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The last rites

I'm an atheist. My wife was an atheist too, with occasional lapses. She had serious medical issues, and twice when she was hospitalized she met with a chaplain. I was with her for both sessions, at her request.

At the first meeting with a hospital chaplain, she said specifically that she was an atheist, and asked for some kind of explanation for why her health was so ragged when she'd done nothing to deserve it. The chaplain offered some platitudes, and we weren't impressed.

At the second meeting with a different chaplain a few years later, she called herself an agnostic instead of an atheist, and gave the chaplain an extensive list of reasons why God, if he existed, was a certified piece of shit. It was actually kind of hilarious. But she also said she wasn't sure about anything, and they talked about Pascal's Wager.

After I brought her home from the hospital that time, and her health got better, we had some conversations where she told me she could see the appeal of belief. "You don't have to wonder why. You don't have to ponder the big questions, or the little questions, or anything at all. You just accept it all for the glory of Big Daddy in the Sky."

"So," I asked her as a joke, "Do you want to go to church on Sunday?"

"No," she answered emphatically. "And I still don't believe in anything about religion."

Long pause.

"But," she continued, "If I'm ever in the hospital again, and they think my prognosis is poor, I might want to see a chaplain again. Is that OK?"

"Sweet Jesus," I answered. "Of course it's OK. You're my wife and I love you, and I'd love you even if you started sending tithes to Franklin Graham."

"I'm not doing that, not ever."

Fast forward several years, and my wife was recently in the hospital again. After a week and a half in Intensive Care, her heart stopped in the middle of the night, and despite the best efforts of fourteen doctors and nurses huddled around her bed shouting orders and performing CPR, I saw the MDs and RNs making eye contact with each other. They knew it was futile.

So I asked a few of the nurses to step aside, and someone put a chair behind me, and I sat down, took my wife's hand, and told her goodbye with tears running all over my face.

A chaplain stepped into the room, and politely asked if I'd like him to say the last rites. I'm so unreligious I didn't really know what the last rites are, beyond a cliché from TV shows. But I remembered what my wife had told me, so I said yes. He recited the 23rd Psalm while I continued blubbering to my wife. As the monitors over her bed started flatlining, the chaplain asked if there was anything else he could do, and I completely forgot that he'd done the last rites, so I said, "I think she might want you to read her the last rites," and he recited the 23rd Psalm again.

I'm OK with all of this, except for the part where my wife died.

When I shuffle off this mortal coil, I'm pretty sure I'll want nothing to do with Big Daddy in the Sky. No fairy tales for me, please. But I won't judge anyone harshly if they choose to grasp at a fictional God in their darkest moments.

I don't believe in anything but love, and I know I'll never see my wonderful wife again, neither in Heaven nor Hell. But that said, take whatever comfort you can find, when you're desperate. So long as you don't use your God to make other people miserable, go in peace.



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