Red Cross Ash Wednesday

At first it was going to be his Valentine’s Day gift.

The Red Cross CPR/First Aid skill course I was taking required an in-person skill session, and I signed up for Feb. 14. It seemed fitting. I could write in my son’s Valentine card:

To Paul, the best gift I can give you: preparation for anything.

Or maybe:

You keep my heart beating; you’re my CPR.

Or the truth:

I would die inside if you choked on a grape or drowned or bled out while I stood by helplessly.

But there was a work conflict. I rescheduled to Feb. 22 and wrote something more conventional on my kid’s Valentine’s Day card. Like, “I love you.”

As it turns out, the schedule change shifted my in-person CPR training from Valentine’s Day, which I thought would be cute, to Ash Wednesday, which is truly meaningful when I think about it.

Instead of kneeling in a church with other believers, I sat on the floor of a bright conference room with other first-responders-in-training to practice chest compressions on a dummy. Instead of a grey cross made of charred palms imposed on my forehead, I received a certificate with a red cross in my email.

And I realized that the day Christians remember our mortality resonates with learning how to sustain a life.

Thirty chest compressions, two full breathes: you learn it by rote in the training. This combination will keep alive a person whose heart has stopped, flooding their brain and other organs with oxygen-rich blood when their own body has given out.

The training videos showed a red stream flowing from the clasped hands of the first responder through the victim’s neck and head – a very helpful visual. My mom, a physician assistant, told me you can actually see a person’s face flush when CPR starts.

I think it’s amazing. This manual process can extend someone’s life long enough for advanced care to arrive and work even more sophisticated magic.

Also amazing: simple pressure (a lot of it) can stop life-threatening bleeding, and a combination of back blows and abdominal thrusts can actually dislodge an object blocking someone’s airway, which is almost as amazing as the fact that someone can die from a bite of shrimp scampi.

I don’t like to imagine my baby in mortal danger, but I can’t help it. Maybe that vigilance (I hope it’s natural) helps me, as a parent, prepare.

For what?

The worst that could happen, and hopefully never will. Never lasts longer than people, though. I can’t bring myself to type the next sentence, so I won’t.

I’ll just tell you about a photo in the lobby at church that gave me pause a few weeks ago: a young boy, not much older than mine, receiving an ash cross on his forehead.

From dust you came, from dust you will return.

“Our church has a special Ash Wednesday service for children?!” my husband said.

“Wow, I’ll take Paul,” I said.

Only I couldn’t: I had Red Cross CPR training.

Two full breathes; thirty chest compressions at a rate of two per second, the beat of “Stayin’ Alive.” They beat it into you, the Red Cross does, and for good reason. Repetition keeps the knowledge alive in your head and, more importantly, in your body. I was a lifeguard through high school and college, and during this week’s training, even though it’s been years, I could feel the repetition reawakening in me the correct positions, the good habits, the common sense logic that I hope will be there for me if I need to use them.

(I’ve also forgotten plenty – please, no one choke near me until I can practice back blows and chest trusts several times.)

The repetition also gave space for a deeper reality to emerge: the membranes between life and death are thin. A layer of soft tissue. A few drops of a poison. A split-second connection with a hard/hot/heavy/sharp/etc object. A minute without oxygen.

I told an untruth earlier. My early-afternoon Red Cross training didn’t prevent me from taking my son to a 4:30 p.m. children’s Ash Wednesday service. It was a 5:15 p.m. yoga class, my husband’s Valentine’s gift to me, that did.

Instead of gathering in the sanctuary with other parents and their kids to acknowledge the fleeting nature of all our lives, I relaxed into child’s pose on a rubber mat amidst 27 sweaty strangers.

Exhale, forward fold.

It was my first yoga class in four years, but I could feel the old practice coming back. At the teacher’s prompting, I stretched, held, balanced and chaturangaed my way into an epiphany: This is my body. It’s working. I’m breathing, my heart is beating. Dozens of organs are doing their thing. This is, at this moment in time, me.

Inhale, mountain pose.

Yoga: in some ways it’s the opposite of Ash Wednesday, keeping the awareness on this one breath I’m taking at this moment instead of acknowledging the end of not only my breathe but my awareness in the world as I know it – with the wild hope, which I hold, that this isn’t all there is. That breath isn’t all there is.

Still, if my kid chokes on a grape – which he won’t because I vigilantly cut each one in half before he can grab them – I will be ready to kneel beside him, wrap my right arm around his left shoulder, and dislodge the object with five hard blows between the shoulder blades. If I practice on his stuffed animals a few dozen times.

And I’m going to pray during Lent (the season we live in the shadow of this realization of mortality) that my child comes to grasp the same hope in Christ that I do, igniting a small flame that will stay with him all his life.


  1. Bridget on March 24, 2023 at 9:50 am

    thoughtful and lovely, Kate

  2. Raymond Shuster on April 29, 2023 at 6:46 am

    Thankful tears.

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