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Thursday, March 13, 2003
By Paul Ford
A trip to Baltimore to see my brother.
In a much-edited form, this piece was originally broadcast by NPR on the 13 March 2003 edition of NPR's All Things Considered. It can be heard on their web site via RealAudio or Windows Media Player (the link is about halfway down the page).
Errata: in the first paragraph of this piece, I indicate that my mother ate shrimp. I have been informed that she did not, at that time, actually consume any shrimp. I apologize for the error.
Every few months, my mother and I meet for dinner in Trenton, New Jersey, halfway between her home outside of Philadelphia and mine in Brooklyn. During one February meal she looked down at her shrimp and said, “Paul, I have some sad news. It's about your brother.”
Greg has twelve years on me, and he lives near Baltimore with his wife and three kids. I braced myself for news of illness. My mother took a long breath. She said “your brother is going to become a Catholic.”
A Catholic. We were raised as strict Presbyterians, sitting every Sunday in long pews darkened by varnish and oil soap, paging through our red letter editions of the Revised Standard Version, going on hayrides with the youth group, singing “Nearer my God to Thee.” My brother had kept the faith. He'd even become a deacon at his church in Baltimore. Until this.
On my mother's face was a look of anguish. She said, “I'm having such trouble with it. When I think of all Martin Luther went through to establish Protestantism, it makes me so sad. It's a step backwards.”
A month later my brother was in New York for a meeting. We walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, and looked out into the harbor. He told me he was converting.
“Mom's taking it hard,” he said. “It took me almost a year to tell her.”
“She'll survive.” I repeated the line about Martin Luther. “I mean, you're married to a Catholic. It's not a surprise.”
“It's my own decision.”
“When do you do it?” I asked.
“On Easter vigil,” he said. “Full immersion.”
“All the way under, huh?”
“I've been meeting with Father Michael for months. It's what's right for me. Poor Mom.” Below us ships moved in the harbor. “What about you?” he asked.
I told him I was an atheist.
“You don't believe in anything?”
No, I didn't.
“You're welcome to come down to Baltimore. It would be great to have you.”
My brother was in college by the time I was 6, and then in the Navy. When I was 12 he took me to his aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson. I was awed by the jets, the endless levels of cabins and control rooms, the wide-screen TV in the officer's lounge. I was just as awed by my brother, 6 foot 2, in his uniform.
The next year my family went nova. My parents divorced, and our lives scattered. We converged at Christmas or at funerals, but each of us, mother, father, brother, and I, took on separate lives.
My brother, 3000 miles away, became a distant voice, an occasional ping on the radar, and then he moved back east, living near his wife's parents. He became a father three times over, a deacon at the Presbyterian church, a human resources executive for a defense contractor. In that same time, I became a conscientious objector, a socialist and atheist with no interest in settling down, no steady girlfriend, living in a tiny apartment, drifting between Internet jobs.
Two days before Easter. Tomorrow night, Greg will be brought into the mysteries of the mother church, soaked in holy water to emerge a Catholic, our shared Presbyterian past washed away. I did not want to witness this. I was busy and tired, and against organized religion. And yet his gentle invitation to the baptism echoed in the room.
I sat on the edge of my bed, listing every reason not to go, sidestepping and hedging, until finally a stern inner voice said, “for God's sake, he's your brother. He asked. You will go.” I called my mother and asked her to pick me up in Trenton so that we could drive down together.
She met me at the station. “I think it will make him happy,” she said. “It's good for him. I've been thinking about it. I like the respect for the Virgin Mary. It's good to have a woman up there.”
The sanctuary was filled with families. A half-dozen priests sat behind the pulpit. Statues of saints watched over us all. The soon-to-be-Catholics, about a dozen of them, sat in the front pews, dressed in loose white surplices.
We sang, and lit candles. I read along with the liturgy. The newspapers were filled with priests abusing children. A priest said, “The church is strong. We have lasted 2000 years. We will get through this.” Then he asked the supplicants to come forward and asked for their oath.
My brother was fifth. He rose, taller and bigger than any of the other devotees, and then he knelt. The sound of splashing carried through the sanctuary, amplified by the priest's clip-on microphone. A long few seconds later, Greg rose from the water a member of the body of Christ, and was anointed with chrism, a mixture of olive oil and balsam blessed by bishops on Holy Thursday. He was taken away to change into dry clothing. As I watched, the wax from my candle dripped onto my thumb.
When the service was over there was a reception in the basement. We ate swedish meatballs in white sauce and cake with white frosting. No one spoke about the mysteries upstairs. We discussed babies, friends, and jobs. In time we went up to the parking lot.
My brother and I stood next to his minivan, his wife and children already buckled in and waiting. We both have 54-inch shoulders. Not many arms can go around me as easily as his. He held me for a moment and said, “I'm so glad you came down, Paul.” When we broke the embrace, his eyes were pooling.
I congratulated him.
“Dad sent me a nice card,” he said.
His face, nearly a mirror of my own, glowed with faith, with accomplishment. Looking into it I solved, suddenly, the riddle of why I'd felt so compelled to come to Baltimore.
My brother had traveled the earth in thousand-league boots. He had piloted a nuclear aircraft carrier off the coast of Africa. I had spent a lifetime in search of his praise, his approval. But here he was asking for my support, for my blessing. He was treating me as an equal. To have asked me to Baltimore was an act of respect. I hadn't understood, at first. I felt he was rubbing it in our faces, his new identity.
The baptism was a cleansing of the soul, but it did not wash away the past. Greg was not abandoning us to some new life of wine and wafers, not engaging in spiritual escapism, but finding some new section of soul, saying, here I am, I must do this, I have no choice if I am honest. But I continue to be a son, father, husband, brother.
Of course, I thought, you can have all of my support. If you needed me to give you my skin, my lungs, my heart, to hand you the keys to my life, all of it. Whatever angels call you, go! Godspeed, Gregory Ford! I believe in nothing in heaven, but on earth, in this parking lot, I have faith in you.