My grandfather recently died. He was old — 91 — and had Parkinson’s disease. His physical well-being had declined over the years and it had been hard to watch, especially because he was still very mentally sharp.
My grandfather was a retired professor and one of the smartest people I’d ever known. He, like the rest of my wonderful family, was one of the driving forces impressing the importance of education to me, which has had such a big impact on my life. He will be missed by a whole bunch of people who loved him.
Dealing with death is hard. I have been lucky enough not to have to very much — my grandfather is the first person I have known that has died since I became an atheist. As an atheist, I want to celebrate the life he lived, and the impact he had on his family and loved ones. I understand with his deteriorating health that he’s better off not being here than suffering. I know it will probably take some stress off of my grandmother, my dad, and my aunts and uncles and cousins and mishpachah — the Yiddish word for family.
I will have to deal with the religious ceremony and my religious family. I know, for them, it is comforting to think that my grandfather is still out there watching over us. And that is okay. Their interpretation of my grandfather’s death isn’t hurting anyone. They are finding a way to cope with the loss of someone who was important in all of our lives, and that is really hard to do.
I understand why people turn to religion in times like these. It is a lot easier to accept that things are better if he is actually in a better place and not just gone. Just being gone is really hard, and doesn’t seem like it could ever be better than not being here. But as an atheist I can see how my grandfather’s humor lives on, how his passion for knowledge survives, and how his sarcastic tongue will never be forgotten because those of us whose lives he impacted carry those things with us every day. In this way we celebrate and remember him, and there is nothing supernatural about it; it is just wonderful.
On the day my grandfather died, I really wanted a distraction. I didn’t want to think about how I would never get to kiss his stubbly cheek, never hear him butcher fairy tales again, never tell him how much I love him and appreciate everything he has done for me. Thinking about those things is hard and painful and I was alone in my apartment and crying my eyes out didn’t sound fun.
So I turned on my TV and watched the University of Miami’s basketball team beat the University of North Carolina. I listened as the commentators talked about how this might be the best team in the county. I texted with my dad and my brother about how amazing this team has been.
We needed a distraction that day. Something frivolous to make us forget about the important things in life.
Late last year, the day of the Newtown shootings, work was finished and everywhere I looked there was pain and suffering and anger and sadness. And I couldn’t take it anymore: so I called a friend, and we went to a sports bar and watched some basketball.
We needed something a distraction that day.
Some people read a favorite book or watch a movie. Some people read the gossip magazines to find out which celebrity is sleeping with which other celebrity and who is mad about it. Some people craft or game.
I watch sports.
For an hour or an afternoon I surround myself with excitement, joy, and heartbreak, and none of it is important or really matters. I immerse myself in an alternate reality where the worst thing that can happen is the team I like loses. And one game can always be recovered from: it is, in all ways, completely frivolous.
I hope all of you can find your frivolity. Because when life gets difficult it can really make things better, if only for a little while.