My mother was a classic “ex-Catholic”. I often joked that she had begun regularly attending my church mostly because this was as close as she would EVER get to being able to say, “My son, the Priest!” But over time, it became clear that she was a very earnest seeker. Over the three years or so leading up to her death, we had many conversations about faith, Jesus Christ and the nature of the universe. Mom’s issue was always first and foremost “The Problem of Pain”.
“Why would God allow your brother to suffer? Why would he even allow him to born like that?!”, she would earnestly ask about my profoundly retarded brother, Michael.
I came to realize that she didn’t need an answer. She didn’t even WANT one. She just needed the permission to be mad and hurt. I tried to give her that permission.
She began to develop an authentic relationship with Christ, but two things still stuck in her craw. 1) Communion. “No Roman Catholic Priest = no legit communion.” I told her, “No big deal. Do what feels right, but just give God credit.” 2) Baptism. She felt a draw to be baptized, but also felt it would be equivalent to shitting on the baptism she received as a baby. I never pushed the issue. In fact I only brought it up ONCE and for the first time as a question. But she came back to the topic a dozen times at least.
I always explained the ritual nature of the act, what it represented; that it was not “magic” and that it was really a fulfillment of what her parents had begun in her as a baby. But she never moved beyond discussing it, and I never felt a reason to push it.
Mom is at home now after triple by-pass surgery. Hospice has been enlisted. She will NOT undergo dialysis, or any other life-sustaining treatments – she is weak and tired, but honestly, I wonder if she isn’t going to hang on for a LONG time. I wonder if she hasn’t just shut-down. Her body could hang on like this for years, I suppose.
My brothers are all here. It’s surreal. The 5 of us had NEVER all been in the same place at the same time until one of us was dead. Now the 4 of are here. I’m also glad I’m not alone to look after Mom and Dad.
God, I’m flat. I’m deflated. I pulled over on my way home from Mom and Dad’s last night and wailed like a Lebanese widow for about 30 seconds….then it stopped. It just ended.
Yesterday afternoon, Mom was agitated, and I prayed with her and began reading some scripture. She began to settle down a little and she brought up baptism again. I went into one of my stock dissertations about it (she’s heard all of them) but this time, with her own death looming, she decided she could do it. The ex-Catholic in her has always had the last word in other discussions about baptism, and that word has always been: “idunno…”
I’ve always made it clear to her that baptism is not anymore magical than a wedding ceremony. It’s not that it has no value (it has great value) but it is simply an outward expression of an inward reality. And she had professed her faith in Jesus some years ago.
The last thing in the world I want her to experience is some kind of coercion, so
I hesitated, and asked her again, “Are you sure, Mom?” She said she was sure. She expressed only some hesitation about it happening right there in her bed…with “just me”….so I asked if having Rick there would make a difference for her. “Yes”, she said.
So I called Rick. He was there in 15 minutes.
I stood on the right side of her bed, and Rick on her left. We elevated the head of her bed, and then I got down on one knee, and let her wrap her arms around my neck. I put my arms around her, and gently lifted her upper body to a sitting position. I kept my head down low – below her head so that the water could be poured over her. In doing so, I found the only place to put my head was upon her breast.
There we were, holding each other. To a viewer, it might have looked as if my aged mother was holding me like an oversized, gray haired, toddler who needed comforting. And there is some truth to that. But the reality is that I was holding her up. My little, 120 lbs, dying Mother, clinging to me.
Rick asked her to tilt her head back. She did. Then he asked her to open her eyes so he could see her. She did.
I wish I could have seen her face.
“Chere”, he asked, “Have you received Jesus Christ as the forgiver of your sins?”
“Oh yes!”, she responded.
I closed my eyes tightly and was transported back by the sound of her voice reverberating through her recently ravaged chest. I remembered being in almost this EXACT position as a child – only I was sitting in her lap….now I am holding her up. But her voice somehow sounded the same. The rhythm of her breathing eminently familiar.
“…and Chere, is it your desire that Jesus Christ would be the leader of your life, your Lord and your Master?”
“Oh YES!”, I heard her breathe with surprising passion.
At those words I inhaled deeply, some kind of relief or something like it came over me, and in doing so, I caught a familiar fragrance. It was “her” fragrance. I am always amazed at the power of a smell to stir memories. She smells just the same, somehow. It’s been over 35 years since she’s held me like this – every possible circumstance that should dictate how she smells has changed, and yet – I am overwhelmed by the gentle, comforting fragrance that lingers on her skin.
“Chere, upon your confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ….”
My legs and my back were just beginning to complain under the strain of holding her up, but it’s minor, and so I close my eyes tightly and let the words roll down from Rick’s mouth over Chere’s up-turned face and on to me:
”I now baptize you in the name of the Father….”
She squeezes me tighter….
“…and of the Son”…
I steady her as she leans her head even farther back…
“…and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”
The words are gone but are instantly replaced by cool water splashing on the back of my head, spattering my face, and running down my hands which were pressed firmly into her back.
“Ahhhhh!”, she exhales. Through my tightly closed eyes I imagine the smile on her up-turned face, and I take one last deep breath, savoring her fragrance. Then I lay her back down on her death bed.