Thursday, November 10, 2016

An Uncomfortable Anger

It was a quiet Sunday evening in the nursing home. Most visitors were gone, dinner trays had been picked up and many bedside lamps were switching off as the residents turned in for the night. The only sounds in Mom and Dad's room were the rhythmic whir and release of Dad's breathing respirator and the somewhat hushed conversation between me, Mom and my sister.

That weekend was unique and memorable on many levels. I went straight from the airport to the nursing home. As I greeted Dad, his eyes seemed to acknowledge my words in a way his voice and mind no longer could. A few minutes later my sister and I had a conversation with a hospice volunteer and then left to have a late dinner.

Sunday began with another brief visit to the nursing home, followed by a fun lunch with my sister and me and several cousins I hadn't seen in decades.

We returned that evening to see Mom and Dad. I knew Dad would die that week because he had refused to eat or drink anything for days. The staff kept him comfortable at our request but also respected the wish he had told us for many years: "I don't want to be on machines."

The respirator wasn't intended to keep him alive forever, but rather to assist his breathing for a few days. I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday the moment he took his last breath. He had not been responsive for days but an hour before he died he seemed to look at the scene in that room, with his wife of more than fifty years and his two children gathered around him, and in some way thought "ok, it's time; my family is here and they'll do just fine without me.  I can go."

Religious people say that when someone dies they're going to a better place. Religious people often say everything is God's will. If the 'better place' part is true and if there is a heaven, then I know Dad went there that night. But what I don't understand to this day, fifteen years later, is why he lived with Parkinson's disease for the last sixteen years of his life. Was that God's will?  Was it God's will that a man who spent most of his life helping people, designing quality buildings, working his ass off providing for his family, saving money to put his kids through college, delaying retirement for several years in order to save extra money to provide for his wife after his death, should live for sixteen years with a disease that robbed him of mobility, mental agility and dignity?

A few days later, during the funeral, I realized I was angry with God. That's an uncomfortable kind of anger. We are taught to love God or fear God. The idea of being angry with God had never crossed my mind. But there I was, looking for someone or something to blame for my Dad's years of suffering and loss of dignity. The funeral service included a Catholic mass but I skipped communion, probably freaking out the young priest and surprising my family members.  I held in my emotions till we were leaving the funeral home but I started sobbing on my way out. I was sad, angry and emotionally drained.  I was disappointed with myself for not visiting my Dad more often during the earlier stages of his disease, when we might have been able to resolve some lingering issues from decades earlier.

And I was angry with God for letting all this happen to my Dad during the last years of his life, eliminating the possibility of his living the retirement life that he had dreamed of for so long.

I don't really believe God controls every action or answers individual prayers to solve individual problems. If he/she did, then my Dad's Parkinson's would have gone away. If God controls actions then my Dad would have been rewarded for being the good man that he was. It feels like he was punished for something but I can't imagine my Dad ever doing anything so bad that he'd be punished with sixteen years of a debilitating disease. The disease just happened; it is what it is.

I don't think God works in this all-controlling way but it is difficult to clear my head of those beliefs, especially when surrounded by people who do believe those things.  I needed to blame someone that day and He was a convenient target.

There is usually a learning opportunity in these situations. What did I learn from my Dad's life and death? Prepare for the future but don't put off living in the present. There is no particular cause and effect relationship between the morality of how we live and the way in which we die. God is not a person sitting in heaven pulling us around like string puppets.

In writing this blog post I learned that lightening won't strike you dead if you ask serious, uncomfortable questions about religion. I also learned that this whole issue remains an unsolved mystery in my life.

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