“The baby is already dead. But baptism is important to the mother. She doesn’t care that you’re not Catholic. Could you please come now and baptize the baby?”
“I’ll be right there.” I gathered up the baptism essentials from the office cabinet: battery operated tea lights, shells and decorative gauze pouches. How to carry these things? Nothing around except a white paper bag. I looked like I was delivering a hamburger and fries.
It turns out that the baby girl was born at 27 weeks with serious abnormalities—too serious to live. But when I arrived at the patient’s room, the nurse stopped me. “The baby still has a heartbeat,” she said.
Perhaps she was waiting.
The young mother, who I’ll call Olga, was sitting up in bed. She was holding a teeny tiny baby wearing an enormous frothy white gown. She looked like a sesame seed on a cappuccino. Gathered around the bed were Olga’s mother and sister. I introduced myself and asked the baby’s name. “Tatiana,” Olga said.
“Is there a story to her name? Someone in your family?”
“No, just a name I like.”
I nodded and then realized I hadn’t quite thought through everything. The nurse saw me desperately looking around, quickly left and returned with a little soup bowl filled with water.
This was an emergency baptism so that meant no statement about raising the child, no introduction of the godparents, no dipping my hand into a beautiful baptismal font, no chuckling at the baby’s reaction, no joyful parading the infant through the crowd.
No laughter, just tears.
I explained to Olga that as part of the ritual I would ask her the baby’s name even though I knew it was Tatiana. Then I took out the battery powered candles. I softly said, “I’ll be very careful lighting these candles because we don’t want to start a fire.” Then I flicked the switch on the bottom of the candle and they all smiled.
I handed everyone a candle but since Olga was holding the baby, where to put hers? I said, “Well, I’ll just put it down here.” And I put the candle down on her bed.
She jumped and said, “Careful! The blanket might catch fire!”
I gasped and instinctively snatched the candle off the bed. Shocked and horrified at my own carelessness, I looked up at Olga who had a huge grin on her face. A joke. She was making a joke. And without thinking I blurted out, “Oh, you booger!”
Then everyone really laughed, even Olga’s mother who spoke no English, because it was clear the joke was on me. I was wrong about no laughter. I forgot that laughter and tears often go together and that joy and sorrow always do. How could we have one without the other? I forgot that life includes death and that we cannot separate them.
I also forgot that it is not customary for the officiant to call the mother a “booger.”
The laughter died down and I said, “Let’s pray.” I gave thanks for Tatiana; for all the love surrounding her and for her mother’s gift of faith.
When I said, “Amen,” Olga looked up at me, her eyes filled with tears.
“By what name shall this child be called?”
And I dipped my fingers in the soup bowl of water and touched them to her head. Her hair was so delicate, it was as if I was touching a fine suede. “Tatiana, I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” She did not react to the water dripping on her tiny head. I said a closing prayer asking that Tatiana would have a safe journey back to God.
I reached into the white paper bag and pulled out the scallop shells. I put each one in a colorful gauze pouch. “This is for you to remember this moment. The scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrim so let this represent Tatiana’s pilgrimage back to God.” I turned to Olga. “And your journey back to health and to your home.”
They thanked me for the shells and then we all stood silently looking at the baby until Olga looked up at me and said, “Thank you for coming.”
“It was an honor,” I said. “Please keep the candles—but of course be very careful.” We all looked at one another and smiled.
Tatiana died 10 minutes later.