In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” Matt and Cathreen come up against original sin and what it means to be a good or bad parent.
My parents have been after us to baptize the baby. I might as well just come out with it: I’m Catholic, with all the guilt and denial that entails. My parents are especially devout. My dad, if I’m remembering this right, was once studying to become a monk, or a priest, but then he started teaching a class in which my mom was a student. That one has a happy ending for everyone except God (just kidding, Dad). Before the baby, I went to church once every two or three weeks. Pretty good, I think, though mostly what I did there was let my thoughts race around my fears, the monkey after the weasel. During pregnancy (and now), those fears were about the baby.
My dad says, “if something happens.” If something happens. This is not something I want to hear. He says I can baptize Grace myself with any water I can get my hands on. I’ve never heard this before, but I feel more afraid than ever of Catholicism. I counter this fear through denial.
After our trip to Cape Cod, my parents bring up a movie and a small TV with a VHS player. This lets you know how old the movie is. My parents ask me and Cathreen and her sister, who will be Grace’s godmother, to watch. On the tape, a Charles in Charge family talks about God and the devil and the christening gown and why blah blah blah Catholicism (sorry, Dad). I am looking at my wife who is looking back at me with the ideas people have about Catholics all over her face.
Somehow this video lasts half an hour. Sometimes I tell people how often I go to church and they look at me like I’m crazy.
When the baptism day comes, my mom pays for us to rent a van big enough to fit two car seats and four people into—luckily, since apparently vans cost three times more to rent than cars—in order to get down to Connecticut. In the morning, I take the T to where the car is parked. We want to leave by 10:30. I get to the car at 10:30. I have to drive back to the house and pick everyone up before we get on our way. My part of the trip doesn’t count.
In the van are two car seats and strollers and several bags of clothes and toys. It’s like whoever last used the car robbed a Lego store and took a few of the kids as well. I have no idea what to do with all their stuff—leave it on the ground, is my first thought. And when I get in the van, I see only four seats. The back bench seems to have been taken out completely. I call up the rental company, who put me on hold. When they answer, the person on the other end says he has to talk to someone else, and puts me on hold again.
I tear everything out of the car and throw it in the lot behind me.
Once I get it all out, though, I see that the back bench comes up from the floor, and I sweat through my shirt assembling it, which should make me smell nice for the baptism. I throw the stuff into the very back of the van, piling it to the top of the rear window, and as I pull out of the parking garage the rental company calls back.
That and traffic makes us an hour and a half late to my parents’ house. We barely have time to stuff our mouths with pasta salad before driving over to the church. Mom says everyone is sick, so it might only be my parents, me and Cathreen and Cathreen’s family, my mom’s friend and her husband. My mom is one of six kids—we are usually overfull with relatives. My grandparents are on their way from Boston, but they left after we did.
When I start the van to drive us over, nothing happens. We’re supposed to be there in minutes. We hook up jumper cables but nothing turns over. There’s no sound. Though the lights are on, which seems strange. We get everyone in the van into other cars. I call the rental company. As I watch everyone go, they say the ignition is locked and after a beep on the computer, the engine starts.
At the church, I can smell that Grace has emptied her bowels. We’re already late, but since there’s no one but us, no one is waiting. Cathreen and I take her downstairs, into the basement, and change her on one of the community tables. Upstairs, there is no air conditioning and we sweat it out as the priest goes through the rituals. I am thinking about our luck and lack of luck. On days like this, Cathreen always says no one will believe us. She says I have plenty to write about. Grace cries a little and we rock her and fan her with our hands. My grandparents arrive late. The water pours over Grace’s hair. At the end, the priest gives us some holy water in a tiny bottle and I think, this will keep away the vampires.
I have to call the rental company again to get the car going on our way home.
But this is only one of the days I wanted to write about. Now that the in-laws are gone, I’ve been thinking a lot about faith. Being Korean is a kind of religion of its own. When the in-laws travel, they go by Korean tour group, speaking only in Korean and eating in Korean restaurants. Not that Americans don’t eat in McDonalds all over the world. I’ve lived in a few countries and McDonalds is always full of Americans.
We like what we’re used to. Things other people are used to that we are not we call strange, or foreign, or Religious.
Before my mother-in-law and sister-in-law and nephew leave for good, they take a trip to Niagara and then spend a few days in New York. We drive over on Wednesday to see them off. I take the day off of work, have lunch with my agent for the first time, drive four and a half hours each way.
We wake up early to try to maximize our time, so we get to New York at 11. The first thing Cathreen wants to do is take her family to F.A.O. Schwartz. They are staying in a hotel in Koreatown. We walk all the way up Fifth past the many boutique stores and try to remember when we had more money and took our first American vacation, a few days that we called a second honeymoon.
By the time we get to the toy store, I have only a half an hour before I have to walk back. I’ve told my agent we should eat in Koreatown, since it is close to the hotel. It’s a lovely lunch—I won’t bore with details. I feel comfortable eating Korean food. Koreatown, even though it’s only a strip, is a nice little piece of a home that’s my second home and my wife’s first.
When I get back to the hotel, Cathreen and her family are ready to go out again, to Macy’s this time. I stay and try to sleep. My mother-in-law is afraid that I will fall asleep at the wheel and endanger her granddaughter. We are all always worried about the baby. Though we’d like to treat this one day as a vacation.
We are sent back to Boston at 6:30, after soup at a franchise that started in L.A. and made its way to Korea, not the other way around. My mother-in-law says she won’t be able to sleep until we are home safe. I feel like I feel fine, though I didn’t sleep earlier—too many nerves stirred up by talk of the novel. I drive us out of New York with my wife’s sadness in the back of the car like a bull.
Maybe Grace senses this sadness. As it gets dark, she cries so hard we have to pull off the highway. We can do nothing to stop her; even the bottle won’t soothe her. Lately, she’s been rejecting her milk if it isn’t warm. I see a sign for food and I pull off at some lonely exit. There’s another sign at the end of that road, and another sign at the end of that, but no restaurant in sight, not for miles. Finally, we reach a small shopping center with a McDonalds. I go in for a cup of hot water.
In the line, a man keeps shouting about not ordering three hamburgers. “Why would I want to eat three hamburgers?” he keeps saying, as if it’s the number three that’s offending him. Two hamburgers, or four, he would eat. Eyes roll, but he doesn’t notice. He keeps shouting until his face runs out of steam; then he slinks away. I ask the cashier for hot water and nothing else. She looks at me like I am going to come back and say why would I want to drink one cup of hot water, but she gives it to me.
Back at the car, Cathreen is changing Grace’s diaper. She’s pooped all over herself. I get the wipes out of the baby bag, but the container is empty. What do we use? Her burp cloths, her onesie, some of the water. There aren’t any more clothes in the bag. “In back,” Cathreen says. I open the back and look for something clean, and Grace pees on Cathreen’s dress.
By the time we get back on the highway, it is clear we are going to arrive around midnight. My mother-in-law was right to send us early. Grace has fallen asleep, happy to have a clean bottom and a full belly. A baby believes only in its needs and, if it’s lucky, its parents ability to fulfill them.
At home, I crawl into bed and Cathreen bounces the baby in her arms. Each time Grace cries, I can feel my muscles screw up like winding up a ball of yarn. My arms and legs hurt reflexively. We don’t know what to do when we can’t make her happy. Often what she wants is a mystery. It’s so hard for a new parent to believe in himself, and at the same time, we know how important it is to feel like we know what we’re doing, to feel like we’re good parents. We are constantly having to baptize ourselves, to forgive our original sin.
There is a song I like to sing when I am singing to soothe the baby—it’s tender and cheesy and sounds sweet on a guitar—called “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” I try not to put any meaning into the words, because the first line is, “Love of mine, someday you will die.” Maybe I am terrible father to sing about death. But then again, when is loving someone most important, if not when you can’t communicate with her and your love is at once selfless and only yours?
—photo Flickr/Håkan Dahlström