Mixed Feelings April 25, 2008

Mixed Feelings

I haven’t contributed an article to Hemant’s blog for a long time because I’ve been kind of busy. Since I think I’m pretty much like most other atheists, I offer this account so people can understand how a non-believer handles the thoughts and feelings that come during a challenging time. I make no apologies nor any boast about my feelings. They are what they are.
Richard Wade


The hospital chaplain walked in while Mom and I were laughing at a re-run of “I Love Lucy.” With the bedside button Mom turned the TV volume down and the chaplain introduced herself. She was a plump, middle-aged woman in a flowered dress and with a pleasant manner. She carried a clip board gripping many papers, seemingly standard issue for all hospital staff. She asked Mom how she was and if she could offer any prayer on her behalf. Now, Mom had dismissed her own mother’s religiosity most of her 88-year lifetime ago, retaining only vague deist notions with no interest in church, bible or prayer. But being the ever kindly and polite person she is, she accepted the chaplain’s offer and so while I surreptitiously watched Lucy’s silenced antics with Ricky the prayer began. The chaplain invoked the Heavenly Father who she said is always there for Mom, always seeing to her needs, her comfort, helping her in every way. Glancing at my haggard, exhausted face, she added as an afterthought something about God’s helping Richard to stay strong and then she signed off with “in the name of Jesus” or something like that. The whole thing lasted about three minutes.

While she prayed my mind wandered and I began to have a rapid series of mixed feelings:

The first one was resentment. Hearing God get praise for all sorts of good things he was doing for Mom I was standing there wondering what am I, chopped liver? I’m the one who has been there, been there, been there for Mom, helping her, comforting her, trying futilely to keep the pain away any way I can, even when the pills and the morphine injections aren’t enough and all I can do is to hold her while she screams and screams as if she’s on fire. I’m the one who has slept in a chair next to her bed for the last month, half of that in this damn hospital, trying to keep up a positive face, resting only when she rests, waking at the slightest moan, taking care of things that the overworked nurses take too long get around to, never putting more than four hours of sleep together at a time, the custodian of the ruin of what was once a remarkable and admirable person, her in-tact mind trapped in an agonized body that now looks like a medical science experiment. She hasn’t had any help from an all-powerful heavenly father, just a nearly powerless earthly son. Spare me the lame crap about how God put me here as his agent, his nursing staff member. If he could do that he could have saved her a lot of suffering by preventing her from getting shingles on top of rheumatoid arthritis in the first place. Even the doctors seem taken aback by her level of suffering. The dead Lucille Ball is doing far more for Mom’s comfort than God is.

As the prayer continued other feelings replaced the resentment. Sadness, forgiveness and pity came with the thought about so many other moms right there in that hospital and all around the world who don’t have a son who can be there, be there, be there for them. They face their pain and the thousand indignities of age and infirmity alone or at the hands of strangers. All they have is their not too helpful “Heavenly Father” and their tattered hope for a merciful end to their hell on Earth.

Other feelings quickly washed over my awareness as the prayer began to close. I felt gratitude to my wife who makes it possible and approves of me spending so much time helping Mom. I felt a sad kind of caring for the chaplain who does this all day, day after day having so little to offer those who need so much, but still trying to help somehow. I felt a strong admiration for Mom, who has transformed so abruptly from strong and independent to frail and helpless yet insists on doing the little things she can still do for herself, who is in unrelenting pain yet was willing to indulge the chaplain’s offer of prayer purely out of good manners and not wanting to hurt her feelings.

And yes, I’ll acknowledge it, I felt sadness for myself. Sad that I’m so tired, so helpless, so frustrated, sad and scared that I’m only thirty years away from Mom’s age if I live that long, and all the mixed feelings that the prospect of going through similar agonies brings up.

In the two months since she left the hospital, Mom has ever so slowly improved, gaining through her daily efforts little bits of relief and strength. Her mind is as razor sharp as ever, still loving to discuss politics and scientific things that she reads about in the paper or in National Geographic. So the latest of my mixed feelings is one of encouragement. Not just for her prospects for a few more years of life worth living but also en-courage-ment for my own prospects. I’ll take the best lessons from her and try to face my life with at least some of the courage that she has shown.

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  • Thanks for sharing this.

  • sasha

    beautiful story. thank you for sharing

  • Cass

    I think we all have those feelings when faces with our parent’s mortality. Hopefully your Mom will continue to improve.

  • Sudo

    Very moving, and inspiring Richard. I hope that when the time comes I face these issues as well as you. Thank you for sharing.

  • Maria

    I was really moved by this and I wish you the best of luck. it really is amazing what you are doing for your mother. you’re a good son and a good guy.

  • Newtish Inglenook

    My thoughts are with you and your mother, sir.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  • I can relate to this. My mother died a few years ago from cancer and the involvement of well meaning religious people was an unwelcome and intrusion into an already difficult time. Practical help would be of much greater value than empty words.

  • Graham

    I don’t come across stories like these too often in my blog reading. Thanks for posting it.

  • Sam Cown

    This is a difficult area of my own life. My friends go through hard times and ask for my prayers. I have no idea what to say to them.

    Prayer is a way of pretending to do something without doing anything at all.

    I am proud of you for taking care of your mother though! That is something that deserves a lot of respect. I am sure it makes her feel a lot better just to have you there. I wish the best for you and your family.

  • kay

    I supported my mom through her bout with shingles, including a spinal tap to see if it had gone into her brain. It was tough. Tough for her as regards the pain. Tough for me to watch it.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  • Karen

    Richard, I’m so sorry about your mom’s illness and I hope she continues to improve. It was very kind of her to accommodate the chaplain’s request. I wonder if she would have stayed and talked to your mom, just to give you a brief break, if your mom had said she didn’t want a prayer but could use some company?

    I’m so glad you decided to tell us about what is going on. When you mentioned you were having a tough time I worried about you. Watching our parents become weak and sick is incredibly heart-wrenching. Having gone through it myself with both parents and my father-in-law, I don’t relish the thought of growing old and infirm in the least. 🙁

  • Thank you for sharing.

  • Richard – Thank you for sharing this and for your candid description of your own feelings as the chaplain was praying.

    Hopefully you won’t mind a follow-up question though: What would you have liked the chaplain to do? (Or perhaps you’d prefer she wasn’t there at all? I could totally see that since you normally don’t want a total stranger who knows nothing about you or your family to be there offering false hope during a hard time.) I’m curious because I am a Christian but I don’t want to be one of those obnoxious Christians that annoy the hell out of everyone else. Any suggestions you have would be really helpful. What is helpful to you when you’re processing something like that? Is it better if other people just stay away? Or do you want them to be there? If so, what kind of actions are most meaningful or helpful?

    Thanks again for sharing this.

  • Erp

    Jake asked what should the chaplain have done?

    My own thoughts are she should have explained that she was there to be of help, that she was a [denomination] but that she could put your mother in contact with a member of a different faith if she wished to talk to one(most hospitals have a list of chaplains of many faiths [including humanists] on call and some patients might want their own minister to be contacted and allowed to visit them). She should also have explained any other help she as a hospital chaplain could provide (some of which might be non-religious and might include just being someone to talk to). It should be up to the patient to initiate any request for prayers or other religious rituals; the chaplain should not have initiated the prayer request. Since she also saw you with your mother, she should have offered to come back later and left a leaflet on what the chaplaincy service could provide.

    There is a code of conduct for many hospital chaplains which includes “approach the religious convictions of a person … with respect and sensitivity; avoid the imposition of their theology or cultural values on those served or supervised.”

    Note I see no reason why a hospital chaplain couldn’t be a non-theistic humanist or a non-theist of another sort as long as they were willing to abide by the same code. I also think a big role of a hospital chaplain should be as a local resource on different religious/cultural traditions (not just on their own religion).

  • Kate

    Richard – you are a truly powerful writer, this was so striking. I’m so sorry to hear of your mother’s illness. Thank you for sharing this with us…

  • Julie

    Sorry your mom is ill.

    We’ll all be there in one way or another, eventually. Life can be tough.

  • Richard Wade

    Jake, thank you for asking this:

    Hopefully you won’t mind a follow-up question though: What would you have liked the chaplain to do? (Or perhaps you’d prefer she wasn’t there at all? I could totally see that since you normally don’t want a total stranger who knows nothing about you or your family to be there offering false hope during a hard time.)

    I really don’t know. Now that I’m not as intensely at the effect of fatigue and anguish, I can think more rationally and be more fair to the chaplain, but at that moment I just wished she had walked on by the room and left us to enjoy “I Love Lucy.” It had been a quite a while since Mom had smiled and longer since she had laughed. I know there was no way the chaplain could have read our minds or known what we needed, so the only reasonable thing she could do was to make her rounds and ask Mom if she could offer what she offers. As I indicated, even though neither Mom nor I have any interest, I can’t begrudge others who have less practical help their comforting or hopeful moments of prayer. For many millions, lying in their shacks and tents and yurts that comfort or hope is all they have, false or real. To her credit, the chaplain kept it pretty light and brief, and she seemed to be trying to be sensitive to the feeling in the room. My point of view was colored by the exhaustion of the previous four weeks, and it must have showed.

    If she had offered any non-spiritual help I might have asked her to sit there seeing to Mom’s simple needs for water or cool compresses for three or four hours so I could go home and get some sleep. But it’s a big hospital and that would probably not be workable. There must have been dozens of folks there who would have appreciated the chaplain’s visit that day.

    I should acknowledge this: As you can see in the story my feelings shifted from undiluted resentment at the beginning of the prayer to the mixed bag that included more positive, more forgiving and more inclusive thoughts and feelings by the end of the prayer. If some people want to credit the content of the prayer with that change, I can’t offer any more argument against that idea than they could offer in favor of it. From my rational viewpoint I’d probably say that a moment of any kind of directed quietude that encourages introspective thought can possibly help soothe painful resentment and can open up more healing thoughts and feelings.

    Whatever. Things are a little better inside and outside. Some think the cause is an unfathomable entity at work and some think it’s the determination of an old woman who refuses to give up. We take our inspirations wherever we can find them.

    Thank you Jake for your attitude of being sensitive to the feelings of others who don’t share your beliefs, and thank you everyone for your well wishes and supportive comments. As always what I really hope is that things I write start dialogues that improve understanding between people of disparate viewpoints.

  • MTran


    I haven’t been to this site, or many other old favorites, in quite a while. (Health problems followed by computer problems.) Yet when I saw that “Richard Wade” had posted an article, I remembered your name and the high quality of your other posts and took a read.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. It seems to me, that when people are faced with the difficult times you have just described, we get to see them at their “most,” rather than at their “worst” or “best.” You seem to have a great deal of insight and reflection, qualities that can certainly help those around you.

    I don’t begrudge anyone turning to whatever modes of thought, including religious thought, that help them get through tough times, even though I have been an unapologetic atheist for most of my life. So long as they don’t patronize me, or start telling me how death and suffering are all part of “god’s plan” for “something better.”

    I have an extremely painful progressive disease that, at times, goes into semi-remission. I can tell you that the quiet support – or just the presence – of someone you love can mean more than anything else, though people vary in what sort of attention they need or can tolerate.

    Years ago, I became friendly with quite a few fellow patients at a pain and physical therapy center. Most of them were believers of some sort or other, Roman Catholic, Hindu, Islam, Buddhist, Baptist, New Age, Pagan. Only one or two were obnoxious about it, and they irritated the other believers as much or more than they irritated me. One person who was never obnoxious or pushy about religion turned out to be a local Protestant minister.

    Which is my longwinded way of saying good work, Richard, and good luck

  • Richard Wade

    😀 😀 MTRAN!!! 😀 😀

    HOW ARE YOU!? I haven’t heard from you since April 23, 2007 at 2:00 AM on the thread, “An Atheist Professor at Virginia Tech.” (Not that I’ve been counting, mind you.) 🙂 A month later I started interrupting popular threads here asking if anyone knew what happened to you and if anyone had a way to contact you. Karen responded and was also concerned because like me she remembered that you had mentioned health issues and then when you dropped out of sight I was worried that, well that you had died. It might sound odd for me to say this about a blog acquaintance, but I grieved.

    I’m so very happy to hear from you again. I admired your comments and enjoyed our conversations so much and I really missed you. I hope that your health is better and that that is why you have returned.

    Please email Hemant and avail yourself of my email address if you so choose. It has occurred to me often that if something were to happen to many of us, we would have no way to find out what the heck had caused the disappearance. Despite the impersonal nature of this medium I sometimes become attached to people here and when they vanish it hurts.

    Welcome back!

  • MTran

    Why thank you so much, Richard. I’ve really liked the quality of the discussions here, especially your posts. You have helped me re-think some issues in a very positive way. So have many of the other regulars at the site.

    You know, I never expected my absence to cause any ripples, but, quite honestly, I was overwhelmed by my own medical cares. There are days when it takes me 45 minutes just to type my name to log onto the computer. And by then I’m too exhausted to do anything.

    When I was finally able to get my body in working condition, I was so behind on the work that pays the bills, that’s where my remaining energy and time went. For the last month or so, I’ve been getting back to some of the things I enjoy, like this site.

    One of the reasons I tend to avoid posting on blogs or other forums is that I never know when my body is going to go kaplooie and knock me on my butt for weeks or months at a time. Then it looks like I’m just a drive by crank.

    Still, I must say your writing about your mother and the chaplain truly touched me. I hope all goes as well as can be for her and for you.

    I’ll send Hemant my email address to forward to you.

    Thanks again.
    PS: I can’t figure how to insert the smiley guys, so just imagine a great big smile right here : – )

  • Richard,

    Thank you for such a touching and honest post. Prayer is one area of my Christian life that I was never able to figure out. The way most people pray never felt all that genuine to me.

    I can only imagine what prayer means to a non-believer.

    God or no God, I know you have a loving heart and I truly admire your strength and courage.

    It’s also nice to see the caring words expressed in the comments, which in some ways seem much more genuine than what you would see in a Christian setting.

  • Keith

    Richard, thanks for posting about this experience … I’m glad to hear your mother’s mind is still sharp. Thank you for being you.

  • What a wonderful post. I’m glad your mom is improving, and especially glad that you have been able to be with her. It sounds like a very difficult time.

    I’ve never really liked hospital chaplains much, as it seems strange to have someone who doesn’t know me at all try to manufacture some interest for a few minutes. When I’m feeling cantankerous they annoy me, when I’m feeling sick and tired I mostly just hope they go away. My perspective has changed somewhat in the past few years, though.

    In a move that surprised her atheist family, my mom quit her teaching job to become a minister (just ordained last month!) and has been going chaplain rounds at hospitals and nursing homes since she was in seminary. She looks at it as difficult but important work, and her prime objective is to do what she can to make it easier for people, whether that’s leaving them alone or spending time.

    Sometimes people who’ve been caring for a loved one are just so tired and scared that they want someone, anyone to sit with them for awhile and she does that too. I don’t think it’s ever crossed her mind to evangelize at a hospital. One thing I hadn’t considered before she became a minister and a chaplain is that because she’s there so much, she knows a lot about how the place runs. She, at least, absolutely loves it when she can advocate for a patient to get them some little comfort that the hospital staff might not have considered.

    I think my mom is great at her job. Probably better than many because she’s lived with atheists for going on 40 years now. She knows that some people are going to be disturbed by her presence, and is respectful of that. I had no idea how hard chaplains work until Mom became one. I know that doesn’t necessarily help with the swirling thoughts and feelings that come with taking care of your mom and pondering mortality, but I thought it might be an interesting perspective.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

  • Joseph R.

    Best wishes to you and your Mother. As usual RW, I enjoy reading your posts. Keep it up.

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