THE LAST WORDS OF AN ATHEIST
Following is a picture of Dad and Mom on their wedding day.
They were married 61 years.
Dad always maintained that he did not believe there was a person who made the universe and all of us. He was nonetheless a caring and grateful man. He had many friends, partly because he spent a large portion of his life helping people. It didn’t matter who they were; all that was required to attract his desire to help was to need it. They could be wanted by the law; they could be down and out and on the road. Or it could be someone with much more than Dad ever had, with not a care in the world except that they had a leaking sprinkler system, and Dad would be there to help.
Dad never went to church unless there was something going on that he wanted to see – like one of us giving a talk or playing an instrument – then he would go to see that.
When I was 15, he picked up a hitch-hiker, who turned out to be about five years older than I, maybe 20. I got into the back seat, and the hitch-hiker sat in front with Dad. His name was John, and we were to come to be quite acquainted with him. During the ride, John said that he was a diabetic, that he was out of insulin, and could use five dollars to buy some – that he could die if he didn’t get it. This was about 1955. Dad asked no questions – simply pulled out his wallet, and gave John the five dollars, which I suppose is about like twenty now. Well, I don’t know – a house then that was $16,000 just sold for over $200,000, so maybe that five was about like fifty now.
Dad asked John if he had a place to stay. John said, “No.” So our hitch-hiker came home to stay the night.
That night, while we were all sleeping, Dad looked through John’s little suitcase. In the morning, he wanted to talk with John, which he did in front of us all, which included Mom and my two brothers.
“John, I looked through your suitcase last night – and found there - three full vials of insulin. Evidently you were telling the truth about the diabetes, but what about when you told us that you were out of insulin?”
Most likely, Dad was breaking a few laws searching that suitcase, but he grew up on a farm, was severely pragmatic, and needed to know more than we knew he needed to know. You see, Dad had already decided that he wanted to offer John a home for a while. Dad had noticed that the young man had lost his footing and needed assistance. At 15, I was the oldest boy in our family – two younger than that – and Dad wanted to know just a little more before putting forth such an offer to a 20 year old in our small house of only two bedrooms.
John said, “I’m sorry I lied to you. My experience has been that if I tell someone I have three vials of insulin and ask them for money, I don’t get the money. Then if I really do run out, I can’t stay alive for even a day.”
“I see,” said Dad, “John – I would have given you the five anyway – and I want your promise that you will never lie to me again.”
John made the promise, and Dad assured him that his privacy would not be compromised again.
I don’t know when the invitation occurred, or if it was
just allowed to continue on a day-to-day basis, but John lived with us for some
time, maybe half a year. Dad got him a job at the Old Mission Inn in
We all learned what diabetes was – had to bring John out of insulin shock a couple times with something sugar-laden. It was amazing how fast it worked. If he had been in sugar shock, then that would not have worked – but it’s not particularly dangerous to give sugar – and then we would have given insulin. I don’t remember there being a self-test kit, though that could be something John did not do at the dinner table. If you give insulin when the problem is insulin shock, that is very dangerous, so you always use sugar first.
When John left, our family had two cars. Dad gave the lesser one to John. It was the same car we had picked John up in half a year or so earlier. We heard from John for years in letters and Christmas cards.
Perhaps twenty years later, John’s Mother – from
John is only one example of a whole lifetime of such as this. Dad always helped people. I could never forget the night he came home with a whole family. It was the preacher, the preacher’s wife, and four preacher’s kids. I have no idea how Dad made that contact. It’s not likely it was from going to the “revival.” This family stayed only the one night. Mom was the Christian of our two parents – and when we sat to eat with this new preacher and his family, she asked one of us boys to say a blessing for the food. (This was not usual for us, but we all knew how to do it for special occasions, like Thanksgiving.) In our experience that always meant just one person talking, but this little family was very enthusiastic about that blessing, and I think the one of us who said the prayer could hardly keep his thoughts straight as he spoke the words. We heard “Praise Jesus!” and “Oh thank you, Lord!” and “Amen! Oh Amen! Thank you, Jesus!” And this was not just the preacher – it was also his wife – and all the kids – but especially the oldest daughter, who must have been a kind of “right-hand-man” at revival time. We’ve laughed about it since – but you know – at the time – it was not funny – there was no question it was a kind of spiritual experience for us. They really were all feeling very grateful. Dad always much appreciated gratitude – I think because it was something he always had in abundance.
In younger years, Dad had tried to go to college, but was expelled for stealing a ping-pong table that he could not stand to see sitting out in the weather and never used. Most likely, he would have been giving it to someone – or perhaps painting it, repairing it, and returning it end of term, making good use of it in the meantime. Sometimes relatively small events determine an awful lot of the future, but who’s to say what might have been better or worse? Most likely the changed events would have led to a very different life, and a different wife – and I wouldn’t be writing any of this. (I suppose Mom and I have to be glad he stole that ping-pong table.)
All of it – everything - was an amazing “miracle” for him. He thought of evolution, the process itself, as among the greatest of all miracles. Sometimes his gratitude would be for man’s accomplishments – the tools – eventually the trip to the moon. All these things always had his full attention. He was always “amazed.” He grew up in hard times – had to be taken from his family at a young age to work, etc., eventually in the old CCC. His memories of all that hard time seemed mostly filled with gratitude for people, including relatives who took him in. He talked quite a lot of his older brother – and in a particularly tender way for his baby sister, whom he loved beyond compare.
Once, I shared a quote with Dad:
“To find everything
profound, that is an
- Walter Kaufmann
And I remember that being an uncomfortable conversation. It’s one of those things one would like to not have said. I understood that quote, I thought, but Dad understood it differently. For him, it took life; for me it was about efficiency of thought. But you know - I continue to feel more and more as he felt - stopping to smell roses is not really about efficiency.
The last seven years of life, Dad and Mom lived with
us. Dad never missed a
Dad and Mom were mostly independent during those seven years – way over on the other side of the house at night and filling their own needs during the days. Until Dad got cancer.
He never smoked – never chewed – but still he got a cancer on the side of his tongue. He became quite interested in all the physics of this, even while going through great suffering. It seemed to me, in a way, that an atheist had an advantage – cancer as an accident of nature and evolution, rather than something allowed by a loving God perfectly capable of stopping it.
He had it cut out – and there was radiation therapy, which dried up his saliva capability, but did not kill the cancer. Eventually the doctors decided nothing else could be done unless Dad wanted almost half his face, tongue, and neck removed for a small chance of success. Dad declined, but even that was difficult, as he loved life so much. He said that he was not afraid to die, but he was afraid to live badly.
He could still talk. He loved talking, so I took the opportunity to talk a little more than usually about more important things. He had been asked by caring members of the Mormon Church if he would like to be administered to – a laying on of hands – using a special oil that has been blessed - for healing. He said he didn’t have any confidence in that, but thanks anyway. They then told him they would pray for him at least. He said he couldn’t stop them from doing that – and that he appreciated that they cared. (As I stated earlier, Dad went to church only for something special – usually when one of us were functioning in some way. But during this seven years living in our home, he had decided to attend once a month – as a present for Mom.) I asked Dad if there was anything different about his feelings about religion – God, etc., when he was so aware of death coming. He said no – not different. I asked if he ever feels a belief in God. He said, “Well – what do you mean? – Some people regard the universe as god. I do believe there is a universe.” I said I meant a personal God, like a person. He said, “No – no god like that. I don’t believe a person ever existed without an environment and then made the environment and all of us.”
After not too much longer, he could not swallow at all and had to have a feeding tube installed directly to his stomach. He poured food into a funnel, and it went by gravity through a tube attached directly to the middle of his torso (on his tummy.)
There was one Thanksgiving to come before he died. The family was ready at the table, and we heard the blender going in the kitchen. Dad had inserted turkey, mashed potatoes – all the trimming – even some cranberry sauce - into the blender. He came to the table – fed himself through that funnel – and made remarks about how wonderful the different items were. In great pain – no tasting at all – but he was actually enjoying himself having memories of it all and being able to share it once more with the family. Everyone knew Dad. No one thought any of this particularly out of character. Dad liked attention, and he had every one of us focused as he expressed his thanksgiving – not to God – but to all of us – and to nature.
It was becoming ever more difficult for him to talk – painful. We recently found a note he had left for Mom about this time.
(Mom wanted him to stay and feared his going, and had been desiring more communication. He was frustrated.)
Eventually, the pain and other problems became unwieldy, and we had a new education in our home with Hospice. This is when the doctor has decided that death is at the doorway – or if not soon, at least sure, and the goal now becomes comfort rather than life. If one returns for services to his doctor that have anything to do with extending life, then Hospice service is terminated.
Dad knew he was ready to die. His fear of it appeared very minor. He loved living, but this was just part of it all – something he had always expected but would love to have had wait a little longer.
Toward the end, both pain and pain medication were at such a level that Dad was disappearing by inability to communicate. He could make a little “Uh uh,” same for yes or no. And the last few days not even that much.
But I remember his last words. I’ll never forget his last words.
The Hospice lady was here – talking with us at Dad’s bedside. We were telling her about Dad’s attitude – so positive and cooperative with us all. She said, “You are so lucky to have a husband and a father like him.”
Evidently, though he could not speak, his brain was functional enough to be much bothered by what she had said, because he was visibly disturbed – kind of moving his fingers back and forth toward a table at the side of his bed. He could hardly lift his arm from his side.
The Hospice lady determined that he wanted his suction device – for sucking liquid from his mouth. She put it in his hand. It had a tube – and a plastic part about a foot long that had a bend near the end – like we’ve all seen used at the dentist’s office, but longer and with a handle for self-use. She had turned on the suction, but Dad didn’t need that.
He tried to lift his head a little – and began poking himself in the chest with the device – over and over. Each time it touched his chest, the hissing would stop, so it went hiss - - hiss - - hiss. He didn’t have to lift his arm – just moving his hand, the device could reach his chest.
It was the Hospice lady who figured it out. She said, “You’re trying to say you are lucky – you are the lucky one.”
He slumped back with the last thing that might qualify as a smile I ever saw in him. He looked immensely satisfied. She had nailed the message.
“I am the lucky one.”
Not long thereafter, by the time the morning came in which he did not waken, he had said nothing more. They were his last words.
I am one of his three biological sons, but there were many more than these – and daughters too.