The first dead Indian baby I ever saw was also the first one I ever baptized.
His name was Albert Gomez. That’s what his mom and dad called him, at least, because he died in the womb and finally emerged the morning I arrived at Port Alberni General Hospital to pretend to console the shattered couple.
As I approached them, Albert was wrapped in his mother’s arms where she lay in the hospital bed, and the dad hovered over the woman and child as if that would protect them. He looked up at me, dry-eyed, without speaking.
The woman was talking quietly to the tiny corpse, stroking and kissing its slicked black hair, over and over. She was the one to finally address me, with an infinite sadness.
“We want him baptized”
Nothing made sense to me. What was I to do: enact a pointless ritual to assure these poor, shattered people that something good would come of the death of their child? Take advantage of their agony by playing a role I didn’t believe in anymore? Speak of God in this godless moment?
Maybe the father sensed my doubt, for he squeezed my arm and reached for his dead son. The mother started crying as he leaned down, but she slowly relinquished her child, and then collapsed in sobs and wailing. The man turned to me and offered over the burden.
The baby was incredibly light, and so cold. Each feature on his body was unmarred, from the soft creases on his face to the tiny flecks of eyelashes and rounded fingernails. As in the life Albert would never have, the perfection of that moment would quickly fade, and perhaps for that reason, his parents wanted it somehow preserved by an act, even a gesture, that would be emblazoned on them like immortality.
“Please …” said the man.
Only to comfort them, I nodded and turned towards the large sink. I ran some water, wet my hand, and touched the icy little forehead.
“Albert Gomez, child of God” I said, “May the love which created you lead you to eternal rest, and bless you and keep you as the perfection that you are. In the name of God the father, the mother, the son, and the Great Spirit. Amen.”
And then I kissed him, and handed him back to his father.
I never cried for Albert, although I have for those many others like him. But my brief time with him marked me like no other moment, simply because the recognition of the futility of human action in the face of death diminished in me at the very instant when it should have been cemented in my heart.
I have no name for what caused such an unexpected easing of the void for me. But it has allowed me, ever since then, to be gently nudged by something, back from oblivion, whenever my own despair and savaging losses prepare to fling me into its pit forever.
What that mystery feels like, now, is another kind of light, a different, emerging reality, beaming slowly just out of sight, below our human horizon. And I feel its dawning warmth on me the closer I approach my own death; and the worse things get for all of us.
And so I will continue to conduct the pointless rituals, and speak the passing words, on the corpses all around me, and I will not wonder on the purpose of it all. For, impossibly, death has never had dominion, and it never shall.