Published in Concho River Review, Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, November, 2017 edition.
I come from a long line of atheists. My grandparents were atheists; my parents were atheists. My siblings and I were always encouraged to think for ourselves but along with this freedom was the assumption that we would evaluate facts in a scientific manner to prove or disprove conjecture. Just before my grandmother, Helen, died I went to visit her. She gave me her car and a box of books and papers. I was really busy so I didn’t look at the materials in that box until later.
Two weeks after my visit, the phone rang. The weird thing is, I picked up the phone before it started to ring. My father, who was on the other end, was startled. “Oh, you’re there,” he said with surprise. Then he told me that my grandmother had passed away. My children were small and I didn’t want them to hear me cry so I ran outside into our wooded yard and stood there in the dark looking up at the trees, sobbing hysterically. The moon came over the horizon and shone down on the backyard so it looked like snow, which I thought appropriate considering that my grandmother was from New Jersey.
I stood out there in the beautiful moonlight and wept, recalling how much she meant to me. She was the one who encouraged me to read, widely and often. She was the one who believed I could do anything, even when I was a shy, skinny kid. She encouraged my wicked sense of humor and told me it was good to think for myself, not wait for some man to “rescue” me.
When I went to visit her the last time, she told me about being in the hospital with terminal lung cancer and having a visit from a local minister. She told him she wasn’t religious and wasn’t interested in talking about God. He said, “Now, Helen, where do you think you’re going to go when you die?” Grandmother said, “Same place you are, fella, six feet under.” I laughed when she told the story.
Now, two weeks later the reality of her death set in. I would never see her again. I would never hear her laugh, never listen to her sarcastic comments, never be able to ask for advice. Devastated, I tried to muffle my cries. And then, I heard a voice. Cue the trumpets. Her voice. A voice that said, “It’s going to be all right.” And the strange thing is, I believed that. Because, one of the last things that my grandmother said to me before she died was, “If there’s anything out there, I’ll let you know.”
Okay, I know, I know. I’m not stupid. That was probably my subconscious comforting me. I understand that your brain can act as a shill for real experience. As researcher Warren S. Brown states in his article, Neuroscience and Religious Faith, it’s very possible that there is a specific molecule that allows for such a feeling of transcendence as I experienced that night. “A similar correlation has been found between measures of self-transcendence and a genetic marker for the dopamine transport molecule” (Brown, n.d., http://www.issr.org.uk/latest-news/neuroscience-and-religious-faith/). It could all be scientific.
A few months later, I finally got around to going through all the papers she gave me. There were dozens of pages of a family tree that showed the relatives on her side of the family, the Roth family, going back to the Revolutionary War. In almost every generation, there was a Lutheran minister. Yes, my atheist grandmother came from a long line of Lutheran ministers.
As a matter of fact, some of her relatives were responsible for the development of Theil College, in Greenville, Pennsylvania. The college has an affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. According to their website, “Institutional stability and development of Thiel College during its first decades in Greenville were achieved under the leadership of the brothers Henry and Theophilus Roth, Lutheran pastors who served respectively as Thiel president from 1870 to 1887 and 1893 to 1902, all but six of the first 32 years of the College!” (https://www.thiel.edu/about/history). I was stunned. After all those years of listening to my grandmother rant about how the churches should take their money and give it to the poor instead of hoarding it as gold crosses and expensive stained-glass windows, here I was looking at my family in a totally different light.
Somehow, knowledge of this longstanding affiliation with the church gave me the courage to begin attending church myself. I began going to the Episcopal Church in my hometown of Gainesville, Florida. My son, Bryan, became an enthusiastic attendee and eventually he and I were both baptized into the Episcopal Church. My daughter chose not to go and that was fine with me. As my parents had done for us, I gave my children a choice about whether to attend church or not.
My mother and I never talked much about religion. I knew she agreed with her mother that the church was an institution that hoarded wealth and fooled their parishioners into donating money they didn’t have. As a child, I wanted our family to go to church but she and my father refused to go and they never talked about religion. She let me attend with friends and relatives. When I grew older, we had some interesting discussions on the subject. Like her mother, she felt that religion was the last bastion of hypocrisy. People could excuse their behavior by saying, “Well, God forgives me.”
In my own life, I began to see religion in a different way. I saw it as a comfort. Religion could explain things that were not explainable. I had a dear friend, Jodi, who was at work one morning when she literally fell out of her chair and slipped into a coma. To this day, no one knows what happened. It’s possible she was taking drugs or drinking too much. No one has ever been able to confirm that. When she fell to the floor at work, a coworker tried to revive her, and finally, after a considerable amount of time, called 9-1-1.
At the time, Jodi and I both worked at the University of Florida. She was revived by campus police but was in what the doctors told me was a permanent vegetative state. According to the police she had been clinically dead for over 10 minutes by the time they arrived. I was told she would never survive. As she had no close relatives, it was my job to find someone related to her so we could issue a do not resuscitate (DNR) order.
I spent weeks in Jodi’s ICU hospital room, so many hours that eventually the nurses stopped telling me when visiting hours were and just let me stay. A distant cousin came to visit and issued the DNR. She also gave me permission to be Jodi’s guardian, in case any further decisions needed to be made. For weeks, we waited for her to pass on. She always seemed to move randomly, strange movements that the nurses referred to as “posturing.” I know a little more about this now – according to an article in the journal Critical Care, “Different types of abnormal movements may be seen in the comatose state and may represent motor paroxysms in the setting of cerebral herniation, such as flexor or extensor posturing secondary to severe brain injury and subsequent cerebral edema” (Hannawi, Abers, Geocadin, & Mirski, 2016). These movements were frightening to watch, as if she were possessed. And though she was often alone, her room was never quiet. The machines performed all necessary functions. She was forced to breathe, fed by tubes, evacuated by tubes. The fact that she was still alive weeks after the initial incident was a scientific miracle.
One day, I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. There was a kiosk in the hospital lobby that offered strong coffee, and I stopped to get a cup. The woman behind the coffee cart asked me who I was there to visit and I told her I was visiting my friend Jodi, who was in a coma and dying. The woman, who had a decided Caribbean accent, asked me if it would be okay if she said a prayer for my friend. I thought that was sweet. She took my hand, and in a loud voice, so loud that others in the lobby turned to stare, she began to pray, “Father God, please help this woman’s friend. Father God, please bring this woman’s friend back to this world. Or if it is your decision, Father God, allow her to pass on and join you in your beautiful kingdom.” Not used to this type of public display, I was rather embarrassed. My prayers were silent. My prayers didn’t involve a lobby full of people staring. The prayer was very long, and when it was over, I thanked the coffee lady and went back to Jodi’s room.
The next day my daughter, who worked at the hospital as a respiratory therapy aide, said, “Mom, you’re not gonna believe this – my supervisor says Jodi is breathing on her own. They want to remove the breathing tube.”
“There’s no way,” I answered. But the respiratory therapist chose to remove the tubes and surprisingly enough, Jodi did breathe on her own. Now I know there are these myths about people sitting up after months in a coma and saying, “Where am I?” Believe me, it’s not like that. It took months for Jodi to come back to the world. And because she had gone so long without oxygen, she had a severe anoxic brain injury. As her guardian, I was able to move her into an assisted living facility and she and I spent every holiday together.
Do I think that prayer brought her back to the land of the living? Of course not. Those wonderful medical people who never gave up even when her prognosis was “not a chance in hell” were the ones who brought her back. But why did it happen the day after the coffee lady prayed for her? One of the nurses told me that one night when Jodi was still recovering from the coma, she heard her talking to her grandmother. I pointed out that both Jodi’s grandmothers had been dead for over thirty years. Oh, by the way, Jodi was an atheist – she didn’t believe in life after death.
So okay, I want to find the scientific means to defer to the experts. I want them to locate proof that my grandmother told me it was going to be okay that night because she was the energy that existed in my back yard in the moonlight, and that the voice I heard was not my voice but her voice, her spiritual being, staying for a moment in her travels to comfort me. Why comfort me when she had so many children and grandchildren? I don’t know – maybe because I was the one who always argued with her, the one who wanted to find a way to unite religion and science. After all, why did she give me the family tree with all those Lutheran ministers in there? She knew I would keep them, preserve them, promote their legacy.
Out of respect for her feelings, I attempted to understand and find a solution to the dichotomy between science and religion that would work for me. I wanted to put my beliefs into some form that would not be insulting to my grandmother’s memory, that would not be at odds with my mother’s philosophy. As I began to explore, I started reading about physics. Why physics? Because the phrase, “Nothing created, nothing destroyed,” resonated. Because, according to an article in the Atlantic, “And now, equipped with the predictive power of quantum physics, theoretical physicists are beginning to push even further, into new universes and new physics, into controversies once thought to be squarely within the domain of theology or philosophy” (Anderson, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion-obsolete/256203/).
Of course, physics is so much more complicated than I can comprehend. Still, I found it reassuring, something I could tell my mother I believe in and she wouldn’t lecture me about the uselessness of religion. The First Law of Thermodynamics became my touchstone. As the All About Science Website explains, “In its simplest form, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. The amount of energy in the universe is constant – energy can be changed, moved, controlled, stored, or dissipated.” (http://www.allaboutscience.org/first-law-of-thermodynamics-faq.htm). And what was more energetic that the spirits of my mother and my grandmother?
If nothing could be destroyed, no one could really die. A person’s spirit would become a different form of energy and continue in the universe. I know this is a very simplistic reading of the laws – I’m an English major, not a scientist. But this theory can be expanded. Or should I say, it did expand in my befuddled brain.
My mother, Hazel, found out last year that she was suffering from congestive heart failure. She decided, at 84, that she had lived a good long life, and she wasn’t going to take any more treatment. When Mother went into Hospice, I visited her regularly and we had long conversations about religion and science. Mother was a social worker and a high school English teacher with a Master’s in Education. She, like her mother, Helen, was a brilliant person who read extensively and knew more about every subject than your average person. I tried to explain the miraculous science behind the First Law of Thermodynamics. She just laughed. She wasn’t willing to give me a pass just because I thought I’d found a way to make religious theory work with science.
Albert Einstein became one of my heroes. I read about the theory of relativity and became convinced that somehow, this was the solution to my attempt at uniting science and religion. If the earth could deflect space and time just by its slow movement, why couldn’t we move on in a different way even when our physical selves ended? Would you like to hear my theory of attraction? Okay, scientists, take a deep breath – I know I don’t have this down perfectly. I don’t care.
I imagined that on the space-time continuum, we could all reconnect at appropriate moments. Maybe we wouldn’t even know we were interconnected. Maybe there would just be a moment of comfort, a spell of silence from the aching thoughts that propelled us through our stressful world, a moment of moonlight in a darkened yard. As explained on Space.com, “He [Einstein] showed that the speed of light within a vacuum is the same no matter the speed at which an observer travels. As a result, he found that space and time were interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. Events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another.” If there is truly no “fixed frame of reference” (Redd, 2016, http://www.space.com/17661-theory-general-relativity.html), there is no beginning and no end. There is no end. Or, as Jodi would say, “Everything’s going to be all right, and we’re all going to the House of Pancakes” (Courtesy of the old TV show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074021/ ).
This is how we non-scientists comfort ourselves, by trying to make connections where perhaps none can be made. I’m not a physicist. I am, however, fascinated by the research. I was thrilled when the University of Florida, where I worked for so many years, announced that they had detected gravitational waves that reinforced Einstein’s theories (http://explore.research.ufl.edu/catch-a-wave.html). My ulterior motive is not that of a scientist – mine is only an attempt to make sense of something that makes no sense.
Because of my family history, I can’t routinely accept that I will be “saved.” I can’t dismiss as lost the beautiful lives of my mother and my grandmother, who, by the way, were two of the most helpful, loyal, sweet, caring people in the world. The list of people they helped throughout their lives is too long for this essay. Yes, they were modern women. They were strong, sarcastic, funny. But each would literally give you the shirt off her back. How did they deserve to go to “hell,” only because they refused to accept any religion?
My mother had very definite ideas about how her life would end. My youngest sister, Laurie, lived with her and took care of her, but Mother refused to allow any extraordinary measures to extend her life. She didn’t want to go to the hospital – she didn’t want any surgeries – she didn’t want tubes or breathing apparatuses, or machines. Like her mother before her, she made a decision that it was time to go and she was prepared. She made sure my father, who was in a veterans’ rehab facility for dementia, would be well-cared for. She made sure my sister, Laurie, would have financial security. To give Laurie a break from caring for my mother, I visited her frequently during the last year of her life, and every time I was impressed by how alert she was, despite having trouble breathing and being on morphine for pain.
Mom and I had long discussions about everything, how her grandchildren and great grandchildren were doing, how my dad would do after she passed away, what would happen to Laurie when she no longer had Mother to care for. And we talked about religion. A lot. Her attitude was so similar to that of her own mother, Helen, that it was amazing. She wasn’t afraid to die. She wasn’t afraid of what would happen if she didn’t accept some form of religion, or some savior. She was ready to go and did not believe there was anything beyond this life.
But there must be something more for them. The limited span of consciousness that is life is just not enough, because if it weren’t for them, so many people would not be alive today. My grandmother, Helen Roth Ihnen, had five children. My mother, Hazel Ihnen Thornton, had five children. And each of them was responsible for rescuing multiple people from tragic situations. They didn’t make a big deal about it. They just did it. After their deaths, people told me stories I didn’t know, about their kindness and their assistance. How could I see them in hell or as dust in the wind?
In early September, my mother called and said, “You need to come up here for a while. Your sister needs a vacation.”
“This isn’t a good time,” I answered. I’d already been to her house many times during the summer. I was very busy with work and various upcoming events. Apparently, I didn’t sense the urgency of the situation.
“You need to come now!” she said. The tone of her voice told me this was not optional. This wasn’t a visit. I got on the road immediately.
My sister, Laurie, had planned a vacation to visit my brother in North Carolina. We figured she would be gone for about ten days. I drove up and settled in, planning to cover for my sister for a week and a half.
The first night, Laurie was still there. Mom seemed fine, if a bit weak. The hospice nurses came by and we talked about her medications, the liquid morphine, how to get in touch if I needed them. My sister packed and headed off for her vacation in the mountains.
We spent the day, Sept. 10, 2016, talking about the presidential election, watching CNN and MSNBC, preparing for the ceremonies related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks coming up the next day. We talked about her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren. We talked about football. My parents were both football fanatics.
I should point out here that I married a man who once played football for the University of Florida. My parents were so excited when I started dating Ken. They couldn’t believe that their sports-hating daughter was going to marry a football player. They also adored him for the wonderful man he is. Once when I split up with Ken while we were dating, my mother insisted I go back and apologize to him. Without her, I wouldn’t have my decades-long marriage. So many people were guided by her in similar ways.
It’s easy to say that a bad person is going to hell. It’s easy to say that a non-believer is going to hell. What do you do about someone like my mother, whose list of charitable giving went beyond the norm but who refused to believe in the importance of any organized religion? What do you say about someone like my grandmother, who went out of her way for so many people, but thought religion was a con game perpetrated on the poor and the ignorant?
The first night after Laurie left, Mom started to get up out of her chair to go to bed. She was using a walker. She tried to stand but was unable to rise. “I can’t get up,” she said.
I ran over and tried to help her. I couldn’t get her up. “Mom, I’m going to call the hospice nurse, okay?”
“No,” she snapped. “Don’t call anyone. Don’t call anybody. Promise me.”
“You need to be able to lie down.”
“No, I don’t want any help. Please, you have to promise me.”
I didn’t want to promise. I felt so strange, sleeping on the couch beside her as she leaned back in her recliner, struggling to breathe. The night seemed to last forever. I would drift off to sleep for a few minutes, then wake when I heard her gasping for breath. She tried to talk, to tell me that she was happy, that she was lucky. At one time, I said to her, “You’ve had a wonderful life.” And she replied, “Yes, I have beautiful grandchildren.”
I have never been so close to the death of a human before. I’ve lost dogs and cats, but it’s different when it’s a sentient being who knows what’s happening. You don’t know what to say. Do you say goodbye? Do you say, I love you? I tried to tell her about my theory that when we die, we just become another form of energy. She waved her arms at me as if to say, “Just another one of those silly afterlife theories.” I didn’t pursue it.
I brought food she wouldn’t eat. I put her ventilator mask on and tried to help her breathe, but she took it off. I gave her small doses of morphine throughout the night, though it didn’t seem to help.
The next day, she seemed more alert. She still couldn’t get up, though, so I called my middle sister, Valerie, who lived an hour away in Birmingham and she drove up immediately. We debated whether we should call the hospice nurse despite Mother’s wishes. We were afraid she would end up in the hospital, furious at both of us for betraying her.
Eventually, we called 9-1-1 and asked the operator to send someone to help us move her. We explained that we didn’t want her transported to the hospital. The town sent a crew of firemen, who very sweetly shifted her into a wheelchair and transported her down the hall to her bed. She was embarrassed about needing their help. Still, she made jokes about how nice it was to be rescued by such handsome young men. They made jokes about how fun it was to help such a sweet old lady. They were all trying to be upbeat. My sister and I had to keep going outside to cry.
Mother had to be cleaned up once she got in bed. It was clear she was going downhill fast. Though she didn’t want us to, we called the hospice nurse, who came and showed us how to tend to her. The nurse asked me privately if I was prepared to be alone with my mother when she passed.
“Is anyone ever prepared?”
“We can move her to the hospital,” she said.
“Right, and she’ll hate me forever.”
“But –” The hospice nurse stopped. “Forever” is a relative term in those circumstances.
“No,” I said. “We can handle it.”
Valerie and I turned on the Alabama football game for her. We debated whether to call my younger sister or not. It occurred to us that Mother had deliberately sent her away because she didn’t want her to be there when she died. Or maybe she was afraid Laurie would insist she go to the hospital. I don’t know. But if we didn’t call, would Laurie hate us forever for not letting her know how fast Mom was going downhill? We called.
Laurie immediately jumped in the car in North Carolina and drove all night to get back to us. That night seemed unending. I held Mother’s hand as she gasped for breath, her breathing becoming slower and slower. Valerie prayed over her. As we sat there all night, waiting for the end to come, we read poetry to her, talked to her, whatever we could think of.
We were both relieved when Laurie finally got there. My sisters were out in the living room talking when I sat in the room with my mother for the last time. I held her hand and whispered, “You’re okay, you’re okay.” She was practically thrashing now, almost as if she were having convulsions, the kind Jodi had when her coma was at its deepest. Posturing. I kept saying, “You’re going to be okay, you’re all right.” I knew from my experience with Jodi that hearing is the last sense to go.
Finally, I said, “You’re all right and we’re going to be all right.” To my astonishment, she stopped flailing, opened her eyes, stared at me, and smiled. Faintly, it’s true, but it was definitely a smile. And then, like a breeze, she was gone. I don’t mean she died then. It would be hours before the labored breathing stopped, hours before the liquid morphine began to bubble up out of her mouth, the fluids left her system, the convulsions stopped. What I mean is that I could feel her self, her personality, her spirit, whatever you want to call it, leave her body. The body was still there but the person who was that person was no longer there.
When it was all over, we three stood over her bed, unsure what to do. Finally, we called the hospice nurse, who brought in all kinds of people to take care of everything, removing the body, filling out paperwork, etc. We were devastated. You would think after all those months of hospice care, we would have been more prepared for her death, but no.
I drove back home the next day. There was no reason to stay. There would be no funeral – she didn’t want any kind of religious service.
On my way home, I turned a corner in the foothills of the Appalachians and the sunlight, which was just coming up, hit the tops of the trees at an angle which made the woods look like they were catching fire. I thought of my mother missing this beauty. Hysterical, I pulled off the to the side of the road. Yes, you can say, see that light shining through those trees, illuminating those woods? That happens because the light enters your eye through the pupil, passes through the lens, focuses on the retina, blah blah, blah. And that would be true. But tell me why, scientifically, when I saw that light shining through those trees on my way home, did I find it so insufferably beautiful that it made me cry?