I was late to my Egyptian baptism. Over twenty-four years and ten minutes late. It might have been my second rebirth by water. My dad-a Coptic Orthodox Christian by blood, a cut-throat pragmatic physician at heart-doesn’t recall if I was baptized as a baby. All grown up, I helped myself to the blessings of water and oil.
The priests and deacons were already standing around the baptismal font, chanting prayers in low, quiet voices, when my dad and I entered the St. George sanctuary-the Eastern Orthodox church in Birmingham, Alabama. We joined them, though I didn’t know if we were supposed to, or where I should stand. I moved in next to the priest I’d asked to baptize me. He whispered, “Get a chair for your father.”
My dad was just beginning to be able to stand up, after months of hardly moving, between a hospital bed and a wheelchair. The mass doses of cortisone he took after a kidney transplant weakened his muscles-from his eyes to his quads, making it hard for him to read or lift himself up from a chair. He was afraid he was nursing-home bound. I couldn’t imagine him walking again.
An infant must be immersed in holy water as soon after birth as possible, I learned from a book on Orthodox baptism, so the Holy Spirit can protect the child from Satan. When one of my dad’s Egyptian friends had her baby dunked in a Coptic-American church, days after she left the natal ward, on a cold January morning, he told me how ridiculous that was: The child could have died of hypothermia.
My father doesn’t ask the saints for help anymore, or pray to pictures, or make confession. He says he doesn’t have anything to confess. And he never believed the Virgin Mary appears every August in Assiut, the Upper Egyptian village where he grew up, or that her icon eyes cry holy oil that heals people. Or that faith, the size of a mustard seed, can move a mountain. He has no use for the piece of Coptic “history” my Cairo cousins taught me: How an Ottoman sultan challenged the pope of Alexandria to show the power of Christ; how Egypt’s Christians flocked to a mountain, fasted and prayed until God moved it, thanks to their steadfast leader, Saint Simeon the One-Eyed Tanner. (He’d plucked the other one out, the story goes, after looking with lust at a woman.) My dad left Egypt to study ophthalmology in London and hardly looked back. He married a gorgeous Protestant he wanted at first sight, a green-eyed brunette he spied across the nurses’ station, making rounds as a medical resident in Alabama.
When I asked my mom if I’d been baptized, she said she didn’t know what my dad did after they separated. She heard something about another woman, an ex-friend she’d caught on his lap once, making plans for my christening. Or maybe one of the gold diggers he met in the “Singles Mingles” fellowship (a Bible study for unmarried adults) had arranged to get me baptized at Dawson Memorial, a country club of Birmingham churches, where my dad went sometimes, to mix with his colleagues. Or maybe the old woman he hired to babysit while he was on call-who would rock me to sleep on “Jesus Loves Me” in her soft-chested sorghum voice-took me to her preacher of a son-in-law to get saved.
My parents lost track of my salvation in the divorce. But they raised me on education. My mother taught me to read-to say each word phonetically and pronounce my –ings. My father taught me, by compulsive example, to succeed-to sit making notes on my notes from the textbook, like I watched him do when he was studying for boards.
I was more schooled than churched. So I wasn’t troubled to find out that I probably grew up without Holy-Spirit protection. After my higher education in the liberal arts, Satan was a personification of evil-not the red-fleshed devil who haunted my mother’s childhood. Raised in a Pentecostal swath of Alabama, she had her fill of Holy-Ghost stories from sweaty preachers telling everyone how to live. When my mother left home, she quit her native church. And my father quit the Coptic church when he left Egypt. He’d had enough of stern priests and superstitious ladies living blindly by tradition. But when my dad got sick, my mom started wearing a cross and praying for Jesus to heal him. And I groped around the backyard I hardly knew, looking for my Coptic roots.
When Mark brought the resurrection gospel to Alexandria, the ancient Egyptians embraced the risen Christ. By the time the Arabs came in the 7th century, most Egyptians were Christian. The 10 million or so Copts (Egyptian Orthodox Christians) living today are descendants of those who didn’t convert to Islam or follow the Protestant missionaries.
Neither my dad nor I believe I need baptism to go to heaven. But I wonder why he didn’t go through the motions of the ritual, to ensure his peoples’ survival in this world, like all the secular Jews who bar mitzvah their kids and have Passover Seders. We eat bitter herbs, too, I learned when my aunt died in Alexandria: raw parsley on the third day after death, to release the soul from the dead weight of the body. I wonder why my dad didn’t bother to try, at least, to pass his roots on-to give me a sense of we to live by.
On my first trip to Egypt, during a college study-abroad program, my father’s older brother Latif took me to the Coptic cemetery in Alexandria. He led me down a narrow dirt path between two parallel rows of high marble mausoleums. He stopped at one, pointed up with expectant eyes, thrilled to be showing me something. There was a big stone cross on top with an Arabic inscription. “Read!” he prodded-my cue to make out the words, sound by letter, following the loops and tails of the connectors: Ma-k-a-r, our family name. “Here is Mother and Father,” he said, pointing, guiding my eyes to the grave slots, stacked like drawers.
My father didn’t tell me his family stories of loss-how his father died when he was nine; his mother nine years later; how she lost a baby to premature birth, and a full-grown son to a war in the Sinai. And he doesn’t have any patience for the Coptic martyr stories-all the dying for Christ, because He died for us. My dad doesn’t care for suffering, he says. “I appreciate what Jesus did for us, but why should I suffer like Him?”
When my dad’s kidneys failed, my uncle Latif left everything in Alexandria-his medical clinic, his seaside properties, his beloved 1972 Peugeot-to take care of him. “He is the person most dear to me in the world,” he told me. “It is my purpose in life.” When my father was in critical condition, Latif wouldn’t even leave his brother’s bedside to eat. He subsisted on whatever my dad would leave on the hospital tray-a roll, red Jell-O cubes, packets of saltine crackers, styrofoam cups of drip coffee. He would step outside for a smoke and stop in the hospital interfaith chapel to say a short prayer, on his way back to my father’s room. When I was there, I would go with him, stand in front of a bronze cross in the chapel, my shoulder touching his and try to translate what he was praying: Ya rub, shafa Youssef, yahfuzzu. Lord, heal Youssef, preserve him. Ya rub irham. Lord have mercy. Abana allethy fiy samawaat. Our Father, who art in Heaven. When he’d begin the Lord’s Prayer, I would say it along in English-hands raised in tandem with Latif’s; palms open, wrists limp-the way the apostles do in Coptic icons, their eyes turned up, looking to heaven.
One day on his smoke break, Latif pulled the pipe out of his mouth and said, “It is a blessing to sacrifice for the sake of others,” enunciating slowly, imparting word by word, the emphatic way he’d started teaching me phrases in Arabic three years before. He would tell me the roots of the verbs, present and past, and I would repeat, trying to pronounce them right.
On the day of my baptism, my dad didn’t sit in the chair the priest told me to bring him. He leaned his body on the side of the baptismal font and held on to the edge for balance, like a child trying to see inside. It was the only time I remember seeing him strain to witness something.
I too was looking-reading the liturgy book over the priest’s shoulder: Drop the holy oil (chrism) in the water in the shape of the cross. He did, in four spots, and then traced the lines from drop to drop with the silver cross he carries in his right hand, the cross you kiss to greet him, I’d learned by watching my Cairo cousins, the cross he taps on your forehead with a blessing. It moved through the water like a tiny oar.
“Say I believe,” the priest whispered. I’d spaced out watching his gestures and hadn’t heard what I was professing.
Your Baby’s Baptism in the Orthodox Church calls on parents to assume their responsibility in the religious upbringing of their children. “We bring infants to baptism not because they believe but in order that they might believe. Baptism is like the planting of the seed of faith in the human soul.” But I’d brought myself to this baptism, half-believing it would transfigure me. Could I come alive to God in a way my parents didn’t raise me to believe? Could I plant the seed of faith just by saying “I believe” whatever the priest said after blessing the water?
I doubt my dad was listening to the words, either. And I knew he wouldn’t hold me accountable to any church doctrine, or expect me to fast for all the saints’ holidays, Christmas and Lent. He didn’t believe in denying the body to feed the soul. I wanted to try fasting–an experiment in living not-of this world. But I could hardly fathom wholesale repentance to new life, all-for Christ. I’d probably keep drinking too much and telling lies that make my life easier. So why say “I believe,” stoop to peck a priest’s hand, perform as if I were a lamb of the flock? My dad and I were stray sheep, and I doubted we’d be brought fully into the Coptic fold. But I wanted us to keep standing, watching that cross go through that water-a movement and a rest, after long suffering.
My dad announced that he had kidney failure from the driver’s seat of his BMW-the engine off, the radio and air conditioner running. I would find him sitting like that, after coming home from somewhere, to rest before making his way into the house, sometimes dozing. One day, I pulled up in the Nissan he gave me for graduation; he rolled down his window and said, “I have bad news.” I felt a flash urge to run away, then a sinking. “I’ve been diagnosed with end-stage renal failure,” he said, and then looked down. I asked him what renal means, and he said kidney. I asked him what caused it, and he said probably diabetes. I didn’t ask exactly what end-stage means.
One night later that week, when I was on my way out the door, my dad called me into his room. He was sitting, as usual since his retirement, in his over-sized recliner chair, watching the nightly news shows. The high back of my dad’s plush leather chair dwarfed him into a little king, his orthopedic-socked feet not touching the ground. “Before you go, I want to show you something,” he said, reaching for his walking stick. “How to manage the finances.” He pointed with his cane under his desk to a rectangular file. “Behind this box is another box,” he said, “with the will in it, the insurance papers, the bank accounts, the burial arrangements.” I didn’t look inside the box; I got that burning feeling in my nose, but I didn’t cry.
I kept listening, impassive, eyes wide like a child’s. “I have a lot in a nice cemetery off 119. I told your mother she can be buried there beside me, so we can fight from our graves.” I laughed with him. “I may make it,” he said, “who knows?” I touched his arm; he didn’t touch back. Affection is not our language. “At least I still have my mind,” he said.
Growing up, I’d see my dad reading nuclear scans in his dry-cleaned lab coat, his stethoscope around his neck, his name-Dr. Youssef N. Makar, M.D.-monogrammed on his pocket. The day after he showed me his will, I saw him with a back-support brace, on his way to the University Hospital nephrology clinic-as a patient. While going down the stairs, he had to hold both rails, bending his knee in pain with each step. “You go first,” he said. When I got to the bottom I looked inside the bag he’d handed me to carry: the latest Time magazine and a urine sample. While my dad groped his way down the stairs, I tried to tell him something about politics I’d read in the news-to take the shame away. But his energy was focused on the physical strain, and all the response he could give was “That’s strange,” in a thin, trailing voice-a vacancy that hit me hard.
My dad spent two years on dialysis-four hours three times a week, all his blood going through a machine and then circulating back through his body, making him so weak and disoriented he wasn’t fit to drive afterwards. But he did. I was in graduate school in New York. My mother told me he was very worried about being on dialysis with no one in the house. But my father never asked me to take care of him, and I never offered.
When a kidney finally became available, a transplant was scheduled during my winter break. A week before the first day of spring classes, my dad said, “You need to take the semester off.” He announced this from his hospital bed in post-transplant isolation, through one of those masks surgeons wear during procedures. I was wearing one, too, standing in the doorway, as the five-minute visits went, taking his orders. Usually, it would be straightforward tasks, like sort through the mail, call Medicare, or the plumber. This time he said, “Things still aren’t clear.” His lungs kept filling with fluid, and sometimes he could hardly breathe.
I took my dad’s announcement like I listened to his instructions about the will-as an obedient, shocked child. Growing up, I’d served him with good report cards, spelling bee and science fair ribbons-easy offerings. When I was applying for grad school, my father gave me his blessing: “Go for the jugular.” Now, he was demanding hard sacrifice-undying Egyptian daughter devotion-serve, regardless. But he hadn’t raised me that way, and I didn’t know how.
I learned to survive by my father’s example: Work before family. They’ll be there when you’re done. That’s how he’d lived. When he went to the Royal College of Physicians in London, he left his brother and sisters in Alexandria. When he moved to America for good, his sisters cried and bore it. His brother rose to the occasion; he would take care of the parents’ graves and the grieving sisters.
Latif left his duties in Alexandria to get my father through the transplant. He did the acute care-cleaning the incision when the nurses were negligent, turning my father every two hours to prevent bedsores. I took care of the home business-the bills, the phone calls, driving Latif back and forth to the hospital. One evening, when I came to take Latif home for the night, he refused to go. My father was suffering from labored breathing, and Latif wanted to keep watching him. So I left them there and went to a party-my first night out since the transplant. And my father went blue-not enough air to his lungs, while I was taking too many whiskey shots. Latif called for help. An ER doctor resuscitated my dad. Back to life.
When my dad stabilized, he told me it was a good thing I’d taken the semester off. “You’re depressed,” he diagnosed. “Being home is a break from the stress of school.” When I put my life on hold, at my father’s command, he had to believe he was taking care of me. I was mad: How dare he demand a kind of sacrifice he wouldn’t make himself and then say it’s for my own good? But I didn’t tell him that. I was mean, and he was mean back.
The worst fight was over skim milk, while my dad was bedridden. He told me to get him four cartons-two for now and two for later, from the cafeteria, while Latif was giving me an Arabic lesson. “Do you not see that I’m doing something?” I asked, hunched over the Arabic textbook. It was a lifeline to my work, during those hours half-living in my father’s hospital room. (For the fall semester, I’d have to re-apply for the Arabic fellowship I’d given up by taking a leave of absence that spring.) “It doesn’t matter to you, does it?!”
“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “Get me the milk.”
I stormed out, like a petulant fourteen-year-old, and came back with two cartons. (I wasn’t going to break a twenty so he could have two pints of milk sit by his bed because he’d demanded them.) “Did you put the other two in the fridge?” he asked.
“Didn’t I ask you to get me four?”
“Yes, and I got you two.” He laughed. “If you want two more, go get them yourself,” I said.
“Fuck you,” he said. “You’re a bitch!”
“No, I’m not. I’m trying to defend myself. I’m just saying that when you’re helpless you can’t be so demanding and impatient.”
After saying the Lord’s Prayer to the east, the priest instructed me to remove all of my clothes, put on a white robe he’d brought, go into the deepest part of the water, and call him when I was ready for immersion. Everyone moved out, and curtains closed around me. I heard the deacons chanting prayers as I undressed. I felt a little ashamed, in front of the icon on the wall, standing alone and naked before the Lord: His almond eyes, lined in khol, flat on wood, dark colors, then light. Why was I confronting this strange face? It was an exotic cartoon, compared to the blue-eyed Alabama highway-side Jesus I knew by heart, a face I would never face naked. Why did I initiate this late, awkward, could-be second baptism?
My dad confessed to me-that he’s known of his kidney failure since 1997. But he didn’t tell anyone at the time. “I was at the peak of my power. I had patients coming from all over. I had a following, and I didn’t want to give it all up,” he said. “In the medical profession, if you show that you’re sick, you’re finished.” So he didn’t show anyone he was getting short of breath whenever he walked and was itching all over. He would stay up at night scratching his back on the door. I asked him how he did that at work. “Close the door, and use a hanger,” he said. “I knew I was going down hill-swollen like a pig, up urinating all night.” I asked if he knew he couldn’t sustain that. “Of course. I knew I would crash. You’re amazed aren’t you?” he said, looking proud.
I was mostly sorry and mad. Sorry that that my dad had to go through all that alone; mad that he hadn’t taken care of himself so I wouldn’t have to; mad that he was betraying me-going back on how he’d raised me to put success above all else; sorry for being so selfish, for thinking about how my father’s sickness was keeping me from my life.
He didn’t apologize, but he confessed: “You dealing with an egotistical father,” he told me. “I neglected my health, and you see where it got me. I’m not a good model for that,” he said quietly. I wondered if he realized that his work-before-family value had failed us.
“Thank God Latif saved your life,” I said.
“What do you mean?” my dad asked, his eyes looking earnestly surprised. “Coming and helping me take care of you,” I said, infuriated with his fierce pride. “Lifting you out of bed when you couldn’t walk.”
“Yes, he’s done a lot for me,” my dad said. “And you’re doing a good job, too. I am grateful; I just don’t know how to express it. And you don’t know how to take care of an old man.”
I resolved to forgive my dad, to redeem both of us through compassion and defiance. I would face what my dad fled-sacrifice for the sake of family. And I would explore what he denied- miracles, holy mysteries, healing powers. I was suffering for my father’s sake, and I wanted blessings. I wanted our sorrow to turn into joy, as the Psalms promise. We’d begun to live a Christian salvation story: My father almost died, and his brother Latif saved him. By a tradition of sacrifice my dad and I didn’t practice, we survived. It was grace, I believed. It was the closest I’d ever felt to saved.
Only the priest and my father entered for the immersion rite. As I took three steps into the steaming water, the bottom of my robe floated up around my waist. The priest told me to go all the way under each of the three times he would push down on my head-like John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, so I could die and rise with Christ, bury the body of my sins and be reborn, with a new nature.
I didn’t expect to cleanse myself of sin and come up pure. But I wanted a new, selfless nature. I wanted to feel death and life-the holy water that could fill my lungs and drown me. I wanted to try dying to the self, to grope for the Spirit under the water, and come up in grace.
It was more awkward than that. I kept having to hold my robe to my body, so it wouldn’t float up each time I went down. Each time my head bobbed up, I’d feel the weight of my hair, streaming wet, occluding my eyes. After the third dunk, the women outside broke the silence with loud ululations.
At the time when the mother is supposed to hand her child-swaddled in one garment only, according to the baptism rite, over to the priest, I dried myself off and put on my clothes. I didn’t want the curtains to open, to be the center of attention, to perform good Coptic girl in the liturgy. I wanted to pray alone with the Lord, this strange almond-eyed Christ I was facing, for the power to sacrifice enough to save someone.
My dad never asked me why I was getting baptized, and I never told him. Probably because I don’t know. Maybe my late Coptic baptism was an ironic act of rebellion: a fuck-you to my dad for not bothering to share his heritage with me. And for being so haphazard a parent that he didn’t know whether or not I’d already been baptized. So I’d do it myself. Or maybe getting baptized was a gift: I had forgiven him, and I wanted to show him that he hadn’t failed as a parent: I was protected and blessed, even though he’d screwed up. And we’d survived his almost death-by whatever grace drove Latif to suffer for the family’s sake. Or maybe my baptism was more selfish than that: Maybe I was grabbing at traditional strings to redeem the broken life my parents had given me, to reconcile what they’d blundered trying to raise me. I wanted to partake in what didn’t make sense to my rigid-thinking parents: the mystical body of Christ. Maybe I was seeking family in communion and community. My dad had been going to the Coptic church since his retirement, and when I went with him, I felt like I was being adopted by a long-lost family. But I wasn’t fully a member until I was baptized; before the bread and wine, I’d have to take water and oil.
My mother did ask why I chose to have a Coptic baptism-why I’d want to be part of a church that treats women like second-class citizens. (In the Coptic church, women aren’t allowed to go as close to the altar as men, and they have to drape scarves over their hair to take communion.) But I knew my gender battles with my father had nothing to do with church tradition, and I knew how to fight them at home. I didn’t need symbolic equality. I wanted the bread of life. I wanted to keep watching the gestures of a mystery-the priest holding up the disc-shaped holy bread, pressing with his thumb at three points along the seal the deacons made when they were chanting prayers as the dough was rising. I wanted to watch for that secret moment-not even the priest knows-when the Holy Spirit turns the bread and wine into the body and blood. I didn’t wholly believe the sacraments become Christ. But I believe in transformation-bread and wine to the power of presence: God in me.
When the curtains opened, the congregation gathered around the baptismal font, to watch me take the Holy Spirit. “If you were an infant, we would put it in 36 places,” the priest said, squeezing the chrism onto his index finger, “but since you are grown, we will put it where we can.” With holy oil he drew the sign of the cross on my forehead and wrists, the skin behind my ears, my feet and my eyelids.
When I opened my eyes, one of the church ladies embraced me and told me how beautiful my outfit was. It was supposed to be new. The skirt and shoes were; the shirt was not. But it was fresh: I’d had it dry cleaned.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.