By MERT EROGUL
Private Lives:Personal essays on the news of the world and the news of our lives.
My 9-month-old son’s first time on a plane — a 10-hour journey from J.F.K. to Istanbul — was a disaster. The dry air of the cabin, the confinement and possibly some allergen on the in-flight menu all contributed to an unprecedented eruption of his eczema. It was demoralizing. His skin had been cracking and inflamed for months, but we had taken such pains with it — daily applications of heavy cream and austere dietary restrictions — in anticipation of introducing him to his relatives in Turkey.
We stayed at my mother-in-law’s on the European side of Istanbul. After just a few days, she was as obsessed as we were with the daily moisturizing routine. Then she announced that she had a solution: we must visit a Greek Orthodox priest and have the baby blessed. My mother-in-law, like both our families, is a nonpracticing Muslim, but this priest had distinguished himself by getting a friend’s daughter married off by praying for her. I looked at my wife, unsure of what to say.
We live in Brooklyn. Neither of us is religious. I am a medical doctor. I have never met a priest in my life. Yet my mother-in-law was insistent, and my wife was curious.
So despite my skepticism, we found ourselves inside the Hagios Demetrios, an unremarkable old church on a hill overlooking the Bosporus. The gloomy little church smelled like incense and old people, of which there were many. They were lined up and hunched over in the foyer, patiently waiting for an audience with the priest. They all seemed to have rheumatism. We waited, too, the baby growing restless. I felt sad for these superstitious people and impatient to finish. Eventually a voice in accented Turkish announced that the priest would be seeing the babies first, and with that we pushed, as New Yorkers do, to the front of the line.
The priest, a tall robed figure surrounded by lesser robed figures, turned and looked at us as we entered. He had black hair and a black beard speckled with gray. He beckoned us over, my wife told him why we were there, and then I was acutely aware of everything in the room, all the people and the ornaments, the sunlight spilling in through stained glass. How it must have looked just like this hundreds of years ago. I was aware of the history of countless people, Christians, Muslims and Jews, who had stood where I was, hoping for a blessing. I remembered all my worry and frustration, my powerlessness to fix my own son despite everything I knew about medicine. The priest nodded and reached for my hand and took my wife’s hand and he pulled us near. He put his palm on the baby’s forehead.
He said, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right.” A bit of my son’s drool dripped onto my wrist. “You know, my daughter had terrible eczema, and I took her to several dermatologists until finally a doctor in Bakirkoy figured out that she was allergic to her stuffed toy. When we got rid of it her skin cleared up.” He smiled at me. “Anyway, these skin conditions get better when they’re like 2 years old.” He put his hand on my shoulder and I smiled back.
We thanked him and turned to each other. We held the baby and felt lighter. The priest mumbled a benediction, made a sign and then politely motioned us to a door behind him. I had heard about this door. It led to a long and low tunnel dug into the hill, lit by occasional electric lights that illuminated the damp walls on which were inscribed centuries of prayers that people had left. Who knows how many of them had been answered.
We had to walk hunched over for what felt like hundreds of feet through this tunnel, and at the end was a brass spigot that I could not seem to operate. It was stuck tight. Nor could my wife turn it. It fell to the child’s grandmother, who twisted it easily and collected the holy water in a bottle she had brought, and we washed the baby’s skin.
Months later, back in Brooklyn, we still have that bottle of holy water. It sits, next to the infant Motrin and Tylenol, on a shelf near the baby’s bed.