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Lenten angels waiting at the DMV

| Friday, March 3, 2017

Two days into another fast-paced twenty-first century Lenten season, many Catholics, like this writer, not only have thus far failed to prepare for the Lenten observation, but also have yet to groom their souls to become more spiritual. Since Francis was elected pope, the Catholic flock has been directed to be less judgmental based on orthodox dogma in secular political squabbles while perfecting their hearts and internal motives. Francis has consistently suggested during Lent that the faithful shed the stale, rigidly rote abstention from chocolate, alcohol or television that satisfies only us and sacrifice in a way that creates an inner awareness, which eliminates indifference towards others. For example, he admonishes us for justifying our indifference by denying a handout to the homeless based on where that money will be spent. Overall, the pope asks us to become angels amid our neighbors throughout Lent.

Ash Wednesday — coincidentally the month’s first day this year — afforded itself the monthly overlapping of motor vehicle deadlines. For those of us last-minute lambs forced to sit two hours in an overheated room with an overflow crowd at the DMV to render applications, identification proof and money orders to satisfy Caesar, Lent had arrived like the proverbial March lion. Luckily for me, a neighbor — an acquaintance of a handful of times while my condominium board worked with his on a neighborhood issue — sat in the front row next to an open seat. I had struck upon a fortunate opportunity to pass time. In reality, I sat next to the first of two spiritually awakening lessons of the day.

This neighbor is an attorney in both New York and Washington, D.C. His 23-year-old daughter, his youngest child, spent last summer in Haiti working on a community service project. She was his family’s free spirit who arrived in Haiti to help change the world. Rather, he said, the Haitian people changed her. At a school for girls, his daughter noticed that each child practically inhaled their meager lunch ration of food, except for one girl who clutched onto her bread nicely wrapped in paper. When asked through an interpreter why the girl had not even nibbled on her lunch portion, she answered, “It’s not my turn today.”

In February, my neighbor’s daughter returned to the Caribbean to volunteer with another program. She had ventured alone away from her group on a water taxi to a close-by island, where she explored a small coastal town. In an effort not to miss the return water taxi, down a 10-minute safe walkway, she veered off onto the shortcut. Authorities believe that during a botched robbery attempt, she either slipped or was pushed and hit her head on a rock. She was then strangled. Her body was found the following morning.

As my neighbor spoke, he gazed through me, obviously hurt and numb. He spoke of his frantic calls to State Department friends when she was first reported missing. He recalled making arrangements to return her body to New York. After his number had been called, he ended with a shrug of his shoulders as he rose.

Next, a grimacing tall, thin man climbed off a small motorized cart and sat in my neighbor’s seat. At first glance, I thought of the wheelchair commercial theme-song lyrics: “Hoveround takes me where I want to go.” How ironic it was that he needed to travel to the DMV. I learned that his grandfather died at age 98 but was the White House chef for Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. My new waiting room pal recalled opening the cabinets in the Truman kitchen as a child. Then, he mentioned that he wore a prosthetic leg. As we joked about the heat, the crowd and the wait, he told me he was a casualty of the 9/11 Pentagon attack. Everything in his life had changed for the worse on that day.

My new acquaintance was with a television production crew located in the parking lot a mere 20 yards from the Pentagon. His multiple police, Secret Service and fire department radio monitors had burst with incessant chatter as the plane approached. He remembers a huge shadow over him and revving-engine sounds before all went dark. Awakening, he was covered with jet fuel and suffered a broken foot. Since the hospitals were overcrowded, he waited three days before seeking medical attention and developed an infection that forced the doctors to amputate his lower leg.

Since 2001, he developed diabetes, survived two strokes and was given Last Rights twice. He confessed that he did not know why he still lived. In an effort to cheer him, I relayed the story of my father’s diabetic cousin, Mary, who survived sampling dozens of my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary cookies after asking if each cookie she sampled contained sugar. Yes, they all did, Mary! We laughed again after he spoke of his service as a D.C. policeman, and we both knew his childhood friend and fellow homicide detective, Ted. Then, my number was announced, so I bid him farewell — both of us sporting broad smiles.

Pope Francis asks us not to show indifference to our neighbors, and sometimes angels sit at the DMV just to prove the pope’s point.


Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73 American Studies major, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him on Twitter: @GaryJCaruso or e-mail: [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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