When the nurse called from the hospice center to tell us that my father was very close to dying, my twin brother and younger sister and I drove there. My mother stayed at home because she didn’t think she could witness his death. I was surprised to see how thin he looked, even though I’d been there every day. I was also surprised by how powerfully the heart was pumping blood through the artery in his neck. The closer death comes, the more tenaciously the heart seems to hang on.
My brother is Christian, like my mother. My sister is Jewish, like my father. They took seats on opposite sides of the bed. They opened their Bibles and stroked his arms and read, my brother from the New Testament and my sister from the Old Testament. I stood at the end of the bed and felt nervous laughter rise in me. That’s been a problem since I was a child. When my brother and I were studying for our Bar Mitzvah, I was terrified that I would giggle during our ceremony, and tremendously relieved when my mother demanded that we not go through with it.
My brother said prayers at family meals after my father died. His prayers were long, as if longer prayers mean more to God, but I never told him it bothered me. Eventually he got into the habit of saying prayers at restaurants, inspiring everyone to hold hands and bow heads. At one meal I told him that his praying made me uncomfortable. “Why?” he asked tersely. “I don’t know,” I said. “It just does.” After that he prayed quietly with his wife and children. Once during dinner at my mother’s home my sister was obviously tense while he prayed. When my brother’s long prayer ended she said a quick Hebrew prayer …. Barooch ato adenoi elohanoo … and I got the sense that she wanted equal time.
My father’s dying was not difficult for me. He was happy and successful, and lived to be 83. As I stood at the end of the bed listening to my brother and sister, and watching what seemed like competition, I felt amused by the whole question of religion.
Is there really a God? If so, is this God the mastermind of the difficulties that occurred between my mother and father, who was ostracized by his parents for marrying a Christian? On a larger scale, is this God the architect of what is happening with religious belief in the world today?
I am an agnostic. To put it in simplistic terms, maybe there’s a God and maybe there isn’t. What I believe matters – what I consider the one true religion – is Christ’s credo that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Maybe God is looking down on the chaos and suffering of life on earth in the name of religion, and trying to stifle a nervous laugh.
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