The ashes that mark our foreheads on Ash Wednesday only last for a day, but the ashes on our hearts are meant to endure for the entire 40 days of Lent. The ashes are drawn on us as a sign of repentance, of our yearning for God’s forgiveness, of our intent to live our faith more truly in the face of our mortality.

The black cross of ashes is especially real when one is mindful of the death of a loved one, as I was this year, when Ash Wednesday coincided with the first anniversary of my mother’s death. The mother I knew had really departed a few years before her physical death: By the time she died, she was not cognizant of anyone or anything. As I walked forward this year to receive the ashes on my forehead, I suddenly remembered another Ash Wednesday, years ago. On that day, my mother was still able to get around with some help, and she called my sister on the phone, insisting that she be taken to church to get her ashes. Although we aren’t supposed to speak ill of the dead, my mother was a difficult woman, devout only when it suited her. She had neither gotten ashes nor attended Mass in years. My poor sister, in the middle of a busy day with young children, knew that this was another of our mother’s attempted manipulations to get one of us to drop everything and do her bidding: This was the same woman who sat in her gentleman friend’s car every Sunday outside the church while her caregiver attended Mass.

Neither one of us had taken her for ashes that year.

So as I received the ashes on my forehead this year as a sign of repentance, and as the priest intoned, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I understood my great need for forgiveness. Because even in my memories, I was guilty of ignoring my mother’s demands, and of judging her intentions.

On this Ash Wednesday, I had taken off work in order to spend the day with my younger sister. We were going to the cemetery later to remember our mother together, and to put flowers on her grave. I went for ashes in the old neighborhood, at the parish of my teenage years, where my younger siblings had made their First Communion, where my folks had renewed their wedding vows on their 50th anniversary. After Mass, I passed my old high school, and the exact spot on the street where I’d gotten my first parking ticket. And Earl’s Donuts, where the hot ones came out of the oven around 2 a.m. And our old street — gated, so I was no longer permitted to drive through — where my family had lived and I’d thought my parents were ancient when they were in their forties.

Ashes on my forehead as a sign of repentance.

My grief at my dad’s death, seven years ago, was guilt-free. I’d loved him to his last second, and done everything I could for his care. My dad lived his life with joy, and I miss him fiercely and purely. My grief at my mother’s passing, in contrast, elicits a mix of guilt, regret, confusion, confession, for all the times I wished she would finally get it, would acknowledge and be grateful for her many blessings, would accept herself and us as we were, would love us back without condition.

Ashes on my forehead as a sign of repentance.

Losing a parent is hard, and mourning a parent with whom you know you could have been more patient and loving when she was alive is harder still. My mother was sick for a long time, and she was not saintly about suffering. I was often irritated with her behavior. I wanted her to be someone else. I understand now that it was my job to accept her just as she was, and I didn’t. I wore the ashes this year with an awareness of my shortcomings as a daughter, a pain that sits on my heart now in the form of ashes. Lent is for starting over, but some things can’t be redone. I can only pray that repentance brings forgiveness from the God who loves us hugely in spite of our sins.

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