While working as a cinematographer for the Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was involved in shooting a documentary that had me on location at 50 North Temple. There, as was common with our crew anywhere, we debated issues, this one having to do with baptisms for the dead.
I was made aware that if a child born in the covenant but remained unbaptized, and subsequently died before being baptized but after the age of accountability, and if the temple ordinance was not performed for that child, the church had a grace period of five years before the child’s name would appear on a temple list somewhere and the ordinance be performed.
This was significant to me since the fifth anniversary of my son’s passing was just a few months away, and nothing had been performed for him. I didn’t believe anything had to be.
He died at eight years and ten months. He suffered from a disgenesis of the central nervous system leaving him physically disabled with limited use of his hands, extreme difficulty in swallowing, and vulnerable to aspiration pneumonia, which eventually took his life. He was a matriculated third-grader, capable of interfacing in a world that learned how to communicate with him through the love and care of his parents, teachers, therapists, and physicians. No one who met him came away unchanged.
He wasn’t capable of baptism; he would have drowned in the saving ordinance. He wasn’t capable of transgression. So it was with some dismay that I was advised there at 50 North Temple, that I’d better take care of his temple ordinances anyway, “just to be safe.”
The thought of having an opportunity to draw close to him in the house of the lord was very exciting. Imagine the potential to draw so close to the veil – a reunion made possible through the restored gospel.
We expedited the work because I was on my way overseas to continue my work on the documentary, leaving in just a couple of days and there was such a sense of urgency to get him taken care of.
Early morning we were at the baptistery, my good friend and mentor ready to baptize me in proxy for my son, my wife looking on from the observation area. I was dunked, and then at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the font, was confirmed for him. And then I went to do his washing and anointing.
I took such great comfort in the blessings there, thinking that someday he’d be able to realize them in his exalted state. It was a wonderful and promising experience, though I didn’t feel him with me, and was careful not to induce or imagine that he was. I was ardent that I remain as neutral as a dad could be in the context of some potential contact with his son who had passed on, fasting that I could be objective. I never felt him, but that was okay.
I joined his mom in the chapel where we waited to go en masse to the ordinance rooms. She was seated quietly, stoic, ashen. She was visibly shaken, her enthusiasm for the day gone. She expressed in so many words her confusion to why, as this boy’s mother, she was refused participation in the ordinances that would save him by virtue of her gender. She birthed him, why could she not save him? The question made reason stare.
Throughout this boy’s life we’d hear such drabble like, “You must be such special people to have a boy like that,” or “He must have been a valiant spirit in the pre-existence,” or on a couple of occasions, “What did you do to deserve this?”
I always rejected the first two. I couldn’t believe in a god that would make a child suffer in any degree for the amelioration of his parents. The last, though, always made me wonder. Did my own personal unworthiness result in the suffering of my son?
Unworthy, hmmm, let’s see. Lie? No. Cheat? No. Steal? Okay, that one time I was busted for shoplifting in the sixth grade, but a night in jail at the insistence of my mother cured me of such goofing around. Smoke? No. Drink? No.
Unchaste? I wish. Oh, wait, I did masturbate, a couple of times my freshman year. Cleared that whole thing up with my bishop though after he asked me a number of times how long I was able to go before I ejaculated, or how I touched myself, specifically. You know, I never thought twice about that. A couple of Boyd K. Packer firesides and I was scared chaste, leaving my little factory alone.
Straight arrow. At nineteen called to serve in the Belgium, Brussels Mission. Did so, even at the peril of my own life. Three months to go and my companion and I were attacked on our way back to our apartment late one night. He ran away to get help. I was abducted and beaten and brutally assaulted, and later fell from a moving car onto a four-lane thoroughfare early in the morning left as road kill.
Dang garments. They didn’t work. Something must be wrong with me.
When I got home I thought I’d done enough. I left the church and screwed around with one girl. Thought I’d marry her, but she had other ideas. Wound up in Provo, ironically, where I met my first wife. Decided I wanted the blessings and certainty of the church back, so I went through the court-o-love and got my priesthood restored a year later. We were married in the meantime, and sealed a year later, baby boy in belly.
He was born under the covenant. He was also born with a subdural hematoma induced by the delivering physician when he manually turned him, and seizuring from the ample pitocin administered to his mother to induce labor, the overdose of which causes brain damage by disintegrating myelin away from nerves and synapses.
How could this be? Something must be wrong with me.
The next eight years and ten months were devoted to his care, nurturing, teaching, and comforting. We worked hard to maintain our relationship, our callings in the church, even had another child, another son, six years later. He was just fine. Fine as they come.
Despite our efforts, our oldest son’s lungs gave out, and in October of 1994, he slipped away in our arms.
By this time too many doctrinal inconsistencies had lodged into the back of my mind, waiting for me to give them some attention. A few years later while researching for “The Mountain Meadows Massacre” documentary, I discovered the romancing of the history of the church from Cumorah to polygamy.
I was determined to present the September 11, 1857 story objectively, but hindsight tells me I apologized instead. I’d like to do it over, but others have beat me to it.
Shortly after its completion and release, my wife petitioned me for divorce, stating all her good intentions, not the least of which was providing a context where our third child, our little girl, could grow up without feeling subjugated by her own religion.
But for nineteen years while she was married to me there was a different truth to her intentions. She didn’t divorce me to find herself, she divorced me because she didn’t love me. And you know, as hard as that would have been, I could have taken that much easier than being lied to my whole goddamned marriage.
During this time, on September 11, a bunch of extremists flew commercial planes into the WTC, plowed one in to the earth and another into the Pentagon. I remember my sole motivation that day was to get home and intercept my boy from being inches away from our TV trying to make some sense out of those images.
Early afternoon, but I’m too late. There he is, eyes wide watching the towers come down over and over again.
I lead him away by his hand and we went outside and sat on the curb of our quiet cul-de-sac. I tried explaining it to him. His uncle was in the Pentagon at the time. We talked about extremism. How people, who feel they’re the chosen ones who have the truth and the only way to heaven, go to extremes in living their convictions. I could hear the roar of an unmuffled V8 engine coming into our neighborhood, and around the corner came a topless GMC Jimmy, primer black and gray. A flag standard had been attached to the center of the truck and a huge Ol’ Glory waved from it as they sped down our street. When they got to the front of our home we could read what they had spray-painted on the sides of the truck, “Fuck the Arabs.” They squealed around the cul-de-sac and rapidly egressed. “Fuck the Arabs” on the other side.
My son asked if we were extremists, too.
And that was enough. The only reason I had maintained my standing in the church up to that very point at 39, was because I thought I needed a way to prove my worthiness of Christ’s love, my fear of not ever being good enough.
I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel responsible for the suffering and death of my son. I don’t feel guilty. I’m no longer compelled to do the right thing for fear of judgment; instead I do it because I want to.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I finally was able to face what happened to me on my mission, and I’ve realized how much of an influence this has been on my relational behavior and adherence to the church.
So much energy has been wasted in my life in the pursuit of worthiness. Instead, I wish I had directed it into the simple idea of just being a good, grateful man.
That’s what I’m doing now, without a belief in any church, without righteous impetus and without not feeling good enough for a Messiah who taught the very idea of unconditional love.
And I’m doing it without the fear that if I’m unworthy I’ll never see my son again. Worthiness is meaningless. I can’t believe in a god like that and never will again.