One afternoon near the end of my shift, I got a call from one of the nurses in the NICU about a couple requesting a baptism for their baby boy. Ideally baptisms should happen in a church where they can be shared with the whole church family. A baptism is a time of celebration and renewal for the congregation as well as for the person being baptized. But real life has no ideals, only truth. It would be foolish and callous to tell this couple how and where baptisms should happen.
A nurse led me into a partitioned corner of the NICU where a small gathering awaited me in silence. Present were the mother, the father, and the sister and the aunt of the mother. The baby was lying in a little hospital crib, swaddled tight.
The nurse had warned me before we entered that the baby had been born with severe deformities, most of which were covered by the blanket. All that could be seen was his face, which could only be described as an approximation of a face. It had two eyes, a mouth, and a nose, but it was clearly not what a face should be.
He would not live long. The faces present reflected this fact. The event was an approximation of a joyful event but clearly was not joyful.
The nurse introduced me, and they all nodded toward me. I said the necessary words of scripture and tradition. I prayed for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Water was sprinkled, the child’s name, José, was pronounced in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then I prayed for the baby and his family.
As I looked up at the mother, I saw something had changed. Her face was alive, her eyes were bright. The father smiled. The mother’s sister and aunt hugged each other. It was like watching sleepwalkers awaken. The family had become a family. There was connection.
The mother had said nothing during the baptism except for numb responses to my questions. But now she approached and spoke to me. “Pastor, I would very much like for you to visit me tomorrow. I need to talk.”
The next day I found her sitting with her baby in her lap. Her eyes were transfixed on him.
“How are you today?” I asked with concern.
“I’m doing much better.” She smiled.
“He’s keeping me and my husband together,” she said in an almost cheerful voice.
“Tell me more about that,” I answered, a bit disturbed.
“Well, we used to get into it a lot. Then we realized that every time we got into it, José would get worse. So now we don’t fight anymore.”
“You’re saying that your fighting makes your baby sick?”
“Yeah. It’s like he wants us to stay together.”
“When you say ‘he’ do you mean God or José?”
As I said this, her face darkened and she visibly winced, though she never broke her gaze with the face of her child. “I don’t really like to talk about God. It’s hard for me.”
“Can you tell me a little more about that?” I asked, very carefully.
“God has done a lot of bad things to me in my life.” Now there was a hint of anger in her voice.
Let me stop right here and say that it took all I had to not interrupt this poor woman and explain that God could not have done any bad things to her. I knew just enough to know that you cannot talk anyone out of a particular view of God in the midst of trauma, nor should you.
“I know this might be difficult, and I’d understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but will you tell me more?”
She continued to stare into her baby’s eyes. “When I was eight, my uncle molested me. When I tried to tell my mother, she punished me for making up lies about her brother. When I turned fifteen, my quinceañera, he made sexual comments to me. I knew it was no good to tell my mother. When I was seventeen, I got pregnant. My mother kicked me out of the house. I got arrested for drugs, and I went to prison, where I had my first baby. The state took him away. God’s done a lot of bad things to me.”
I was silent and stunned. I was angry with her uncle and her mother. I wanted to call the police and see those two behind bars.
“Are you mad at God for what has happened to you?”
“Yes,” she stated boldly, as if lightening might strike but she did not care. “Because God does everything that happens. He tests us. I know that he never gives anybody more than they can handle, but I feel like he gave me more than I could take.” She paused and gazed even more deeply into José’s eyes, and a smile appeared on her face. “Lately, though, I am changing a little about God.”
“How so?” I sat as still as I could so that she would continue to talk.
“God did not have to give me any time at all with José. God could have taken José whenever he wanted, but he has given me time with my baby.”
After she said these words, she kissed his face, a face only a mother could love, but, oh, how she loved him! It was the most beautiful picture I have ever seen. Love filled her face and poured out upon her son, who was perfected in her eyes. If I were an artist, I would have painted this Holy Mother and Child. I wish you could see it. I still can.
No, this was not the ideal. This was not how life should happen, but it happened.
I asked her if I might give thanks for this precious moment. She nodded, still smiling at her boy, her joy, her salvation. I prayed.