Hi there. Well, this blog entry will be a bit different. I am in the early stages of writing a memoir focusing on my transition from a fervant fundamenatlist to a free-thinking atheist.Today, I am going to post one of the stories that will likely be in the book.
My mom passed away on January 1, 2005. So, rather than posting an entry that talks about her death on what is supposed to be a joyous celebration, I have decided to post it today.
I look forward to your comments (and editorial critiques if you wish!). Here’s the story – it’s called, “Mom’s Anguish”
The insidious growth of Mom’s brain tumour was having its predictable effects. Now in the palliative care wing of St. Peter’s hospital in Hamilton, she was increasingly tired and confined to bed. Her voice was weak, her body emaciated and her lucidity sporadic. Death was relentlessly creeping closer and would claim her in just a few weeks.
As is common in cases of brain cancer, Mom’s personality had shifted radically as the cancer had grown. Once the consummate Scottish stoic, the ballooning tumour had turned my mom into a weepy, gushing sentimentalist who now would proclaimed repeatedly “I love you, oh, I love you, I love you, I love you,” all the while stroking me with her bony hands. Words I had longed to hear all my life were now uttered profusely. But it wasn’t my mom who was speaking – it was a brain tumour.
What had not changed were my mom’s religious convictions. In fact, death’s approach only served to heighten them.
Our family was part of the fundamentalist tradition that originated in the late 1800s in North America. We had the Baptist version of the disease and I had grown up convinced that the Bible was the literal word of God, Jesus was the Son of God who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and that salvation involved a conscious decision to repent of one’s sins and ask Jesus into your life. The necessary corollary was that those who didn’t accept Jesus, or worse, who had but then turned away from the truth (the dreaded term that described this was “apostasy”), were doomed to eternal suffering and punishment in hell. This was fervently preached in the church in which I grew up and as a child and young adult, I fervently believed it. Indeed, as a pastor in the Baptist church, I fervently preached it.
However, between the ages of thirty-five and forty, I had gone through a traumatic and troubling process of de-conversion. No longer able to suppress the doubts that had been emerging at a glacial pace since my mid-twenties, at thirty-five, I began to acknowledge to myself that I wasn’t really sure if I believed in the Bible as the authoritative word of God. In 1994, I left the church where I was pastoring to give myself time to figure things out. I was never to return.
By the age of forty, I had become a full-fledged agnostic. A couple of years later, I had come out of the closet, both to myself and to others, and admitted that, for all practical purposes, I was, in fact, an atheist. I hadn’t told my mom and siblings about it, but they knew that I was no longer attending church and that religion seemed very far away from my life. From this, they concluded, correctly, that I was now an apostate.
This knowledge brought great anxiety to my mom as she lay dying in her hospital bed.
One Saturday in late November, 2005, I had made the journey from Toronto to Hamilton for a visit with my mom. My sister, Wendy, and her husband, Wayne, both of whom are still fervent believers, accompanied me. As soon as we entered the room, we could tell Mom was not in a good place emotionally. She was agitated and crying. I went over to the bed to comfort her and, with all the strength she could muster, she grabbed my hand and proceeded to ask me through her tears, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus anymore?”
The question caught me off guard. One of the chief rules of our family had always been “DO NOT TALK ABOUT ANYTHING UPSETTING TO ANYONE!” The fact that my Mom asked me this question was proof that this was not my mother speaking, but the cancer. She went on, “I don’t want to go to heaven without you. I can’t stand thinking that you are going to be in hell. Why don’t you believe in God anymore? Why aren’t you going to church?”
I am sure that most people would simply have lied at this point and said something like, “Of course I still believe, Mom. I’m just taking a break from church, that’s all.” But after all the anguish and torment that my journey to apostasy had caused me, I couldn’t simply pretend otherwise. So, even though my heart was breaking for her, for the next forty minutes I tried a variety of tactics that would calm her down without lying to her. I tried distracting her with news about my sons. I tried reassuring her by telling her everything was okay. I tried bringing Wendy and Wayne into the conversation since she was steadfastly ignoring them.
Nothing shook her laser-sharp focus on me. I could see that she was getting more and more agitated. My inner conflict was growing. Finally, I decided that her comfort was more important than my sense of integrity and after being asked for the umpteenth time, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus anymore?” I responded, “I do believe, Mom. I do believe.”
The relief that flooded over my Mom was immediate. Her body relaxed. Her tears ceased. The creases of fear and worry that had crowded her brow disappeared. She patted my hand and whispered, “So you’ll go back to church?”
It was a command, not a question.
“Yes, Mom,” I replied, “I’ll go back to church.”
“Yes, Mom. Next Sunday.”
By this time, both my mom and I were spent. Wendy and Wayne, uncomfortable onlookers during this love-inspired, faith-based interrogation took over and tried to engage Mom with small talk. Mom barely responded. She was ready to sleep.
I felt a mixture of relief and defeat.
As I sat in the back seat of Wayne’s car making our way back to Toronto, anger welled up inside me. “What kind of religion causes this anguish for its followers? What kind of God would say he loves us and then threaten us with eternal torture if we reject that love? Why couldn’t I see that for so many years?”
My mom died a few weeks later. Her funeral was a glorious Christian celebration filled with comforting words of Scripture and hymns celebrating the love of Jesus, capped off by a sermon extolling the bliss that my Mom was supposedly now experiencing in heaven.
Afterward, as people milled around during the reception, I did my best to graciously receive people’s condolences, wrapped as they were in the garb of Christian theology. “Well, your mom finally has her eternal resting place with Jesus.” “She’s happy with the Lord now.” “God knew her work on earth was finished and wanted her home with him.” “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
Once again, I felt the tension of wanting to respond truthfully but being constrained by the setting. So, I just nodded and thanked them for coming.
My mind drifted back once more to our hospital conversation. The same faith that was now being voiced to me as words intended for my consolation had been the source of exquisite anguish for Mom that day. I couldn’t suppress a wry smile to myself. Even in grief, irony can shine through.