I haven’t contributed an article to Hemant’s blog for a long time because I’ve been kind of busy. Since I think I’m pretty much like most other atheists, I offer this account so people can understand how a non-believer handles the thoughts and feelings that come during a challenging time. I make no apologies nor any boast about my feelings. They are what they are.
The hospital chaplain walked in while Mom and I were laughing at a re-run of “I Love Lucy.” With the bedside button Mom turned the TV volume down and the chaplain introduced herself. She was a plump, middle-aged woman in a flowered dress and with a pleasant manner. She carried a clip board gripping many papers, seemingly standard issue for all hospital staff. She asked Mom how she was and if she could offer any prayer on her behalf. Now, Mom had dismissed her own mother’s religiosity most of her 88-year lifetime ago, retaining only vague deist notions with no interest in church, bible or prayer. But being the ever kindly and polite person she is, she accepted the chaplain’s offer and so while I surreptitiously watched Lucy’s silenced antics with Ricky the prayer began. The chaplain invoked the Heavenly Father who she said is always there for Mom, always seeing to her needs, her comfort, helping her in every way. Glancing at my haggard, exhausted face, she added as an afterthought something about God’s helping Richard to stay strong and then she signed off with “in the name of Jesus” or something like that. The whole thing lasted about three minutes.
While she prayed my mind wandered and I began to have a rapid series of mixed feelings:
The first one was resentment. Hearing God get praise for all sorts of good things he was doing for Mom I was standing there wondering what am I, chopped liver? I’m the one who has been there, been there, been there for Mom, helping her, comforting her, trying futilely to keep the pain away any way I can, even when the pills and the morphine injections aren’t enough and all I can do is to hold her while she screams and screams as if she’s on fire. I’m the one who has slept in a chair next to her bed for the last month, half of that in this damn hospital, trying to keep up a positive face, resting only when she rests, waking at the slightest moan, taking care of things that the overworked nurses take too long get around to, never putting more than four hours of sleep together at a time, the custodian of the ruin of what was once a remarkable and admirable person, her in-tact mind trapped in an agonized body that now looks like a medical science experiment. She hasn’t had any help from an all-powerful heavenly father, just a nearly powerless earthly son. Spare me the lame crap about how God put me here as his agent, his nursing staff member. If he could do that he could have saved her a lot of suffering by preventing her from getting shingles on top of rheumatoid arthritis in the first place. Even the doctors seem taken aback by her level of suffering. The dead Lucille Ball is doing far more for Mom’s comfort than God is.
As the prayer continued other feelings replaced the resentment. Sadness, forgiveness and pity came with the thought about so many other moms right there in that hospital and all around the world who don’t have a son who can be there, be there, be there for them. They face their pain and the thousand indignities of age and infirmity alone or at the hands of strangers. All they have is their not too helpful “Heavenly Father” and their tattered hope for a merciful end to their hell on Earth.
Other feelings quickly washed over my awareness as the prayer began to close. I felt gratitude to my wife who makes it possible and approves of me spending so much time helping Mom. I felt a sad kind of caring for the chaplain who does this all day, day after day having so little to offer those who need so much, but still trying to help somehow. I felt a strong admiration for Mom, who has transformed so abruptly from strong and independent to frail and helpless yet insists on doing the little things she can still do for herself, who is in unrelenting pain yet was willing to indulge the chaplain’s offer of prayer purely out of good manners and not wanting to hurt her feelings.
And yes, I’ll acknowledge it, I felt sadness for myself. Sad that I’m so tired, so helpless, so frustrated, sad and scared that I’m only thirty years away from Mom’s age if I live that long, and all the mixed feelings that the prospect of going through similar agonies brings up.
In the two months since she left the hospital, Mom has ever so slowly improved, gaining through her daily efforts little bits of relief and strength. Her mind is as razor sharp as ever, still loving to discuss politics and scientific things that she reads about in the paper or in National Geographic. So the latest of my mixed feelings is one of encouragement. Not just for her prospects for a few more years of life worth living but also en-courage-ment for my own prospects. I’ll take the best lessons from her and try to face my life with at least some of the courage that she has shown.