Baptism

When I was eight, Dad staggered into the baptismal font wearing white slacks, a white shirt and a white tie. The font sat deep in the floor. Family and members of our Mormon congregation were on folding chairs watching from above.  Dad was lean with square-shaped glasses and hair the color of dark earth. He placed his palm against the blue wall tile to keep his balance, fingers arched, legs unsteady as he slogged into the water. His smile lazy; eyes glossy. Dad stumbled and I leaned toward him making it look playful so the people watching wouldn’t know. And perhaps, naively, I assumed they didn’t know that he was high on painkillers; that they hadn’t noticed Dad veering off the road as he drove me to sporting events, or how he occasionally mumbled incoherently.  I gripped his left forearm and bicep and he raised his right hand to a square. I held him tight and thought about how he sometimes became dizzy and fell. Perhaps I could catch him and give him time to regain his balance.

His habit started legitimately but by the time of my baptism had become recreational. Years earlier surgeons carved open his abdomen and removed a section of stomach the size of a walnut. A scar traced from his sternum to his belly button. It was pink, crude, and bubbled like the beads in an arc-weld. He took oxytocins, oxandrolones, codeine, and in a prickly haze Dad found himself addicted. Mormons follow the Word of Wisdom, a revelation given to Joseph Smith advising members to abstain from alcoholic beverages but it doesn’t say anything about prescription drugs. He could take as many as he wanted, provided a doctor prescribed them. He went to sacrament meetings high on Lortabs and attended sessions at the Mormon temple high on Xanax. I often wondered if he mistook the numbing effect of opiates with God’s comforting spirit. And I questioned the morality of his addiction and wondered if Dad performing my baptism while intoxicated would make it void.

 Dad thrust me beneath the water and I was fearful that he would leave me to drown under the surface of my sins.  And he did leave me under the water for what seemed like longer than necessary before he shifted his legs to bring me up. I took in a deep breath and smiled.

He leaned on my shoulder, casually bracing himself, as we exited the font. We showered off the chlorine in the church’s locker room and Dad fell asleep half dressed on the floor. I tried to wake him, but he would not stir. A girl in our congregation was baptized on the same day and her father left the showers before Dad fell asleep. He didn’t look right, alone, and half naked on the tile. I feared the girl’s father would return and see what Dad was doing so I tucked myself beneath his arm and attempted to sleep next to him, but I couldn’t sleep with the cold tile pressing against my naked arms and Dad’s sloppy breath. But I stayed, protecting him. If someone entered they would think his slumber was normal because there were two of us. He didn’t sleep long, only about twenty minutes. His body jerked awake, he inhaled, and asked why we were on the floor. I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to explain that we were on that tile together so he wouldn’t look foolish.

 I didn’t want to explain to people why his hands shook sometimes, he slurred his speech, forgot how to use a telephone, and stumbled on flat ground. So I tried to do what he did, so it would look normal. I stumbled and shook with him and if he fell asleep on the floor, I slept next to him.

 

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  • Kara Garbe

    Hey, this is beautiful, Clint. I especially love: "Dad thrust me beneath the water and I was fearful that he would leave me to drown under the surface of my sins."

    I also liked: "And I questioned the morality of his addiction and wondered if Dad performing my baptism while intoxicated would make it void." These are two HUGE ideas and I think you could/should spend a lot of time digging more deeply into this.