What do you ask for this child?
Baptism might not have exactly saved this baby’s life, but it showed his family the power of love and faith.
As a religious educator, I have always taught that Baptism can be administered in an emergency by anyone with the right intentions using the ancient trinitarian formula. I never imagined, of course, that I would be that person, baptizing not a stranger but my own flesh and blood, my grandson.
It had been an excruciating 24 hours since we learned of little Austin’s condition. He had hydrocephalus, water on the brain, and his head was swollen to twice its natural size. Our baby was being prepped for emergency brain surgery on the night of his one-month birthday. My daughter Jenny and her husband, Brian, looked at me and asked: “Should we baptize him?” I had been asking myself the same question.
The three of us gathered around the hospital crib, resolved that Austin would get through this. I got some tap water in a cup for this, my first Baptism. Jenny and Brian held on to their baby. As I began to pour the water, I said the familiar words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
We prayed together more intently than ever before, each of us making the sign of the cross on Austin’s head. In a sterile Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the Holy Spirit descended upon our baby. It is Christ who baptizes, and we felt his presence with us.
Theologian Father Kenan Osborne wrote that when we baptize someone, the heavens part and God says, “This is my beloved child, my chosen one.” This one, Austin. This baby rushed here today in an ambulance.
In requesting Baptism Jenny and Brian wanted to claim Austin for Christ. There was no magical thinking—they did not believe that baptizing him would guarantee the success of the surgery, nor would the lack of it keep him from heaven.
The medical folks wheeled the crib away. We waited for what seemed like forever. Then came the good news: Austin came through his surgery with no difficulties. A shunt would drain the excess fluid so his brain could function normally.
But the cause of the hydrocephalus was an even worse diagnosis, a rare brain disease that affects only about 100 people in the world. The survival rate was not promising, and only experimental treatment was available. It was as if we were being punched in the stomach again and again.
We asked a family friend, a retired priest, to anoint Austin. Father Bob gathered the family around Austin, inviting Austin’s two big brothers, ages 5 and 2, to be part of the prayers. We all laid hands on Austin as we prayed for his health. Surely the presence of God was in that place. It was a gift beyond measure that Father Bob gave us that day, bringing us the healing love of Christ.
But one more step was needed to complete Austin’s entry into the church: celebrating with the parish community, publicly welcoming him into the family of believers. We were discouraged from taking this step, out of concern that being surrounded by people with healthy babies would be difficult for Jenny and Brian.
But they wanted the parish community to be present for Austin and wanted to present him to them. They wanted their other sons to see Austin there, to be able to look back at photos of Austin’s Baptism just as their own. And so Austin was presented, anointed, and prayed over. He was welcomed into a community of hope, faith, and love.
Hope sustains us, faith nurtures us, and love heals us: These words came tumbling out as I wrote to friends and family about our situation. Today, at almost 2 years old, Austin is a happy, chubby little guy. He walks, he talks, and he continues to surprise his doctors. He’s had a second surgery and lots of tests but has spent only one day in the hospital since the initial stay. His medical situation is inconclusive but with some very positive signs.
We treasure every day we have with him. In his little life we have seen the power of prayer and sacrament. Hundreds of people of many faiths pray for him. The strength of my daughter and her husband is inspiring, and the faithfulness of our entire extended family has been extraordinary.
Austin is a gift from God, who has in turn been a gift to us through his laughter and strong spirit.
Life is good. God is great.
This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 5, page 33).