–By David Grummon
I waded into the pool behind my 8-year old son carrying a ziplock bag of baby washcloths. It was one of those indoor community center pools, which meant the air was thick with chlorine and the noise of children on the slide and nearby lazy river was a few decibels short of deafening. For some kids on the autism spectrum, the wall of sound and sights would lead to sensory overload, but fortunately my high-functioning kid had more or less grown out of loud sounds triggering a meltdown. Unfortunately, his biggest sensory issue was having water in his eyes—as in refusing to let go of me each week during 5-year-old swimming lessons. As in never once letting water touch his head at the pool the following summers. As in screaming his head off when bath or shower water ran down over his eyebrows just weeks before. Sensory issues. So naturally, as a kind and loving special needs father, I had come to this pool to put my son completely under water–backwards.
On the up side, I did have buy-in from the kid. Months before, he had whispered too loudly to me during church, “When do people usually get baptized?” I explained that in the American Baptist tradition, there was no set age for baptism. When a person wanted Jesus to be the Lord of their lives and accept His death on the cross as the way of forgiving their sins, they usually would go forward at the end of worship and tell the pastor. Then, after some classes, they’d be baptized.
“I know that. I mean during the year?” he whined.
“Oh, I dunno. I guess some people do it around Easter?” I thought it was a little odd he was asking, and I was trying to follow the rest of the service. “ We need to be quiet now, buddy, and listen to the sermon.”
Then, one Sunday in January, I discovered that instead of running back after the benediction to serve up coffee from the Keurig machine, my son was sitting next to our pastor deep in conversation. To her credit, our pastor left the greeting line to the associate pastors and gave him her full attention.
The pastor later reported the whole conversation to us. “I’d like to get baptized on Easter,” he told her, “so it goes with the whole Jesus dying thing.” But, he explained, he needed to find a way to keep the water out of his eyes so he wouldn’t get upset in front of everybody. The pastor told him she thought they could figure something out. But for his mom and me, we had just two questions: (a) Did he really understand the meaning of baptism? (b) How the heck were we going to keep him from freaking out during immersion baptism on Easter Sunday, of all days of the year?
Another boy in the church, a year older, had also indicated he wanted to be baptized. We weren’t the only ones who asked whether children this young could really understand the impact of their decision. I remember being told in my youth that the two most important decisions of my life would be who I would marry and whether to give my life to Christ. Did these boys really understand exactly what this decision meant?
Our pastor’s answer was pretty simple. Like all of us, they will understand as much as they are able to understand at this point in life and as they get older, their faith will grow and develop and the meaning of this decision will deepen the more they learn about God and themselves. I remember doing the altar call when I was a kid largely because I wanted the juice and crackers that got passed in front of my face once a month during communion. But the older I got, the more I understood about what it meant to be a Christian. And by the time I was an adult, I knew just how difficult it can be to follow the life and teachings of Christ, and just how much it was worth the struggle. Now, weeks of baptism classes later, the pastor said these boys were ready, and we had a far more immediate practical concern.
It was the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and my son had never once put his head under water. Two weeks of daily private lessons the summer before had only gotten him to put the tip of his nose in the water a couple of times. At breakfast, we all agreed that he wouldn’t want his first time to go under water to be witnessed by a packed Easter sanctuary. So, we all decided on a trip to the local community center indoor pool to practice. My son and I waded along the edge of the pool and stopped right in front of the life guard, which put the water a bit above my waist and about at my son’s shoulders. As I took the first washcloth out of the ziplock bag, I thought about the tips I had learned from my dad, a retired pastor. Make sure the nose is pinched completely closed. And have him bend at his knees, instead of leaning back at the heels. Otherwise the feet will float up. I had also asked pointers from our pastor herself.
“Okay, buddy. I’m going to put the washcloth over your eyes, nose, and mouth.” I leaned down close to his head, raising my voice just enough so he might hear me over the din of noises. “Pastor Kathy says she’s going to have one hand behind your neck and head, and the other one holding your nose closed, so that’s what I’m going to do. You’re gonna put one hand on the hand I’m holding your nose with, and hold onto my arm with your other hand.” We practiced where our hands would go still standing. “Now, I want you to take three deep breaths, then bend backwards at your knees. I’ll let you down just enough so you go under just for a second, then pull up on my arm and hand as I bring you back up. As soon as you come up, I’ve got another dry washcloth here to wipe off your eyes.” That was a lot of instructions for this kid to remember.
“Okay,” he replied, seeming calm enough. I tried to exude as much calm as I could, but inside I knew this could go very wrong very fast. If he totally freaked out and melted down on the first try, I might not be able to convince him to try again.
“Ready? Three deep breaths. One, two, three…” Although it took only a second, the next moment seemed full of detail. Holding him as we had discussed, I tilted him backwards. I felt his body tense as the back of his head touched the water. As the water went over his face, the top side edge of the washcloth floated off his eyes, and I caught a look of terror as he started to struggle. For a split second, I wondered why on earth I was doing this. I quickly pulled him back up to an upright position and took my hand and washcloth off his face as he coughed and sputtered. I grabbed the dry washcloth and wiped off his eyes.
“Are you okay?” I squatted down to get at eye level. Oh, no, I’ve screwed it up. He began to cry, continuing to cough. But to my surprise, he visibly worked to recover and calm himself down. As his coughing lessened, he said, “The water went down my nose!”
“Okay.” I said, cautiously. “ So I needed to hold your nose closed tighter?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Do you want to try it again?”
“Well,” he replied, still catching his breath. “Can we try the lazy river first?”
After three loops on foam noodles around the rather quickly-moving lazy river, we were back in front of the life guard and tried again. This time, I kept the nostrils closed, and while he was still a little scared, he didn’t cry and in no time we were back in the lazy river, at one point getting separated by other swimmers and the currents swirling around us. When I caught up to him he was excited.
“Daddy!” he yelled. “ I actually fell off my noodle and I went under but came back up and I didn’t die!”
“That’s great buddy!” I grinned, somewhat in awe of this little man. We headed back in front of the life guard, and on the third try, my son emerged with a grin.
“I did it Daddy! I can go under water, it’s okay!” He jumped up and down happily.
“Should we try it one more time?” I asked.
“No, I only have to do it once on Easter Sunday. If I did it three times here, I know I can do it once then!” And back we went to the lazy river.
The next weekend our family stood before the packed sanctuary as both boys stepped into the baptismal tank together. My wife and I read our son’s statement about why he wanted to be baptized:
I want to be baptized so I can take communion.
I want to be baptized so I can feel closer to God.
I know that when I am closer to God, He can help me with the hard things in my life.
The pastors lowered him into the water, baptizing him in the name of God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit. As he rose from the water, he let out his breath and smiled. This is my son, I thought, choking back tears, with whom I am well pleased.