The atheist letters: A death that led to life (Part 2)

by Don Hartness

(For Part 1, click here)

One day, we found him face down in the backyard.

My grandfather was rushed to the hospital. After a battery of tests,  the doctors revealed an unusual condition: his bone marrow was not producing enough white and red blood cells. His condition required an immediate blood transfusion.  After the procedure, the doctor pulled my mother aside and informed her that this condition almost always developed into leukemia: it was only a matter of time.  When my mother broke the news to the family, they accepted it with a quiet finality.

Everybody, that is, except my grandfather.  His will and constitution was just like his hands: pure iron.  His constitution was attributed to a healthy diet, vigorous exercise, and a rigorous temperance that avoided all excess. His will was jokingly attributed to his Sicilian stubbornness. You simply didn’t tell Charlie “no”. Even if you somehow did, the guilt would eat you up, because Charlie didn’t ask unless it needed to be asked.

So, when my grandfather received the news about his condition, he refused it. My grandfather had a responsibility to his wife, and he wasn’t about to allow some damn disease to prevent him from fulfilling that responsibility. He simply wouldn’t allow it.

The blood transfusions returned him to his normal lively self, but the effect was never long.  As the weeks wore on, he would slip further and further into a lethargic listlessness, eventually requiring another blood transfusion.  Transfusions would become a part of his life.  Two month intervals became six weeks…then five…all the way down to every two weeks.  Eventually, a blood transfusion only revived him to a semi-functional state.

In spite of the drain, he amazed the doctors.  He never contracted leukemia. When one of his knees deteriorated, and the required  surgery was ruled out due to the high risk of infection (something he could never fight off in his condition), he simply acquired a cane and continued.  The cane later became a walker. None of it mattered. He simply refused to quit.

My grandparents entered into a morbid, silent race.  The first contestant was my grandmother, slowly dying from a series of small strokes, each one eroding either a small part of her memory, or her ability to speak, or her motor control.  The other contestant was my grandfather, his body rebelling against him in spite of his determination.

The finish line was death. My grandfather was determined to finish second.

After an hour of television, I get up.  The oppressive atmosphere is simply too much to handle for long periods of time.  Patting my grandfather’s hand, I make a lame excuse about having to do homework and leave the room.  Walking back to my room, I sit down with a heaviness comparable to the atmosphere in his room. 

For the first time, I question God’s existence.

My grandfather taught my mother (who, in turn, taught me) all about being Catholic.  I was a member of the Roman Catholic Church since birth.  I could tell you the name of the Pope, the name of the monsignor, what a rosary was for (and how to use it), what the sacraments were, which event was coming up next on the liturgical calendar, and so many other points of church doctrine, all without blinking an eye.  I was always the top student in Sunday school and never missed a Sunday (you better be dead or dying to miss mass).  I was a prominent youth leader, having gone through the sacraments in order.  Ours was the only true faith.  If you aren’t Catholic, you are doomed to hell: convert, or get used to it.

Oh yes, I believed in the Roman Catholic Church. But I didn’t believe in God.

At least, I had no clear conception of God. God was the church, for the church was the medium through which God spoke to His faithful. God was the smell of incense. God was gold candlesticks, gold-inlaid books, and the priest (or “father”) with his long flowing robes, conferring his blessings on everyone.  God was a set of laws and moral teachings, an altar and altar boys, huge cathedrals, and stained glass pictures of the nativity scene and canonized saints.

Who is God? Why, he’s that elderly gray-bearded man in that picture, overlooking all the angels.

I never really prayed before, at least not in a petition.  Sure, I could say the “Our Father”, the “Hail Mary”, and I could also recite the entire “Nicene Creed”, all  while imagining playtime with my friends later that afternoon. Shoot, I could even recite the “Hail Holy Queen” prayer, something I was proud of, since few Catholics could recite that one by rote.

“Desperate times” and all that sort of thing. The scene between my grandparents was becoming grotesque. Their suffering was intense. Somewhere in my catechism upbringing, I was taught that God answers the prayers of children, and I was still considered a child in the eyes of the law. I was a good boy (at least in comparison to my peers), I stuck to the straight and narrow, and I had a number of witnesses in the church who could affirm my Catholic resume.

So it was to my mental image of the elderly man with the long gray-beard that I prayed.  I asked Him for a favor.  I told Him that I understood if it was my grandparent’s time to die but, please God, my grandfather was suffering. Can’t his suffering be over just a little quicker?  If that meant taking my grandmother sooner, then so be it – her suffering had also gone on long enough.  What was the use of drawing him out to the bitter end.  He wants to go home, to be with you.

Could you just make it a little quicker? Please?

The race to death between my grandparents lasted almost three long, agonizing years.

(To be continued)