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.”