The atheist letters: A death that led to life (Part 3)

by Don Hartness

(For Part 1, click here)

I told myself that it was because of the smell, that pervasive mix of urine and vomit. But it was all a cover, just like the potpourri disinfectant used to mask the smell. The real reason? That woman was not my grandmother.

“Hi Mom,” my mother says softly as she enters the room with my grandfather. She leans slightly over the hospital bed and adjusts the pillows. “How you feelin?”

My grandmother, head turned away and staring out the window, doesn’t give a reply. It’s uncertain whether she is in one of her trances, or whether she is angry about something. As my mother disappears around the corner to refill her drink cup, it becomes clear that it’s the later.

“Charlie, I want you to stop seeing that woman!” my grandmother exclaims. She doesn’t know that “the woman” in question is still in the room, just around the corner. I look at my mother and see her wince in pain at the knowledge of who she is today.

“I’m not seeing anyone,” my grandfather replies as he brushes a lock of hair away from her eyes. “That’s your daughter,” he continues, knowing full well that the identification is futile. My mother comes back around the corner, setting the cup on the nightstand. She, too, knows it’s futile, but the emotion is too much for her today. The tears begin to well up in her eyes.

“Mom, it’s me,” she whimpers, fighting back the tears. “It’s me, Mom,” she repeats. My grandmother turns her head back towards the window, unconvinced.

The week before, she was a long dead relative. The days where she was simply my grandmother’s daughter were becoming less and less. It was destroying my mother.

I was often successful at resisting the visits, but not always. Occasionally, it was a bribe of lunch, a hollow reward for time-served. Other times, I was shamed into it. Sometimes, I was able to convince myself that it was for the moral support and for my grandfather, not this strange woman with no recognition in her eyes. Regardless, with each visit, I was left with the futility of it all. That, and a growing sense of rage.

It was almost two years since my prayer. My grandfather, a shining example of strength, virtue, and moral fiber to everyone that knew him, instead of swiftly finishing the race and gracefully bowing out, was taking longer to die than almost any other medically documented case in the history of his condition. It was a testimony to his will; it was also a testimony to his pain, since his wife was also taking far too long to die.

The more I prayed, the longer it seemed to go on, and the angrier I got. I was asking questions that nobody could answer. Why do good people suffer? Why does God allow suffering? Why are so many prayers unanswered? Why should I believe anything you say about God? How do you know God is real? I imagined all of my upbringing, all of my beliefs, and everything I was taught as a small sack, doused with kerosene.

And in my hand was a lighted match.

November. Among the backdrop of paper-machete turkeys and Christmas decorations, I walk into her room, trailing my haggard mother and shuffling grandfather, slowly pushing his walker ahead of him. I can’t remember the proud man from just a few years ago. That time is ancient history.  

It’s been months since I’ve seen her. “It won’t be much longer now,” my mother whispers to me one day, staying out of earshot of my grandfather. “You should come and say your good-byes.” I nod numbly, not really believing my mother (“not much longer” was months ago) but unable to fight. As I walk into the room, I realize that my mother was telling the truth: this time is different. The only evidence I need is the one word that she can still utter…


…in an unending chain. Occasionally she breaks out of her monologue to say something incomprehensible, only to devolve again into her one word speech. Nobody knows if this is a genuine cry or the only word left in her vocabulary. The only break is when she sleeps, which is thankfully often.  I mumble a goodbye that is a cross between “hope you feel better” and “miss you”, even though the first is pointless and the second is a foregone conclusion. I then spend the rest of my visit sitting outside on the curb. It’s the last time I’ll ever see her.

She passes away on Thanksgiving, finally releasing my grandfather from his arduous course.  After her burial, my grandfather decides to stop the transfusions and let nature take its course. Less than two months later, I awake to my mother standing over my bed, crying.  She isn’t able to say a word, but she doesn’t need to.  It’s over.  

I walk into his bedroom and look at his cold, ashen face.  It wasn’t supposed to have happened like this. A storm begins to break within me.  Here I was, doing everything I  should according to parental, scholastic, religious and social standards, all like my grandfather, who was my role model for everything righteous, noble, and holy.  And yet, here he was, lying dead before me after one of the longest bouts of suffering that I had ever seen anybody go through. 

If suffering is indiscriminate, what is the point of morality?

I dropped out of all religious activities, stopped going to church, and rejected God outright.  I gave up on school and my grades started to slide, going from a borderline A student to barely graduating.  The day I turned 18, I moved out of my parent’s house in defiance. 

I didn’t know what the truth was or where to find it, but I knew the truth was not in the rearview mirror.