Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air: and so shall we be always with the Lord.

—1 Thessalonians 4:17

Our old Episcopal priest used to encourage us to contemplate during Lent what we have done to love our neighbors as ourselves; to take stock, to finish projects, to make apologies—in short, to prepare to meet the Risen Lord.

I like the notion of Lent as a time of “rising,” of lightening the load of earthly ballast. I cheerfully avoid unnecessary purchases and food, the things that add bulk to my presence here on earth. I also spend a lot of time cleaning out closets, drawers, cupboards, and the garage.

This Lent includes extra load-lightening because I’m sorting through not only my own stuff, but things that belonged to my father as well. When Dad died my mother could not bear to watch the funeral-home staff take his body from the house. And now, almost a year later, she finds it impossible to hand over his things to strangers. So whenever I visit, she gives me a batch of things on hangers or in boxes and tells me to “deal with these.”

“Dealing with” Dad’s things amounts to more than passing on the boxes and garment bags to the Salvation Army. On the drive home from my mother’s house, Dad’s scent—his aftershave and something more personal and human—wafts from the packages and permeates the car. It’s said that smell is most closely connected with memory, and certainly those memories are part of the baggage I have to deal with.

When I get home, I go through Dad’s items one by one, usually turning them inside out, lingering over them. I’m not sure why I do this; perhaps to prove to myself that Dad truly no longer inhabits them. They are like the discarded winding sheets in an empty tomb; Dad was here once, and now he has gone on. He no longer needs the eye-searing golf shirts, the work polos stained with grass and mud from happy hours spent installing lawn sprinklers, the loud ties that embarrassed my mother but were a huge joke with my brother and me. (I save the worst ones for my brother. He’ll have to decide how to deal with that baggage himself.) Then I launder everything and repack it neatly for the Salvation Army store.

I want to show respect for those who will buy these things; I cannot wash the feet of the poor, but I can wash and make neat and clean the things they’ll buy for a few dollars. But at a more visceral level, I wash the items because I don’t want any part of Dad, even a whiff, trapped in this earthly vale. 

My grief is no longer fresh, but this Lent my sense of the nearness and mystery of death seems far more real as I “deal with” Dad’s things. I also think of that day, perhaps not too distant, when someone will be boxing up my stuff and dealing with it. I feel a renewed desire—perhaps a need—to get rid of more of that earthly ballast.

I haven’t become an ascetic by any stretch; I still keep my favorite sweaters, my most flattering pants, my comfy shoes, my books, my grandmother’s Fiesta ware. But I know that in the end they will mean very little. The things Dad wanted in his final days were care and kindness and petting the neighbor cat. Lent is a time to develop gratitude for those often overlooked gifts—a thoughtful word, unexpected help, a purring cat.

The paradox of heaven is that we will be taken up and offered everything—and we will choose nothing because we will want nothing to weigh us down. This Lent I am reminded of St. Paul’s beautiful epistle, which promises a time when we will be so divested of our earthly burdens and cares that we will rise in the air to meet the Risen Christ.

Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: 

Jean Hughes Raber teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

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