’s flying janitors do their jobs meticulously. The streets have never been so clean.


When they gather on the ground the collective term for vultures is a “wake.”

We give vultures a wide berth, much as we do all death workers. After seminary I interned as a hospice chaplain and found that people’s reactions to my new calling shared a similar hushed weirdness.


“Ohhh,” people would whisper, “it’s nice that you do that. That’s a nice thing to do.” Then they’d back away.


Death work isn’t actually nice. Watching people take their final breaths, cry out in anguish for loved ones, hallucinate, beg for mercy, rant and rave—it isn’t nice. Death rattles are real. Like birth, death involves a lot of fluid, immodesty, and indignity. It reminds us that we are not just souls but bodies made of meat and bone. It reminds us how little control we actually possess.


I lasted only three short months in the hospice internship program. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, I couldn’t stomach daily death any longer. I still felt immortal. Invincible. Forever young. It hurt to be reminded otherwise. On Thanksgiving Day, I held a thirty-five-year old’s hand as he passed into eternity. Then I held vigil with the family of a nine-year-old as he breathed his last. I sobbed so hard in my car on the drive home I had to pull over. The next day I handed in my notice.


We hit a stride in wisdom when we can begin to bear the truth of our mortality.

I’ve spent the decade since thinking about the end of life and why I was so afraid to sit with it. To befriend it. To hold vigil with men and women at the hour of their passing. To be part of the wake. Perhaps T. S. Eliot was right: “we die with the dying.” I wasn’t ready to die yet, or even to admit that someday, hopefully years and years down the road but perhaps sooner, it would be inevitable for me too.


We hit a stride in wisdom when we can begin to bear the truth of our mortality. That dust we are and to dust we shall return, as we chant in my Presbyterian tradition on Ash Wednesday. We may be “beloved dust,” as Lisa Sharon Harper writes, but we are dust nonetheless.


Leaving the hospice didn’t free me from the valley of the shadow of death. It looms large, covering everything. Death appears in papercuts and chipped molars, in necessary prescriptions and in the house that needs repainting again and again.


Mortality puts a cold hand on our shoulder when we can’t remember the precise word we want to use, as we pick up an apple and find it rotten, when the person in the obituary shares our age or our name or our profession. Life’s end is present in the dripping faucet, the buzzing fluorescent bulb. This line from W. H. Auden comes to me almost daily: “The crack in the teacup opens a lane to the land of the dead.”

We are all dying, right this minute, you and me and everyone you know. The vultures hold their vigil and the hospice chaplains offer a prayer and the bees from the bee house travel from flower to flower before winter turns them to papery mist. In the blink of an eye it will all be over. We measure out our lives in coffee spoons.


This knowledge is heavy, weighty, significant, somber.


It also frees us.


In the valley of the shadow we find the good shepherd.

To dust you are is not a condemnation; it is acknowledgment. To dust you will return is not a curse, but rings with permission. In the valley of the shadow we find the good shepherd.


In his book When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi chronicles his rise in the world of medicine—Stanford, neurosurgery, neuroscience—followed by his devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer at age 36. The epilogue, written after his death by his wife, Lucy, notes:


“Paul faced each stage of his illness with grace—not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would ‘overcome’ or ‘beat’ cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss . . . He cried on the day he was diagnosed . . . He cried on his last day in the operating room. He let himself be open and vulnerable, let himself be comforted.”


Poet Jane Kenyon wrote of death as the evening of a long day, coming steadily no matter our efforts to stave it off, but not to be feared or avoided. Kenyon died of leukemia at age 47.


But before that, she offered a reminder.


“God does not leave us comfortless. So let evening come.”



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