My father will pass away soon. He’s been on home hospice for over a year, so this is no surprise. But it does mean I’m headed down to Nashville tomorrow for an indeterminant time, indeterminant for the first time since we moved our parents down there in 2017, to be close to the convent where my sister lives.
When I offered yesterday to come down and start sleeping on the couch so that my sister doesn’t have to spend nights doing that, my sister assured me that everything is now "peaceful" there. I know what that’s code for: Dad doesn’t have enough energy to want to watch Fox News, so I don’t have to listen to Tucker Carlson at 100 decibels. It also presumably means Dad has lost the energy to tell me I’m going to hell.
My father has spent the last four decades telling me I’m going to hell. He’s a 92-year-old ultra-conservative Catholic.
I am now 56. I would say I became an atheist around age 16, but it would be more accurate to say that’s when I realized I was an atheist. I never had faith, and I never saw a point in praying for something I didn’t feel I needed.
I recognize my father’s endless admonition that I’m going to hell as a strange form of self-protection and fatherliness. My father is convinced that, because I’m a heathen who likes sex, not only am I going to hell – an idea that makes him understandably upset – but also that God will hold him responsible and also send him to hell. He has hoped for years that I would have a magical conversion to Catholicism and save us both. He insists I read examples of such conversions.
I put up with all this, but I don't pretend anything. I had an excellent therapist when I was in my early twenties who helped me understand that my father wasn’t going to change and that I should recognize I would never have a father in my life. He suggested I grieve that loss and get it over with, so I did that. It freed me for the rest of my life from pointless hope.
I remember when I told my parents I was seeing a therapist. This was back when I had dropped out of Georgetown and become a mortgage broker, living on my own from the age of 19. My father’s response was, “You don’t need a therapist, you need a priest!” I told him that response was why I needed a therapist. But he didn’t see the irony.
My father took to telling me I’m going to hell less often since my sister (and the priest, at her request) lectured him a dozen times about how only God has the right to judge. But I think he also stopped saying it so much because of the one time a couple years ago when he said it, when my sister was on retreat and I was down covering for her, and I answered, “I’m here changing your diaper and doing your taxes. I’m already in hell, Dad.”
My mother could not stop laughing at that.
My father had a very hard life, and he had very little chance at being a good father. He was born into a Brooklyn tenement in 1929, just as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. His father and mother hated each other, and his father beat up the kids and left, apparently for another woman. His mother was determined to live long enough to dance on her husband’s grave in a red dress. According to my mother, she survived just long enough to do that. They were both dead by the time I was about three.
My father’s father started him on cigarettes at age two. The idea was “to make him a man.” My father has told me that by around age 7, he was hooked on tobacco. He had to work from a very young age to keep the family alive. He told me once that, as a teenager, he had had a job hauling molten lead around – a fact that makes me wonder if his degenerative neurological condition is not actually M.S. but long-term heavy-metal poisoning, although when I asked him about that job recently, he told me he didn’t remember it.
The G.I. bill gave him a chance at a white-collar job, and he became a draftsman for a defense contractor. He was essentially a design engineer without a degree. One of the things he worked on was safety systems for nuclear submarines. He didn’t say a lot about that work – it was all classified – but he did tell me once that it’s a fool’s errand to believe you can make a nuclear sub safe. I am sure he did his best.
He worked extremely long hours to make our lives possible. Rather than working “overtime,” he worked the shift called “undertime”; he would go in at about four in the morning. His condition would have meant early retirement were it not for the fact that super computers came in to play at work, and he volunteered right away to shift his design work from pencil to computers. The computers had to be kept super-cooled, and the frigid temperatures of his new workspace held at bay his M.S. symptoms, which started when I was in junior high. He worked at least a decade longer than he would otherwise have been able to do.
My parents were both intense Right To Life activists. My Dad ran for congress on that party line, something about which he’s very proud. I reassure him sometimes that yes, his name is still in Wikipedia for that.
Until the M.S. diagnosis, Dad smoked a lot, always outside the house and always under the pretense that we didn’t know about it. (They hoped we would not take up smoking.) We figure he has at least a 60-year-pack history, maybe more like 70. He did keep drinking after the diagnosis. He was never a pleasant drinker, and for a while in Nashville my sister kept him off beer because, she said, it caused urinary problems. (It did….)
But once he went on home hospice, about a year ago, she said I could bring him his favorite Polish beer, Zywiec. I found a place selling it about an hour away from my home in Michigan, drove there, loaded up the trunk with it, and drove down to Nashville instead of flying.
“Did you hear that, Dad?” my sister said while I was on the speaker-phone with them. “Alice is bringing Zywiec, and by car! So, you’d better pray for her safe travels!”
We all laughed at the joke.
When I’m leaving at the end of a visit, my father sometimes says, “I’m praying for you,” and I just say, “Thank you,” as I do whenever someone says that to me. I would prefer that I not cause him distress through my atheism, but I also know that I’m not going to fake it.
We moved Mom and Dad to Nashville just after the solar eclipse of 2017, to a place I had hastily had completely rehabbed to accommodate his disability. At that time, my father was telling me I was going to hell so often that I thought about bringing letters of recommendation from people who know me, testifying to my substantial public service, compassion, and ethical work. But then I realized that that would be giving in to pointless hope.
Still, I decided yesterday, when I was talking to my sister on the phone about the fact that we’re now in last days, to put off my trip down until Monday afternoon. That’s because I had promised to help a neighbor with something on Monday morning. She has a rental inspection that morning for the rental unit in her two-family house, a house she is hoping to save now that she has had to separate from the husband who beats her. She didn’t want to face the inspector alone, afraid that she might not understand what he was asking for her to get the license. I told her of course I will be with her.
After I hung up with my sister and before I booked my flights, I spent an hour and a half on the phone with another woman friend who was recently violently sexually assaulted. I’ve been working on getting her help where she is, and we’ve been talking. I’ve been trying to help her see how the things her brain is doing – messing with her memory, making her sleep a lot – that these are signs of a healthy brain trying to recover from trauma, but that she will still need professional help recovering. We also just talked about what else is going on, something I did on purpose to try to remind her there is more in her life than this huge moon hanging over her present darkness.
As I do these things, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to be raised by a mother who taught me to get involved and to take care of others. People look at me, an atheist sex-positive progressive, and my sister, a conservative Roman Catholic nun and physician, and they think we are so different. But we are both very clearly children of our mother.
I do not dread going to Nashville, because my sister and my mother are good company. All the things you feel with kin, I feel with them. And they don’t judge me, except in so far that my mother still thinks I don’t chop garlic the right way or load the dishwasher correctly.
Besides a black dress for the funeral and my mother’s string of pearls – a necklace she gave to me when she got old enough to worry reasonably that a New York EMT would steal it – I’m bringing with me, as usual, my pocket-sized copy of the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching. As I pack, I have on my mind Chapter 16:
Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return.
Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity.
If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king. Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.