Two weeks ago, I had the experience of watching my dear father die. He was 95 years old and had lived a rich and wonderful life - spending the majority of it (71 years) married to my mother. Although they were brought up in marginally Christian homes and attended church as children and young adults, neither of my parents were/are religiously inclined. Dad would have been best described as an agnostic - willing to accept that there might be a supernatural realm or intelligent creator, but finding no connection or interest in any personal theology. Mom is a "quiet" atheist, unlike her youngest son - sharing her lack of belief with just a few cherished friends and family. Her atheism was the result of deliberate consideration and deep contemplation after years of studying philosophy, culture and theology. She was a eighth grade drop out from a depression era family, who started back to school (an college) as a almost forty year old housewife, eventually earning a masters degree with highest honors and teaching English to 8th graders for 20+ years.
My father managed to die as he had always wished - in the comfort of his own bed with our mom and his three children at his side. Watching him pass was a cascade of emotions for us - that personal, somewhat selfish, sense of loss... great pride in what this modest, kind and decent man had accomplished, the binding unity and family pride that comes from an intense and meaningful shared experience. Somewhat surprisingly, we felt a sense of accomplishment with the ease with which dad was able to let go and die, peacefully. I honestly believe, the four of us still among the living found comfort with our own mortality issues.
I stayed with dad until the mortuary worker took his body away and I helped lift his corpse onto the gurney... at that point, the cold, withered frame was no longer my father. It (not he) was a strange, hollow shell. I was looking at a gray mannequin, an inanimate representation, completely detached from the person we knew - a modest man of impeccable honesty, generosity and humor. My atheist mother and I don't believe that dad is anywhere other than held dearly in our cherished vivid memories. We think that a life well lived is like a good book, a narrative that has a beginning, a full and rich cast of characters and experiences and, of course, a definitive ending.
Shortly before dad died, my mom found out she has advanced cancer which will end her 92 year life within the year. She didn't tell my father because she was aware that her illness would make it far more difficult for him to let go. Since dad passed, we've been opening up to each other about how non-believers, like ourselves, deal with the reality of death, the "mythological" projections of an afterlife and what "meaning" we can extract from these natural experiences.
In the coming months, my mother will certainly give me plenty to think about. I might just share what I've found out with interested (and compassionate) people.
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