She’s buried six feet below the grandest of all the grave markers in the cemetery east of town. Her husband had selected an angel on a pedestal emblazoned with his bride’s photograph — an extravagant option nearly 100 years ago.
For a long time, I knew her only from the photo and a few time-worn words etched into the pedestal:
Anna Pexa nee Ahders
Born October 5, 1884
Died January 19, 1919
She was 34 years old — probably a mother, I figured.
On cold winter days like these, her angel is encased in snow. But when I visit the cemetery on warm summer days, I always stop at her graveside.
I imagine a life invested by a young mother on the Iowa prairie some 90 years earlier. And I consider: How am I investing my own?
Even since I was a child, I’ve done this. I have combed cemeteries to look at gravestones and imagine lives lived in The Dash*.
At the side of a veteran’s grave, decorated with tiny flags pushed into May dirt on Memorial Day, I imagine holidays spent in foxholes.
At a child’s grave, flat to the ground, I see wobbly first steps, hear first cries, feel kissed boo-boos.
In my home cemetery, as a child, I would visit the graves of Margaret and Helen and Doris. I would remember their cookies and funny hairdos and shaky-soprano voices.
Unseen snippets of lives would dance in my mind:
Heads bowed around a Thanksgiving feast.
Snorting laughter around an evening fire.
Painful tears around a child-sized casket.
As a child, I was drawn to the gravestones of children. I held white paper to their gravestones, and used crayons to make rubbings of their birth dates.
Today, I’m drawn to the gravestones of young mothers. I suppose it’s that part of me that remembers this truth: We’re all going to die. And none of us has any guarantees.
In the United States, a typical woman lives about 80 years, or 29,200 days.
If my math is right, and if I’m typical, I guess I have about 15,270 days left.
But If I were like Anna Ahders Pexa, my dash would be etched in already.
It wasn’t enough to know the woman’s name and two dates. I had to know more.
So I went to the courthouse to meet Anna Ahders Pexa. I combed birth records, death records, marriage records and newspaper clippings saved to microfilm.
And this is a bit of what I found: Anna Ahders was born in Inwood, Iowa. She’d attended country schools and lived on the family farm. She married Mike before she turned 20, and three years later, left for South Dakota where the couple farmed. Her husband once said she “bravely faced the privations of pioneer life.”
They had five children in all, and Anna’s mother had recently moved in. But the young mother had fallen ill, so she took a train alone to Rochester, Minnesota, for an X-ray. She died there of yellow jaundice four days later. Doctors said she also had an “internal cancer.”
“Mr. Pexa received a message to come at once that his wife was dangerously ill,” the news reporter wrote in the front-page story of her death. “He went to town to take the train and there found a message awaiting him that his wife was dead.”
“But in life we are in the midst of death,” the reporter wrote. “And Mr. Pexa grieves the more because she was called by death just when after years of pioneering and hardship they were getting comfortably fixed and in shape to take life with more ease.”
Our time sometimes ends cruelly short, and when I look at the photo of Anna and re-read old news stories, my own mortality gnaws at my insides.
How am I living my dash?
What does my heart beat for?
And do I leave a legacy that points to Christ?
To some, the thought is perhaps morbid — that I would scour cemeteries and 90-year-old archives for answers to life’s big questions.
But I find something I need here in the cemetery: I find a needed reminder that I’m pressing ever-closer to Home.
I used to be scared of dying, you know. But that was before I came to know that The End was really just the beginning.
Today, you and I are one day away from the new year. We are one day closer to the End — or rather, the Beginning.
If I’m typical, I have about 15,270 days left here. And if I’m not typical, well … I still have this day.
I know that each day, I’m writing my own eulogy. I’m not writing it on paper, but I’m etching it on history and hearts. What legacy — I ask myself — am I leaving today — number 13,930 of my life?
I want to be rich in love and slow to anger. I want to spread kindness and extend mercy. I want to make a mark on this life, not for my name’s sake but His. I want to leave a legacy of a Dash well-lived; I want to invest a life in love.
Today, I’m writing my own eulogy. And I want to write it well.
*The phrase “living your dash” comes from a poem originally written by Linda Ellis.
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