Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

What Ashes Say

As an adolescent I loved wearing ashes on my forehead to cover up my oily pimples. In high school, Ash Wednesday got a toast to the beginning of those two-hour Stations of the Cross on Fridays, which shortened each class period by 25 minutes. And in my working days (at an office), my black smudge was proof of my spiritual superiority (if only for a day) over my secular co-workers.

As a mother, however, the first day of Lent is a reminder of the fragility of life, that “from dust we were created and to dust we shall return,” that we would be smart to appreciate every moment on this earth because our heart rate, or our kids’ heart rates, might go flat in the time it takes a two-year-old to push his preschool buddy into fifteen feet of frigid water.


Ash Wednesday is a very holy day for me, and not just because it begins the forty days leading up to Easter.

Three years ago this day a boy under my care could have easily died had his guardian angel not been eating sushi on the edge of the city dock in Annapolis, where the Spa Creek of the Chesapeake Bay meets the quaint downtown shops.

A fellow preschool mom asked if I’d take her two-and-a-half-year-old, Will, for an hour or two so that she fulfill an hour of physical training she’d promised a client. Stacey typically uses the childcare center at the facility, but rumors of lice made her seek an alternative for this day. (Her son would have been better off with lice.)


“No problem,” I said, as I loaded my trio of small people—Will, David, and four-month-old Katherine–into the back seat of my sedan. “It’ll be fun. We’ll get lunch, ice cream, and then feed the ducks.”

After Will and David swallowed lunch and fueled up on sugar, we headed to the harbor to feed the ducks what was left of the boys’ grilled cheese sandwiches. I had Katherine strapped on to me in order to manage the quick movements of two-year-olds with both my hands, which is why I couldn’t do anything but scream when David pushed Will into the bitterly cold water that was plenty deep to swallow him. As I frantically tried to unstrap Katherine from my chest, a man sitting nearby dove into the water and rescued Will.


I couldn’t have lucked out more. A former lifeguard, Chris LaPanta had swum the polar bear swim competition in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. By the time I had one strap off my shoulder, my angel with cowboy boots on his feet and ashes on his forehead held Will with one hand and was swimming with him toward the nearest ladder.

The rest of the afternoon played out like a bad episode of “ER“. Although most of it was a blur, I can recall a few details: two restaurant owners stripping little Will and 41-year-old Chris of their glacial clothes to prevent hypothermia and wrapping each in white tablecloths; Chris’s white briefs baking in the rotisserie at the poultry joint downtown while the locals commented on his chiseled six-pack abs; David screaming at Will because I had given the blue-lipped boy my son’s winter coat, and then demanding to ride in the “fun truck” (ambulance) with his friend, not in mom’s gold sedan with no lights and sirens.


On the way to the hospital I remember obsessing about what I was going to say to Stacey, and wondering how a life could almost be taken away so quickly.

My drama ended happily. Thanks to God and his guardian angel, everyone is alive and Stacey didn’t sue me. Will only suffered two ear infections (he shouldn’t have been submerged in polluted water with tubes in his ears).

But the experience left me somewhat traumatized. After three years I’m still haunted by the mental snapshot: Will feeding the ducks, a splash, and then his disappearing under freezing water.

How ironic that it happened on Ash Wednesday, because the harrowing afternoon screams the message our ashes symbolize: “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return . . . at any moment.”

  • http://HASH(0xd0b2080) Lydia

    Thank you for your amazing story regarding Ash Wednesday. Your details had me on the edge of my seat as I prayed your ending would turn out as wonderful as it did. Praise God for sending Chris to be yours and Will’s angel that day.

  • http://HASH(0xd0b45d8) Rachelle Berven

    Hello, Just wanted to say thank you for your life saving story. Really touch me heart. May God bless you and your boy. Always, Rachelle Berven

  • http://HASH(0xd0b48fc) anon

    Heart warming story that ended happily thank goodness. Thank you for sharing it with all especially today, a special day for me as well. Ash wednesday always represented my religion, or a part of it if you will. I always remember from the time I was a young child that ash wednesday represented the beginning of lent…oh my, well we had big decisions to make– what to give up..That was hard to do..Seems we all would rather of not given up anything. I always gave up the same thing because it was the hardest for me to not do. Well I hate to admit it but it was biting my nails. I’d bite them to the quick practically and it was rather embarassing when I got older and someone noticed them awful looking hands. And I happen to be enthralled with hands. It’s the first thing I notice about someone. Wouldn’t you know, mine were awful looking. So I’d trudge through lent trying so hard not to bite them and instead picking at the cuticles. Today I don’t do that. I grew out of it at 28 years old. My obstetrician made a comment that it was too bad that I had such a lovely diamond to look at, if one could get beyond the fingernails…OH! heartbreaking. So I finally stopped. Anyway, I think ash wednesday is a time to reflect on how short our moments here on earth can be and how lucky we are to be able to have a time to reflect on Christ and all that this time frame means in regard to our Savior and our relationship to HIM. Good luck everyone in keeping your promise…

  • http://HASH(0xd0b51ec) MARIE K. LALLY,PINELLAS PARK F


  • http://HASH(0xd0b670c) Catherine Uhly

    Thank you for sharing your personal story, and the very “human” way in which you told it…moments like yours bring home so clearly and simply how fragile and temporary human life on Earth is-I remember a somewhat similar event in my life–a bad car accident and my own “Good Samaritan” who was there to help me-in dim recollection, I remember someone else being beside me (my guardian angel?), and then my very human Good Samaritan who helped me — but 2 distinctly different presences…and during Lent, as well–I write this with Ashes on my forehead…and I pray we continue to keep our Catholic traditions and pass them along to our children.

  • http://HASH(0xd0b765c) Suzanne Winter-Austin

    As a Protestant, I always revered the only 2 Catholics in my primary school who wore their “smudges” with pride. I never knew the pure symbolism of the ashes at the time, but am reminded of “dust to dust” by Therese’s marvelous, heart-warming, but scary story of redemption. Sorry you still think of that accident all the time – it turned out well, and your Guardian Angel was there with you. So – Praise the Lord for His wondrous miracles in the common-place of everyday life. And, Come, sweet Jesus, Come. I await Easter with joy.

  • http://HASH(0xd0b8168) HASH(0xd0b7890)

    Wow, what a memorable story. Thanks for sharing it & the ‘miracle’ of God working through another ‘guardian angel/Chris.’ I went for my ashes yesterday. I was told, “You are healed, go forth and sin no more.” I have been praying for a miraculous healing because I was told I’ll require 4 surgeries & I have no insurance. I stopped & said, “I thought that you’d say something like: From Ashes you came and to ashes you shall return. A chuckle came with the reply, “We’ll save that one for your burial, which won’t be today.” Consequently I am reporting it today. I haven’t rescheduled with my Doctors yet, for their opinion on my conditions yet I believe I am healed.

  • http://HASH(0xd0b848c) Carolyn

    How wonderful and gracious is Our Lord, that He did save us from our sins, by sending His Son, Jesus to die for us. Why, do we make coming to Our Heavenly Father so hard, His Son did it all by dying on the cross and rising again. He did it all and we all have to do is believe by faith. And just enjoy a loving relationship with Him. Come Jesus come.

  • http://HASH(0xd0b902c) Jeannette

    Thanks so much for your sharing your experience strength and HOPE(= Helping Other People Everyday!) I learned that in a twelve step program, You are God’s Chosen! God is Alive! HIS Miracles never Cease to amaze me! I have been cured of many things in my lifetime, and he works his miracles through us! Thank You Jesus!-Oh, Come Holy One! Bring us this wonderous Eastertime that we may rejoice in you and Your Love! Love to all Jeannette D. Chesapeake City, MD

  • http://HASH(0xd0b9f94) HASH(0xd0b9eec)

    FOR ME YOUR STORY ABOUT `ASH WEDNESDAY` WAS CLEARY A WAKE UP CALL FOR ME. I was born on ASH WEDNESDAY IN 1936, so for my family it was always a special day. I recently retired after over 40 years in the fashion industry. And my plans were to do all the things that I never had time for. But instead, I felt lost. I AM SO THANKFUL FOR YOUR STORY. I will try now to live every day as if it were my last. Gerry Hamilton, R.I.

  • Larry Parker

    I cannot possibly imagine a more traumatic experience — unless, of course, it had ended horrifically instead of heroically. (Or if, and I know you’re not a selfish person, David had been the pushee instead of the pusher — I say that knowing what terror you went through just this weekend with your daughter.)
    I don’t think, as I’m sure you don’t either, it was “luck” that a lifeguard unexpectedly was right there — and that’s speaking as a sometime skeptic.
    But in my own life, when I read the story, frightening though it was for you and especially for poor Will, I read it from your son’s point of view.
    You see, I’ve had a recurring dream for well over three decades of being at the Kansas City Zoo in preschool or kindergarten (that’s where I lived back then), having a picnic, getting into a fight with a young classmate, and pushing him down — where he hit his head on a huge, sharp boulder, badly injuring or even killing him.
    I’ve been assured by my parents countless times that this never happened. Yet the dream occurs at least half-a-dozen times a year, and has since I was a youngster. It is always the same, and always incredibly vivid. It ends with adults closing in around me until the “screen” fades to black — a combination, I gather, of their simultaneously punishing me and sheltering me from the awfulness of what I have done. It’s as if I was there — which makes me strongly believe, despite my parents’ statements to the contrary, that I was.
    Maybe it is simply G-d’s reminder to me to hold in my male temper (my “terrible twos” extended until about five — even more evidence of my own suspicions). Maybe.
    But it sure seems like more.

  • Christopher LaPanta

    What I have realized is that young Will was my guardian angel. That day changed my life forever.

  • Joan W. from the fun years at ODC

    I know Chris – even though we haven’t seen each other in ten years – I can tell you he never once thought of himself when he jumped into that water – strength, honor, integrity and love for his family and friends has always been what I know Chris to be.

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