The Day Atheism Saved My Life September 17, 2017

The Day Atheism Saved My Life

Four years ago today, Lisa Wickern, a pharmacy technician from Minnesota, lost her 27-year-old son. She posted a beautiful essay about her memories on Facebook on Saturday and gave me permission to reprint the story on this site.

September 17th, 2013 was a Tuesday, which is to say it started out like most weekdays. The alarm went off around six and I dragged myself out of bed sometime in the next half-hour. My husband Mike got up first and let the dogs out long enough for them to do their business, then fed them and our kitten Schrodinger. I drank several cups of coffee while checking my emails and our bank account, as Mike and I discussed whatever news stories were running that morning.

Some mornings, when our debates about the news got particularly energetic, our dog Etta would hide, thinking we were arguing. That day though, was just an ordinary day. I had my usual breakfast — a bowl of high-fiber cereal followed by one of my special, healthy, smoothies. I always figured a healthy start could compensate for a multitude of nutritional sins that might be committed later in the day. Also, I was hoping to drop a few pounds before my upcoming annual physical.

By 9:00 a.m. my tote bag, purse, water bottle, and a healthy lunch (See? I was serious about losing weight) and a mug of green tea were loaded into my 23-year-old Oldsmobile for my 40-mile commute to work.

One of the pleasures of a long commute in northwestern Minnesota is the lack of traffic. In just a few minutes I’m out of town and, depending on which route I choose to take — my current choice dictated by road construction — I may not go through another town until I reach the city where I work. I have miles of farmland and meadows to drive past, enjoying the changing seasons. Some mornings I drive in quiet pondering some problem or issue, but most mornings I listen to the radio, channel surfing between oldies, rock, and pop, hoping for the sort of songs that will act like an extra shot of caffeine. Mornings are made for music that gets you dancing in your seat, singing along at the top of your lungs, and happily waving at the farm trucks you meet on the road; energizing music, so you smile at the customers and, hopefully, mean it. Sometimes if I hear one decent song after another I take it to mean a good day at work. Conversely, if I can’t find anything I really want to hear I fear a rough workday. I know it’s silly, magical thinking, but I can’t help myself. I have no recollection of what I heard that Tuesday morning.

I clocked in just before 10:00 and the day seemed normal enough. It was my boss Jake, one of the other techs, Amanda, and me. The three of us had a good rhythm going. Everyone was handling several things at once and everything was running smoothly.

An hour or so into my day I noticed Julie, an assistant manager, stick her head in the drop-off window. She spoke briefly with Jake, though I could see her glancing at me. I was helping a customer at the other end of the pharmacy. When I finished I started back for my computer.

“You need to go to the Administrative Office right now,” Jake told me.

I tried to read his face but couldn’t. Concern maybe?

“I don’t know what they want,” he added.

As I walked to the office, I tried to imagine what it could be. Had I done something wrong? Being in trouble was a sure way to get called in. I knew I wasn’t guilty of anything, but if it had been something good, surely Jake would have known.

As I walked down the hallway to the office door, I could see my husband leaning against a file cabinet, his arms and legs crossed, head bent down. He couldn’t look at me. I crossed the threshold and just inside was Jody, our small town’s Chief of Police, in uniform.

“It’s Jordan,” was all he said at first. I could feel my knees start to buckle.

All I wanted at that moment was for him to say that my son had been in an accident; that he was in the hospital in Fargo; that he would take me there in his SUV, lights and sirens going so we could get there as soon as possible. Anything! Anything at all except the words I knew were coming next. The words their expressions and body language had already told me.

“Jordan is dead. I’m sorry.”

My head swam and my stomach heaved. I forced myself to form the words, “What happened?”

Jody swallowed hard. We had known each other for more than 20 years. Jordan and Jody’s oldest son had been best friends as children, virtually inseparable, spent countless hours at each other’s houses, played basketball and baseball together.

“Accidental, self-inflicted gunshot,” he managed to say.

That’s when I collapsed into my husband’s arms, sobbing.

I don’t know how much time passed as I stood clinging to Mike, my worst nightmare, losing my child, having become my reality. I know it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. I don’t display emotions in front of others easily, and I felt I had to compose myself and “handle things.”

I announced I needed to tell my boss that I would be leaving for the day. Julie offered to let him know, telling me she would take care of it.

“No,” I insisted, “I need to do this myself.”

I went to the pharmacy and talked to Jake, holding myself stoically together as I actually asked for the rest of the day off, as if he would have even considered denying me, as if I would have stayed if he’d said no.

After that Mike helped me to my car where I asked him to drive, admitting I was probably in no shape to be behind the wheel.

What came next was mostly a blur, just bits and pieces. Smoking a cigarette (even though I’d quit ages before) then throwing up. A phone call to the detective handling the case. I remember he started to tell me what they had pieced together, then stopped himself, asking how much detail I wanted.

“I’ve seen gunshot victims,” I told him. “I know what kind of damage that causes, so don’t hold back.”

He said that Jordan was relatively “intact” (that was the actual word he used) compared to others he’d seen and then proceeded to explain what had transpired. He said my son was being taken to Grand Forks for an autopsy. I made Mike stop the car, as I asked if we should go there. The detective told me it would be better to wait until his body had been returned to the funeral home.

Then I had to call my parents and try to tell them that their only grandchild was dead. As if I hadn’t already spent most of my life feeling that my parents saw me as a failure, then certainly, at that moment, I had failed in the ultimate way as a parent myself, by raising a child who would, even by accident, kill himself.

The following hours brought a deluge of phone calls, texts, visits, and Facebook posts as word of Jordan’s death spread. Suddenly, all of my sons friends, my friends, and even old classmates of Jordan’s were trying to get a hold of us, to offer condolences, help, a sympathetic ear, all the conventions that polite people do when a loved one passes.

I spent the following day or two in a haze, unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time and rarely keeping down food, with the exception of some homemade chocolate chip cookies from the mother of Jordan’s former longtime girlfriend.

Mike propped me up, despite his own grief, as we shuffled through the days trying to take care of all the details of our tragedy. We went to my son’s apartment to gather a few of his personal things. In the living room we had to confront the large square of carpet and padding that had been removed, revealing, thankfully, only the floor boards below. A smaller square of sheetrock had also been cut away, presumably where the fatal shot had lodged in the wall.

Mike and I and Jordan’s roommate Shawn went through his things. We loaded some of his clothes and personal items into a couple of plastic totes we’d brought along, and Shawn took a few of his things to distribute amongst his friends. I remember Shawn handing me an old wooden box about the size of a cigar box.

“Here, you should really have this. Jordan loved this thing for some reason. He’d get really upset if anyone messed with it.”

I began to laugh and cry simultaneously. On our way to take Jordan out to eat on his 26th birthday, Mike and I had stopped at a thrift shop. I had bought the box on impulse and given it to my son when we arrived.

“This isn’t your birthday present but I thought a gentleman should something to keep his stuff in, a place for your keys and wallet,” I had told him.

Jordan had seemed pleased, thanked us, and after that I’d never given it much thought.

After that we went to the funeral home.

First we met with an extraordinarily polite man. I realized it was his job to deal with grieving families, that couching things in the gentlest of terms was part of his profession, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly agog at his perception of my innocence and naiveté. He explained that unlike funerals I’d been to, Jordan would not be dressed, laid out in a coffin. Instead, he would be in a hospital gown under a sheet. Since we had chosen cremation, this was exactly what I was expecting. We spent a few more minutes going over the details and then he excused himself to bring my son’s body out so we could have some time with him.

The woman who had been working with the funeral director came back in to the room. She laid a comforting hand on my shoulder and asked, “Do you have faith?”

“No,” I replied. “We’re atheists.”

I felt her hand tense convulsively. She tried her best to hide her feelings but the subtle, unconscious movement had not escaped me. Nor did the fact that, though she was too polite and professional to actually remove her hand, it remained a safe millimeter off my shoulder while she stood there in silence, waiting for her coworker to return.

“You can go in now,” the gentleman announced upon his return. He led us to the doorway of a chapel-like room. Up until that moment, the tiniest part of my mind still hoped that there had been some horrible mistake, that it would not be Jordan there under that sheet.

As I stood in the doorway, I looked first at his feet, unable to bring myself to look to his face. All doubt was erased. Sticking up under the white sheet were an enormous pair of feet that couldn’t possibly belong to anyone but my son, for he had inherited my oversized paws.

I reached for Mike and together we approached Jordan’s body. I sobbed softly as I laid a hand on his cold chest. The temperature came as no surprise, but the solidness of his body, either from refrigeration or freezing, caught me off guard. The fatal wound had left only minimal external damage. The large black stitches the medical examiner had used to close his scalp after determining the extent of internal damage seemed more of an affront.

“Why?” I asked, neither expecting nor receiving and answer, for his death had been a tragic and stupid accident. I had wanted to see my son one last time, though I knew in my heart that Jordan was gone, the cold, still body before me no longer my child.

Mike stepped back and gave me a few final, private moments. I sang “The Sleepy Baby Song,” a song I had made up just after Jordan was born. I had soothed him to sleep countless nights with it and had hoped one day to sing my grandchildren to sleep as well, though now that would never happen. Then I kissed his forehead and turned to leave.

In the car I tried to compose myself. Still crying, I watched a young man, probably younger than the son I had just said good-bye to, fiddling with a garage door. He seemed to be having some trouble getting in and I briefly wondered if I was watching an attempted burglary. Finally, he got one of the doors open enough to get inside and was able to use an automatic opener to get an adjoining door open. He soon emerged with some large pieces of cardboard. It was then that I finally realized he was another employee of the funeral home and the garage housed the hearses. I recognized the cardboard as the box of the sort used for shipping bodies or for cremation.

“Be careful with him. That’s my son,” I said, still crying, fully aware that the young man couldn’t actually hear me.

“Let’s get out of here,” Mike said starting the car.

Jordan’s friends had put together a memorial service to be held at one of his favorite watering holes. I wrote a eulogy and Mike put together a memory board of photos we’d selected. We had arranged to pick up Jordan’s ashes the afternoon of the memorial. I’d brought along the wooden box we’d given him the year before and some black ribbon. I figured if he’d loved that old wooden box so much he was going to spend some time in it. We tied the box closed with the ribbon and set a favorite photo of Jordan on top for the memorial.

Somehow, I managed to keep my composure as I visited with everyone who attended, from neighbors who barely knew my son to his childhood friends I hadn’t seen in years, co-workers I’d never met, girls he’d dated, and those close friends he’d considered his extended family. Stories were told, memories were shared, and I delivered my child’s eulogy. It was a party Jordan himself would have enjoyed had he been there.

I took a few more days to grieve, to pull myself together, before returning to work. I didn’t really want to return to my job but I knew the longer I waited the harder it would be to go back. I hoped the need to focus on routine tasks would make the days a bit more bearable. Otherwise, I feared, I would sit on my bed under the fake-fur throw I’d taken to clinging to and cry forever.

I cried most of the 40 miles to and from work each day. I cried on my lunch hour, sitting alone in my car or sometimes while talking with Mike on the phone. I took frequent “bathroom breaks” so I didn’t cry in front of my co-workers or our customers. I marveled at my ability to appear as if I were doing well, as if I had survived the crisis and was picking up the proverbial pieces and moving on. Inside my head I had still not stopped screaming “NO!!!”

One evening on my way home from work I found myself in a situation that put all my beliefs, or lack thereof, in sharp focus.

I am the great-great-granddaughter of a Dutch Reformed minister. I was baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church, and though my parents weren’t regular church-goers, I considered myself Christian as a child.

Ever curious, I would attend services of other faiths when I had the opportunity. There were always aspects of the services I enjoyed and stuff I just didn’t get.

The one place that always felt like “church” to me — special and sacred — was the non-denominational “chapel” at summer camp. Those campers who didn’t attend any other service were usually required to go a clearing in the woods where we would sit on log benches and listen to a spiritually uplifting piece read by one of the counselors who stood behind a tree stump that served as a makeshift pulpit. If there were a God, I reasoned, then certainly He would be more at home here, in a place of his own creation, than in some man-made building, no matter how beautiful.

As I got older I studied various religions and dabbled in a few. I claimed myself a Buddhist for a time in college, though the idea of giving up wine never did sit quite right with me.

Always, I kept coming back to my reverence for nature and the power and beauty of our world, finally calling myself a pagan. At times I practiced dutifully and at others I slacked off. Jordan grew up knowing of my beliefs, learning about them when he was interested, but I’d always encouraged him to find his own path. It wasn’t particularly surprising to me then that he chose not to believe in any form of God. He shared my reverence for nature but saw the beauty and power as having only scientific basis. The more we discussed it, the more I agreed with him. I had always believed in the rational explanations for things but part of me still craved the “something bigger” that religion, even paganism, provided. I had been falling away from even my pagan beliefs for several years. Jordan’s death cemented that for me, though I didn’t fully realize that until I had to make a decision.

I was heading home from work at the end of the day. On the edge of town is a sugar beet processing plant. As I rounded a curve I saw a semi pulling into the back entrance of the plant. The truck was slowed nearly to a standstill as it made the tight left turn. Instinctively, my foot went to the brake, but then stopped, hovering for a split second, between the brake and the gas.

The pain of the previous weeks hit home with a nearly physical force. I wanted desperately to make it stop, but even more than that, I wanted to be with my son.

My brain clicked through the calculations with lightning speed. How fast could I accelerate in the given distance? (Pretty quickly since I was still doing about 45 m.p.h. and I knew what my dependable engine was capable of.)

Would it matter if the truck were empty or loaded? (No, the bed was steel and that would be the point of impact.)

Would my airbag deploy? (Probably.)

Would it save me? (Probably not at my anticipated velocity, but it might draw out the process.)

Damage assessment? (Front end of the car destroyed, engine driven back, crushing my legs and probably severing a femoral artery. Combined impact of airbag and steering column forcing ribs back, puncturing lungs and possibly heart. Depending on actual angle of impact, possible decapitation.)

Still, my foot hovered.

It would be a terrible thing to do to Mike. It would make things tough on my co-workers. It would cause a lot of suffering people even more pain, not to mention what it would do to the poor truck driver. And still, my foot hovered.

And I wouldn’t get to be with Jordan. There was no afterlife. There was no happy, sunny, flower-filled meadow where we would be reunited. No eternity. There was my life, a life without my son, or there was death.

If death is truly the end, if there is nothing after this life, then life is to be embraced, pain and all. I could never have my child back, but I could honor his memory by living my life. In a split second all my beliefs crystallized.

My foot went to the brake pedal, the car slowing as the semi finished it’s turn, and I went home to live my life.

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