Throughout the nation today, Ash Wednesday, priests and pastors will intone the words, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return,” as they spread ashes on the forehead of the faithful in the form of the Sign of the Cross.
The black ash reminds believers of their own mortality, and that we all shall return unto the dust from which man was originally made. The Forty Days of Lent is time when people of various religious affiliations choose to make sacrifices, such as ‘giving-up’ a favorite food or activity, as a form of penance during the Lenten Season in preparation for Easter.
One of the most dramatic Lenten sacrifices I have seen occurred when I was a young boy.
I grew up with an alcohol-addicted uncle. He was my mom’s brother, and he lived with us throughout my formative years.
Our family photo albums are filled with pictures of my uncle in his Army uniform, and during leave, in his baseball catcher’s gear. My mom said he had started drinking during the war and, unfortunately, continued the habit when he returned home.
Alcohol was not his master, at least not yet. For several years he held a responsible job with the State of Ohio. In the summer he mowed the grass along the highways, and in the winter he would be gone for days plowing snow throughout Clinton County.
Unfortunately, in later years, we again wouldn’t see him for days at a time, but for a completely different reason. My uncle began to drink to excess. He became addicted to alcohol.
There was neither a more lovable, kind, nor considerate man on earth than my uncle when he was sober. He and I were very close. In fact, I am his namesake.
In contrast, there was not a more disappointing man on earth, at least to me, when my uncle was drinking. He would start out at a local bar, and migrate to the bars of larger cities. He often disappeared on a Thursday, and our family would not see him again until the following Monday afternoon.
I loved him, and as a young boy, I often prayed for him. When he was home with us, I used to stay close by his side, hoping against hope he would not start drinking again. I often asked him to go with me to watch my baseball games; as well as, drive me around to deliver newspapers. I thought if he was with me, he wouldn’t be drinking. But my efforts were all in vain.
Unfortunately, it was inevitable. One day, a state supervisor called my Mom and informed her he had no choice but to terminate my uncle’s employment.
A few years later, during the Lenten Season, my uncle asked me to guess what he was “giving up” for Lent.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “Are you giving up Pepsi or Coke?”
“No, I am giving up alcohol,” my uncle said softly.
“Oh, do you think you can do it?” I asked in disbelief.
“I’m going to try,” he whispered.
Elation engulfed my young heart and mind, but I was fearful at the same time. I was unsure my uncle could keep his promise and remain sober for more than a few days. Would he ever drink again? Would it be next week, next month, or maybe never? That was my hope, because never is a long, long time in the mind of a boy.
A few days turned into a week. A few more weeks passed. Soon, forty days had passed. It was Easter Sunday. I turned to see my uncle, dressed in a suit, pull out of our driveway and head to Sunday Mass.
I don’t know if there had been more to the story than what he told us, but I do know my uncle remained sober for the remainder of his life. I also remember watching him leave our home, to live in a Veterans Hospital, to maintain his sobriety.
Sixteen years later, my uncle was diagnosed with cancer.
I don’t drink alcohol today, in large part, because of what I saw it do to my uncle. But I do emulate him in other ways. I share his fervor for Lent, witnessing what that Ash Wednesday on his knees did for him.
On his deathbed, I asked my uncle how he was able to overcome his addiction. “He simply responded, “I believed it all. Don’t you?”
I quietly nodded, as he softly turned his head and all too quickly slipped away.
Addiction, whether it be to alcohol, heroin, or opioids, is a cruel master that often comes like a thief in the night, stealing the person’s dignity and sense of worth, as the family bears untold suffering.
I don’t know what my uncle did to break his addiction; but I saw him do it. He changed his way of living and became a new person.
That is my solemn prayer this Lenten Season – for those who are addicted to be healed forever.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.