The last rites

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

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

At the second meeting, with a different chaplain in a different hospital a few years later, she called herself an agnostic instead of an atheist, and gave him an extensive list of reasons why God, if he existed, was an absolute piece of shit. The chaplain didn't say much in God's defense, and 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, "something goes sideways every few months, and I'm back in a hospital again. Some time when I'm there in that horrible place, and they think my prognosis is poor, I might want to see a third chaplain. 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 asked if they should keep trying, but it was obvious that it was futile.

Next they asked if I wanted to be alone with her, and I did (and still do). 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, that she might want to see a chaplain again, so I said yes.

He recited the 23rd Psalm while I continued blubbering to my wife. And then, as the monitors over her bed beeped and flatlined, the chaplain asked if there was anything else he could do.

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.

So my atheist or agnostic wife left this world while a guy in a silly outfit read scriptures in King James English, twice.

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

I don't believe in anything but love, and know I'll never see that woman again. Not in Heaven, not in Hell, only in my memories, but they're damned good memories.

I don't hate religion. So long as you don't use your God to make other people miserable, go in peace.

When it's my turn to die, I'll probably want nothing to do with Big Daddy in the Sky. No fairy tales for me, please — but I reserve the right to change my mind at the very, very last moment.

And I don't judge anyone who reaches out for a god in the darkest of dark moments. When you're desperate, take whatever comfort you can find.

I'm pretty sure my beloved Stephanie was already gone by the time the chaplain walked in, but if in any real sense she was still there, still reaching for something, I hope she found it.

Republished: 5/6/2023  


  1. I know you hated the film, but Roger Ebert's two reviews of Malick's "Tree of Life" (which he placed in his final personal top ten of all time) address some of the same issues you wrote about here.

    I'm not the biggest Ebert fan, but he was a good, thoughtful writer in general - but his essays about the film move me as much as the film itself.



    "Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine."

    1. Through the first 40 years of my adult life, Ebert was on TV, and I sorta took him for granted until the last few years of his life. He was wrong about the movies a lot — I was more a Siskel man — but when he wasn't on TV, when he was writing, dang, the man could write.

      Right or wrong, I'd rather read a review by Ebert than by anyone else, even one of the many reviews where he was dead wrong about the movie.

      His TREE OF LIFE essays are two of those, and still great reads. Not enough to convince me to try the movie again, though...

  2. I've told this story before so I'll try to make it brief. I was always a Siskel man myself, but it was Roger Ebert who went to a movie to review it, found it to be terrible, walked out, went looking for a beer, and walked in on John Prine, playing a set in a hole-in-the-wall bar just outside Chicago. That night he wrote a review of John Prine in his movie column that appeared the next day. That led to Prine playing to packed houses (in small bars) in Chicago, which led to Kris Kristofferson stopping by the bar where Prine was playing and inviting him to come to New York to play for Kristofferson's label. The label guys liked him and recorded and published Prine's first album. A 40 year career followed.

    The story is more complicated than that, but that's a summary.

    Here's the column Ebert published.



    1. And that's me discovering John Prine, too.

    2. Ebert's review is so well-written, it makes you just want to go see this singing mailman. The place he was playing was small, and Prine was only playing Sunday nights. After Ebert's review was published, Prine began playing on Saturdays as well, then on Fridays too. They still kept selling out. Ebert's review, like Prine's playing, writing and singing, was touched with magic. Ebert was reluctant to take credit for Prine's success. He said Prine was too good not to make it big, but there are some brilliant musicians and singers who never quite get a break. I'd never thought of Ebert as modest, but Prine sure as hell thought he was. The arc of Prine's career changed that week, or, more precisely, Prine's career developed an arc that week.


    3. Yup.

      And all I'd add — no slight against Prine, who was terrific — is that there are millions of marvelous artists who never find their Ebert.

  3. Doug, it kills me how little I knew Steph. I met her maybe... 5 times? Maybe? Your words about her, and how she made you feel, never fail to make me tear up. I wish she didn't miss the snow so much. Maybe y'alls and me and Shawna could've been closer.

    But still, here we are now. All love to you, my dear friend.

    1. Your hand off my butt, please.

      In my memory the four of us hung out a lot, but I remember about five specific times so that's probably all there were — a movie at Opera Plaza, that steakhouse on Army Street, your place a few times, plus your wedding. And then we moved away...

      Hell of a dame she was, thanks.

    2. Honestly, I'm old and my brain is swiss cheese. Could've been two dozen times.

  4. Some people never find the real thing. You did, and I add my love modestly to the wise words of the Captain. I never met Stephanie, but your wonderful descriptions bring you both close to my heart. I read your writing from before Stephanie and after her. She gentled your spirit.


    1. She made me a much better man, but I'm working on unraveling that.


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