He wore glasses and a trench coat. Part of his large button-down shirt hung out of his pants. "It's Ash Wednesday today?" he said. The cashier stood behind the counter and watched us. No one else was in the Stop-N-Go mart. The man unholstered his thumb from his coat-pocket and lifted his arm from his side to rub some ashes from my forehead. The folds in his round face failed to indicate speech, like motionless curtains overhanging each side of an open window. Maybe that's why I didn't swat his arm away -- shove him back -- ask him what he thought he was doing. A train screeched to a halt outside. Suits and skirts filed onto the platform, scurrying down concrete stairs in the dark.
Each Ash Wednesday, that stranger comes to mind, my pulse quickens and my palms moisten. There's no gun in this story, except the pistol-whipping I do to myself for allowing the encounter to happen. I remember my father was alive then, and when I told him about it he was incredulous: "You let him do what?" he said.
Twelve years later, I'm sitting in church for a Family Mass with my wife and our three children. Family Mass essentially means that fewer numbers of people will sneer at you for having noisy children, because the majority of the congregation consists of parents who are busy shushing children. The priest mentions how Lent is approaching and it makes me think of the man again.
I was all tucked-in in my early twenties. I suppose it's obvious to say no one wants the shirttails of their shortcomings to appear to anyone, but this was especially true of me then. I was single at the time, living around the corner from the gas station on East Avenue, three hours North of the family I came from, trying to make a life for myself, and so much of that time was spent reaching out to new friends, older colleagues and women I didn't marry. I was a terrible perfectionist. Forget hiding your flaws; I tried not to have any.
It makes sense that most parenting talk focuses on how the decisions we make influence the kind of human beings our children will become. But one of the best parts of being a parent is how our kids change us. Fatherhood is its own kind of invitation. I give my 2-and-half-year-old daughter, Mary, full credit for helping me not to take myself so damn seriously.
She has convinced me that it is perfectly acceptable to eat ketchup with one's fingers. That upon arriving home at the end of the day, it is common practice to remove one's long purple socks and place them over your hands and forearms so they look like the gloves of a princess. And when I apologize to her for raising my voice, her eyes convey unqualified forgiveness.
The daughter within me has the freedom to wonder if the man in the gas station had anyone to tell him about the day of the moveable fast, the first day of Lent. Maybe I feared the man's touch could somehow infect me with the loneliness he exuded. Maybe I had an immediate sense that he was harmless.
Many people think of Lent in terms of giving up indulgences such as chocolate or wine. What I'd like to give up this season is being hard on myself. What I'd like to do is let my children continue to make me a more compassionate man -- the kind of man who understands, at least a little more, why we receive ashes.