I wore my suit again. It’s been almost a year since I last put it on. I don’t like to brag, but you know what? I clean up pretty nicely.
The occasion was the baptism of my daughter. She turned eight last month and according to the rules of Mormonism, that’s the age of accountability, the age at which a person is finally old enough to make a significant life choice about whether to follow Christ or not. Never mind that an eight-year-old who was raised in the church has no ability to decide for herself what is true. Never mind that 100% of children born to an LDS family are baptized upon reaching age eight if the family is still active. Never mind all that. This was my daughter, and though I disagree with the practice, I support my daughter. I want her to know that I love her. An event that is important to her, then, is important to me.
I shaved. I put my suit on. I drove to the stake center. I knew what to expect.
I didn’t expect what happened next, though.
I expected that the Mormons present would be uncomfortable around me. I am an apostate, after all. I rejected the sacred tenets of the one true religion, and forsook my eternal salvation. Why would I do such a thing? Either because Satan deceived me, or because I was too caught up in sin to be able to choose to follow the truth. Those are the only two possibilities. So how could they not be uncomfortable around me? How do you relate to someone who follows Satan?
I didn’t expect, though, that they would have no clue what to say to me. Most of the people there were my family and my ex-wife’s family. Her family didn’t even try to approach me. They avoided me until after the service was over. Two of my brothers showed up, but they both came in late, of course, so I didn’t get to speak to them until afterward as well. But there were a handful of members from our ward. These were people I had worked with in the previous years in my role as counselor in the bishopric. I walked up to each of them, shook their hands, smiled, and asked them how they were doing, telling them it was good to see them again after so long. And that’s as much conversation as I had with any of them. I expected them to look at me with wary eyes. I expected them to have judgmental thoughts about me when they found themselves in front of me. I didn’t expect them to be so withdrawn. I didn’t expect them to look for excuses not to continue talking with me.
I expected that there would be prayers and talks. That’s the way a baptismal service works. You start out with a song and a prayer, and then you get to listen to two talks, one about baptism and one about the Holy Ghost. I expected that I would disagree with the content of those talks.
I didn’t expect that I would have an almost irrepressible urge to stand up and tell my daughter the truth. Since my daughter was the only one being baptized in the service, the speakers talked directly to her. With earnest faces and sincere voices, they told her lies about the way the world works. I expected the lies. I didn’t expect that I’d be so upset by them. How could they do that to this sweet little girl?
And did I used to support this? Did I used to think this was normal? Did I used to encourage people to say these things to little children? I didn’t expect that I’d look at it so differently.
I expected that my son, who had just turned sixteen, would baptize my daughter. That was the plan from well over a year ago when I first left the church. I expected to be proud of him.
I didn’t expect to feel jealous. I didn’t expect to wish I were in the baptismal font with my daughter, that I were helping her arrange her hands before the prayer so that she could plug her nose just before the dunk. I didn’t expect to feel sad that I wasn’t the one saying the baptismal prayer, or looking into her face as I pulled her out of the water. I didn’t expect to miss that part.
And perhaps most of all, I didn’t expect to feel unworthy as she was confirmed a member of the church. I didn’t expect wanting to shrink in my chair as her uncle and the bishop were the only two people to lay their hands on her head to give her the gift of the Holy Ghost. I didn’t expect to feel jealous of my brother-in-law pronouncing a blessing over her, nor to feel dissatisfied with his words, knowing that as her father, I could have done a much better job.
All of that is meaningless to me now, right? The baptism. The confirmation. The Holy Ghost. The blessing. Yet I wanted to be the one doing it for her. I wanted to pronounce words over her, invoking the power of god in her behalf. I wanted to utter words that would help ensure her life would be happy, that she would be watched over by a divine power, that she would find happiness, that she would be true to herself and her values, that she would know where to find peace and safety. I wanted to bless her.
I didn’t expect that.
Just after the service ended, I noticed that the bishop was eying me. I walked over to him and shook his hand. He spoke first. “Thank you for coming,” he said.
Thank you for coming? Like I was doing a favor for him by attending my own daughter’s baptism? I almost laughed. I replied, “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” But afterward I realized what that meant. He wasn’t sincere. They were just words. He wasn’t really thanking me for coming. He just didn’t know what to say. He saw me walking up to him, and he didn’t know what to say, and so he just said the first thing that came to his mind. “Thank you for coming.”
We went outside and had some refreshments on the picnic tables under the pavilion. It was a beautiful late-summer day. The family of my ex-wife huddled together just outside the pavilion. I went up and talked to them. They mostly tried to ignore me. I thanked my brother-in-law for giving my daughter a blessing. We talked for a bit about work. I was recently laid off. He was recently told that he’d be laid off at the end of December. We are both in the same line of work. We talked for a bit about job prospects.
I talked to my nephew. (Do nephews become ex-nephews after a divorce?) He seemed a bit uncomfortable around me. But he wasn’t rude. He excused himself and left.
I talked to a ward member who works for a company I probably wouldn’t mind working for. He was pleasant and kind to me.
And that was pretty much it. I didn’t talk to anybody else. Even though people hadn’t seen me for a long time, nobody else was interested enough to come talk to me. I don’t mind. I expected that.
When the party was winding down, my ex-wife talked to me. She told me that she had met a guy who looked like he could be a decent prospect for her, but she had met him through a dating website and he lived in Utah. She wanted to know if I would object if she moved the children to Utah if things worked out between her and this guy.
I didn’t know what else to say except that it was her life and I didn’t feel it was my place to interfere. If Utah was where she needed to be, who was I to say she couldn’t go? She told me that she was asking now because things weren’t serious between them yet and she didn’t want to get involved and like him and only later have me complain about her taking the children away from me. I told her that we could deal with it. The city in Utah she might end up in is only about a six hour drive away. There is modern technology such as FaceTime. Long distance is pretty much free these days. I was sure we could work it out.
But I felt my heart sinking. I don’t really understand it. I feel like my heart is being torn in two. And it’s silly, because it’s not even a sure thing. But I feel in a way like I am losing my children and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I tried hard to be a good father. I tried to interact with my children. I tried to shelter them from the worst of the disagreements I had with their mother. I tried to make the divorce as painless as possible for them. I put their needs above my own when we decided upon custody issues. I’ve made a point of seeing them each week and interacting with each one of them individually.
And they could be gone. Yes, I was sincere about being able to work it out remotely. But it’s still a blow to think that she could just take them away.
There’s a part of me that thinks life would be so much more simple if I didn’t have children. If they would go to Utah and I wouldn’t have to worry about them anymore. If I could just focus on my own life and on my own needs, and let them live their lifestyle and their religion and not have the dilemma of trying to teach them about life without undermining their mother’s teachings. If I could say, essentially: “You guys go off and be Mormons, and let me be an atheist. You go live your lives, and let me live mine.” It seems the most logical. The easiest.
But my emotions are rebellious. I don’t know how to stop loving my children. I don’t know how to let them go. I don’t know how to not miss them. And even more than my own selfish desires, I can’t stand the thought of them growing up thinking that their father didn’t love them. That he could let them go. I was raised with a father who was emotionally absent. I have never understood him. Even though I struggled knowing how to be a father, I was never able to not love my children. And I would never want them to feel they aren’t loved.
I drove home feeling deflated. A little lost. Unsure. Sad. I hadn’t expected that.
So that was it. Baptism by immersion. Or by fire.