Thursday, May 27, 2010

1991: My Summer of Death and Religious Craziness

It was the third of September.
A day I’ll always remember, yes I will.
‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died.

-Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone”

My father could hardly have been described as a rolling stone, but he did happen to pass away on September 3rd.  He was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer the year before, but kept it a secret until he couldn’t anymore, in the spring of 1991.  If it had been up to him, he would have died alone, with no fanfare.  He was signed up for Meals on Wheels and Visiting Nurse services, and those kind people were the ones who found him helpless on the floor and called to let me know, over his strong objections.  While his oncologist predicted his death by early summer (and with good reason -- by the time I learned the truth, he weighed about 70 pounds and could be transferred from couch to bed by two slightly built women using a sheet as a sling), he hung on for another two and a half months.  He endured the indignity of having strangers in his house, his living room turned into a sickroom, and most of his personal autonomy taken away.  None of this could be helped -- he was too fragile to move to my home or even to a Hospice facility, and the heavy pain medications made it impossible for him to manage his finances or make decisions for himself.  He and I didn’t get along spectacularly well by that point, so it was awkward on both sides for me to be taking over the checkbook.  But there was nobody else.  Mom had died the year before, and I was the only child.  

It was an extremely stressful time.  Religion didn’t help things at all.

I had become a Christian four years earlier, and was very slowly coming out of my extremely introverted shell.  It took about that much time for me to even attend church regularly.  Any time I met a new person, and they invited me to their church or group, I’d go.  It really wasn’t a bad way to gain an understanding of the different varieties of Christianity -- though if I’d been really fortunate, I might have been invited to a Unitarian Universalist congregation and saved myself a lot of wasted time.

But that didn’t happen.  There were two interesting episodes during that time that bolster a growing consensus that religion not only does more harm than good, it also does less good than its PR has always tried to claim.  Often the only thing it does is muddy the waters and distract people from effectively managing their own lives.

Growing up in a mixed marriage is never easy.  I’ve written elsewhere about how my parents never resolved their sectarian guilt and ambivalence, and how it was exacerbated by their drinking.  For my part, a big factor in my affiliation with evangelical Christianity in adulthood was the desire to feel that I “fit” somewhere.  That, after all, was what EVERY church claimed -- that it would welcome you no matter what kind of background you came from.  That was true as far as it went.  But when you came from a liberal tradition that frowned on proselytizing, there was bound to be a clash of philosophy, not to mention etiquette.

Which is why I felt somewhat dismayed when I tried to seek strength, support and comfort among my new Christian friends, only to have many of them ask if I’d led my non-observant Jewish father to Christ before he died.  My unvoiced (and largely unformed) thought was “You really don’t get it, do you?”  These well-intentioned, earnest Christians knew nothing about Judaism -- the struggles Jews endured throughout the world for centuries as the dominant cultures tried to beat, isolate, burn, torture and terrorize their heritage out of them -- “for their own good,” of course.  If Christians abide by the Ten Commandments, they should also understand that “Honor thy father and mother” includes honoring thy father’s religious upbringing and not trying to mess with his head while he’s under the influence of sedatives and excruciating pain.  But for one fellow half-Jew in the church, I might have walked away from the whole thing right then.  But he said “No one knows what happens to someone in their last moments,” implying that God in some form may mercifully usher the dying person onto the express elevator and save them from aimlessly wandering that big department store in the sky.

So no, my father was born a Jew and died that way.  But there were some bumps on that side of the road too, as preparations were made for Dad’s funeral.

In retrospect, I could have done a better job. I knew that Judaism traditionally favors closed-casket funerals, even among the Reform branch, but the funeral home Dad had used for Mom was just up the road, and I was in no mood to shop.  They apparently didn’t have a lot of Jewish clients, because they seemed sort of caught off-guard when I requested a rabbi.  Thus, Dad’s sister and brother-in-law walked into the room to see an open casket.  They told me the problem, in a nice, quiet, undramatic way and of course I felt terrible.  

Then I met with the rabbi to discuss the arrangements.  My mom’s death had been completely unexpected, and Dad had elected to handle everything himself and let me know about it a few days later, so she’d been cremated.  Dad had kept the urn with her ashes up above the kitchen cabinets in the house they had purchased only two years earlier for their “retirement.”  A few of the relatives and I concurred that the best plan would be to place the ashes in Dad's casket with him.  

But everything with Mom’s death had been so hasty, there had been no funeral service of any kind.  So, when I met with the rabbi, I explained about Mom’s ashes and asked if he might say a word or two about her as well.

Prescience is by no means my specialty, but in a flash, I knew exactly what the elderly rabbi, with his heavy European accent, would say.  He would say that since Mom was not Jewish, and since she was a member of the religious tradition that had persecuted the Jews and wiped out most of his family, he could not bring himself to include her in the service he was about to perform, for a man he had never met.

And as he explained all this to me, he began to weep, and I found myself patting him on the arm to console him for his loss, so that he could continue helping me out with mine.  Or at least one of mine.

It was a decent service.  Brief and to the point.  I’ve gone back once to see Dad’s grave at the national cemetery, with its plain white headstone marked only with his military rank (T-4) and no religious designation.

My Jewish father never came to Jesus.  Neither, so far as I can determine, did my Catholic mother.  I put little stock in notions of an “afterlife,” but feel that their remains sharing space as they do is appropriate.  They were together 48 years.

Bonus Book Rec: American Fascists

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