The Reluctant Agnostic

“I don’t mean to offend you, I know you and your family practice a different religion than myself. If there’s anything that I say or do that contradicts your beliefs, please let me know.”

“It’s alright. Our beliefs are more similar than you think.”

She smiled. “Now, are you and your family practicing Muslims?”

I looked at my grandmother, buried up to her chin in blankets, sound asleep in her hospice-issued bed. “She is.” I turned back to the kindly chaplain. “Myself, not so much. Just in name, I guess.”

She nodded. “I know you have priests or leaders of some sort that take care of spiritual needs of the patient and their family. I usually come by once a month, more or less if needed. But if you wish, I could stop coming over, if those needs are being met by her own faith. It’s completely up to you and your family.”

My grandmother speaks Hindi, Kutchi and Gujarati fluently. Her English is pretty limited in spoken conversation. I couldn’t imagine my grandmother needing the services of this chaplain due to the language barrier alone. And besides, she really was receiving support from people of her own faith anyway.

“Actually,” I began. “Would you mind coming over once a month anyway? Not for her but… for me?”

She reached over and held my hand. “Of course, my dear.”

I’ve been through the hospice process once before this year so I knew the drill. Don’t get me wrong. I have so much respect and admiration for these people. I feel it takes an incredibly strong person to be a hospice nurse. The very word ‘nurse’ means to nurture, to heal, to returna0002-000360 to a level of health prior to current illness. But a hospice nurse does his or her job with the knowledge that the patient they are there to take care of will not heal, will not get better. They will only progressively get worse until the very last breath escapes their lips.

But the continuous calls and almost daily visits from the nurses, the chaplain, the social worker, are just constant reminders for me that the Grim Reaper, or the Angel of Death if you prefer, might make another visit to my home again. Someone I’m not ready to see yet, at least not so soon.

I’m not sure why I asked her to come visit anyway, for myself no less. In an earlier post, I said I’m agnostic. For the most part, the existence of a higher being no longer matters to me when it comes to making every day decisions. I believe if the fear of hellfire is the only thing stopping you from hurting another in any way, then maybe, because of this greed alone, you probably belong there. You don’t need religion. You need a lesson in empathy and humanity.

I read an article in one of those magazines that people pass out at airports or, in my case, outside the gas station. There was a lady in one of the articles who volunteered to take care of  a terminally ill patient who suffered from frequent seizures. This patient happened to be an atheist who didn’t want to be prayed over and wanted to remove the crucifix that was hanging in his room on the wall across from him. During a seizure, the lady, after some hesitation, turned him over onto his side and supported his head. She wrote that she had initially wanted him to choke on his own tongue during the seizure because he didn’t believe in Christ and thought of doing nothing for a moment but decided to help him because that’s what the Lord would have wanted her to do.

The right and humane thing to have done, lady, is to help him regardless of his beliefs or yours. It scares me that these people, as fully functioning adults, need a set of rules to still tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, in a situation as clearly black and white as this.

I won’t pretend to be a morally superior individual. I’m not. But I don’t base my morals on the promise of a better Afterlife. I don’t believe that belonging to a particular religion, like an exclusive club, automatically saves me a spot in heaven. I don’t believe God really cares if I eat or drink something which one religion claims to be okay and the other forbids, I’m sure he has better things to do than keep track of that. I try to live by the old stand-by: “Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.”

Yet at the same time, I can’t deny this need within me to nurture spiritual growth. I’m not ready to let go of the idea of God completely. And maybe I never will. But the thing is, I can’t feel his (or her, or should we even assign God a gender?) presence anymore in the place of worship I’m accustomed to, where I see people trying to display their wealth in clothes and jewelry, where gossip is so prevalent, where I feel more suffocated now than at peace. I no longer feel God in the words I’ve memorized in prayer. I no longer feel him in the set of rites and rituals performed. I no longer find him in religious texts and scriptures where he is a vengeful being, where men are put on a higher pedestal over women, and where I see more words of hate than words of love and tolerance.

But I do feel him when I’m taking a walk in the park, when I hear the wind rustle through the leaves and the branches of trees that have probably witnessed a thousand people just like me, searching for inner peace. I do hear him in the sound of the birds chirping early in the morning. I’ve felt him while gazing upon the vastness of the Pacific a couple years ago. I’ve felt him every time I leave work close to midnight and the quiet engulfs me as I look at the stars. I feel him when I listen to beautiful music. And I felt him the strongest as I held my aunt in my arms when she made her journey from this life to the next, wherever that is.

I feel the presence of God in nature and in the kindness of people. But I no longer feel his presence in any organized religion. So maybe agnostic isn’t the right word. Because while I don’t believe God grants wishes like a genie, or interferes with the lives of us mere mortals, I’m not ready to give up the idea of God completely. Maybe I’m more of a Deist. But again, I don’t want to put a label on what I am.

The chaplain gave me a hug that lasted for a long time before leaving, probably sensing that I really needed it. She didn’t preach. She didn’t ask too many questions about what I believe in. But what she did do was give me words of comfort. She shared with me stories of people who had passed on, what they had seen in the days and hours before death. One elderly lady had seen two adolescent twin girls who had died in infancy, who happened to be her granddaughters, before passing away the next day. My own grandmother confessed that she had seen her own mother, who had passed away 30 years ago, sitting beside her bed while she was in the ICU. And the thought gives me comfort, knowing when her time comes, she’ll be greeted by loved ones who have passed on already.

Are these experiences real? Or just hallucinations brought on by chemical imbalances caused by pathological processes happening in the body? I don’t know. I choose to believe it’s real. Do I have proof? No. But that’s faith for you. If there is a spiritual world, I believe the gate separating both worlds opens when the hour of death is near. Because it was in that moment that I felt most connected with my own spiritual self.

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Bah, Humbug!

I used to love Christmas. There was a time when Christmas music being played ad nauseam from malls to drug stores would lift my spirits and put a bounce in my step. I’d take longer routes on the road going home just so I could see more decorative lights. I’d settle down with my younger siblings and watch the same Christmas specials on TV, over and over. I’d bake (and mostly burn) cookies, put up decorations and lights of my own around the house. I’d absorb the newfound, albeit short-lived, aura of peace and good-will that people would emanate. My family and I aren’t of the Christian faith so this particular holiday didn’t hold much religious significance for me. But I still loved it.

Until the Christmas of ’12.

A little background about me. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I was raised by a bunch of aunts and uncles and grandparents but two extraordinary women stand out in my life. My grandmother and my aunt (Dad’s sister). Both are my world. My grandmother loved me in the way that only grandparents can love you. My aunt though… with her I never felt as though I lacked a mother. With the love she unconditionally gave me, I never missed my own biological mother. Not even once. She was my rock, strong and steady, and always there for me whenever I needed her.

Back in December of last year, she complained of pain in her back and abdomen. After a series of tests, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer with the metastasis to her liver so extensive that it was shutting down, something that eventually lead to her demise a few weeks later. She was in the hospital for about a week, while the doctors tried to figure out the best course of action for her. Up until then, I held on to hope that chemo, or maybe radiation, just something, could extend her life by a couple of years, at least just one year if nothing else. I remember praying… something I hadn’t done in a very long time. I remembered pleading and begging God for just a little more time with her.

December 24th is the day I became agnostic. I haven’t been a religious person for years but I thought to myself that if anybody’s prayers could be heard, it would be my grandmother’s. What’s more heartfelt than a mother’s prayer for her child? I can’t call myself an atheist because by that point, I didn’t even care about the existence of a higher being anymore. It didn’t matter to me any longer. Because that’s the day her doctors told me that my aunt brokenballdidn’t qualify for chemotherapy. That any chemo given to her now would only kill her faster. That’s the day I sat with my aunt, held her hand, and explained to her what the doctors told me. That’s the day that, on the doctors’ insistence, I talked about a living will and if she wanted a DNR order. And that’s the day I realized, for probably the thousandth time in my life, that my aunt was no ordinary woman, when she was the one wiping away my tears. I’ve received more strength and courage from her than I ever have from praying.

That night, as I sat in the shuttle that took us from the hospital to the parking lot, I leaned my forehead against the cold glass and was thankful for the bus being mostly empty and dark, so I could shed a few tears in peace before having to go home and explaining to my grandmother, my aunt’s mother, why her firstborn didn’t have much time left in this world. As the words to  “Silent Night” floated in the air, I watched a couple sitting in front of me, the woman’s head resting on the man’s shoulder and I had never felt so alone in my grief as I did in that moment.

They say time heals. And indeed, it does. But sometimes time doesn’t wait for wounds to close all the way, I guess. My grandmother suffered a stroke last month and has now been diagnosed with end stage cardiac disease. Her kidneys are shutting down. And I see her health declining a little each day. She sleeps more, eats less.

But I still put up lights this year. I still hung up some decorations. Just so I could see her eyes light up and see her sweet smile. The lights and the ornaments and the music were reminders of my aunt’s diagnosis a year ago and I thought I was done with all of that.

I’ll still put up these lights every year. Because every time I do, I’ll remember my grandmother’s smile. I’ll remember my aunt laughing at my burnt cookies. And I’ll remember my grandmother half-heartedly scolding me for spending money on decorations even though I knew she’d love them as soon as they were up.

I’ll do it to remember them.

Windows to the Soul

“Stop that.”

My friends turned to look at me. “Huh?” said friend #1.

“Your eyes. They’re all shifty. Look at me when you’re talking.” I looked at friend # 2. “You, too. What is up with you guys?”

A few years ago, I met up with two people, one who happened to be my best friend for years. The other was friend #1’s love interest, at least for the moment. Friend #1 had sort of adopted this “shifty-eyed” look from friend #2. They couldn’t look right in your eyes when they were talking. In fact, they couldn’t look into each others’ eyes either when they were speaking to each other. I thought that was really weird.

Friend #2 said to me, while looking everywhere but directly at me, “Your gaze is too intense.”

“My gaze is too intense,” I repeated, a little confused.

“Yeah.” He looked at me and when I looked at him again, he quickly looked away. “It makes me feel… naked.”

“What?” I chuckled.

“No, he’s right,” said friend #1. “When you look at someone, it feels like you’re looking right into their soul.”

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I’ve never had trouble locking eyes with someone I’m speaking to. Even strangers. Maybe especially strangers. In fact, I think of it as one of my better traits. I’m a very private person and there are things about me only a select few are privy to. So while I’m looking into someone’s eyes, I’m letting them know that it’s okay. They have my undivided attention and they can trust me, without giving away too much about myself. And it works. I know stuff that mere acquaintances and even total strangers have themselves divulged to me. But maybe it’s still a bit disconcerting for some.

The only time I’ve never been able to look somebody in the eye is if I happen to have strong feelings for someone and they don’t know it. Eyes are the windows to the soul after all. And while I can guard my emotions pretty well, a more observant person can read my eyes like a book.

I haven’t had to worry about that in many, many years, though.