Today at church was the Sunday we remember Jesus’ baptism, and a couple had their baby daughter baptized. She was a tiny thing with a velvety head, swimming in layer upon layer of lace on her gown.
I stood and watched her be baptized, with one hand resting Tre’s shoulder. Clay held Raphael and Max stood in front of us, craning to see the action. I tried to focus on the service, I tried not to remember, I tried to stay in today, but I just couldn’t.
Raphael was baptized on this Sunday, four years ago.
I can’t attend a baptism anymore without being there again.
You know how it’s said there is a Muslim law that allows a man to divorce his wife by saying three times, “I divorce you”? It seems to me that my ex divorced me like that, with three occasions that screamed in my face that he was gone. The first would have been that moment, outside his girlfriend’s apartment, when I yanked my wedding ring off my finger and threw it at him. He let it fall to the ground without a thought, and I can still hear the ping of metal against concrete.
The second event was Raphael’s baptism.
He was six months old, and I had been separated from his dad for two months. I wasn’t sure if my ex would show up for the service or not. He hadn’t met with the priest beforehand, even though Fr. Praveen had offered to drive out to his work or to meet him at a restaurant after he got off work. He avoided meeting him and avoided it until it was just too late. I wondered if Fr. Praveen was going to tell him he couldn’t be there, couldn’t present his son for baptism, but he didn’t.
He should have.
Not because my ex didn’t deserve to be there, but because he really, really didn’t want to. He did show up, late. He shuffled into the back of the church and I almost didn’t recognize him. He wore a black leather jacket, and jeans with a fringe of torn strings hanging over his shoes. His head was shaved, and he looked gaunt and grey. The moment arrived to present our son, and I moved to the front of the church. Tre and Max shadowed me, and in my arms Raphael was silent and content, looking like an angel in his christening coat. I nodded curtly at my ex, and he hurried up to join us. Max’s face lit up at the sight of him, and he rushed over and climbed up in his arms. I turned away, but I couldn’t help but compare this raw, sad man to the proud father he’d been. He’d worn a suit when Tre and Max were baptized. He’d smiled delightedly and taken a hundred pictures. Now he couldn’t even make eye contact.
I stood there before the same alter we’d knelt before a thousand times, during the days we were a unit, two parts of a whole. Now, standing there with everything the same except us, I could almost feel the break. Fissures snaking between us, broken shards splintering and falling.
When you present your infant for baptism, you make promises. I wondered if he could say them, if he could promise these things.
“Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?”
“I will, with God’s help,” I replied shakily. He muttered a few of the words, then trailed off into silence.
“Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”
“I will, with God’s help.”
We went on with the service, renouncing evil, promising to turn to God. We repeated our own baptismal covenant and recited the core beliefs of our faith. My ex stood back a little, and I could hear him whispering some of the words, but mostly mouthing them in silence. He couldn’t say any of it in good conscience, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to disbelieve confidently enough to lie. It felt like standing next to a cloud, and I felt myself drawing back from him, pulling Raphael to me protectively. I felt a rare moment of anger, and wished he’d stayed away. Be gone, then, I thought. If you’re going, be gone.
Fr. Praveen asked, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?”
“I will, with God’s help.”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
I replied, “I will, with God’s help.”
And I broke inside.
Turning from my husband, turning to God, Who turned me back to seeking Christ in all persons, even him. Love him? Respect him? In return for contempt? Let him go and I held him gently, all at once.
I handed over my son to Fr. Praveen and thought about how God sees us. All of us as helpless and dear as this son of mine. I thought of how God must ache for this man, His child, to choose light he once knew.
I cannot attend a baptism now without remembering what it felt like to be there, feeling the weight of that kind of love.
I have always cried at baptisms, but now I stand, dry-eyed and somber, and remember. Today I put my head on Clay’s shoulder and thought of how far removed I am from that day, how changed by it I am still.
I do, with God’s help.