Death and Atheism

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Dad standing near the Haddo, pre “no nukes”. He always had a piece of paper in his pocket to write things on


My father died just over two months ago.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, a month before my son was born.  The type of cancer was a rare one and at worst he had to have lesions removed from his spine in that same year by radiation therapy.  At best, he was able to enjoy food and beer, and be at home right up until a week before he died.  That was due to my mother, who became his everything in those last few years.

When it came time to tell him he needed to be moved to hospice care, it was very hard.  My mother had suddenly come to the end of her rope and dad was almost immobile, although able to try to get up out of bed and make a few trips out to the lounge or to the bathroom.  In the end it was obvious what needed to happen.  I offered to come down every weekend to Tauranga to help with the nursing until it was no longer feasible.  But ultimately, he was ready to go into a more intensive type of care.

Mum couldn’t tell him so I offered to.  It’s pretty insane sitting there, telling our father who brought us up, paid taxes, built a foundation for our lives, travelled, stood on a nuclear submarine, ran marathons, ran supermarkets and enjoyed beer, wine, food and us girls, that he now had to be put in a home because we could no longer take care of him.

He took it like a man.  He simply said he would have to try harder to help mum out.  I went and made him a cup of instant coffee and watched his eyes turn glassy and saw the fear set in.  I said it wasn’t time to assign blame to himself.  Blame the cancer I said.  It’s indiscriminate and grossly unfair.  I went to get my mother and she took her tea in and they sat there in his bedroom, sipping their drinks and talking.

A week later I came back to help transfer him to hospice.  This is one of the hardest things to describe but dad had always had this funny joke about when he got older there would be two nice men in white coats coming to take him away, and he acted it out by crossing his hands over his chest as if in a straight jacket and wiggling his fingers over his shoulder as if to wave goodbye to us with a comic ‘insane’ look on his face.

It was a Tuesday and two men came up the drive in an ambulance.  They were older, like dad, but fit and bright about their work.  They managed to get him in a chair for transfer to stretcher and I remember thinking that the stretcher didn’t look wide enough.  He was quickly inside the truck and just like that, his life was over.

There was no more coming home or 4 o’clock beer and bar snacks.  That was it.  No more.  I drove after the truck after a short while to the hospice and when I got there he was already in his room.  There was nothing but pain on his face and up until then he’d not had morphine for 18 months or so.

A day later he’d been put on strong sedatives to try and stop him getting out of bed (and falling) and a week later he was dead.  He’d said to mum one afternoon that he couldn’t stay in another man’s bed another minute.

My sister flew in from Hong Kong and her and my mother sat with him on his last night – he took several deep breaths and then stopped, then again more breaths, until the nurses closed his eyes for good.

I got there the next day and saw him at the funeral home.  He was laid out in a small ante room and he looked incredibly good, for a dead guy.  I felt proud of him, that he’d put up such a fight over the years.  He was heroic then, someone who had beaten cancer in a way.  The nurses were saying that he must have been in a lot of pain for a long time but never complained.  He really looked completely ‘at peace’—but he was totally gone.

I have not had any feeling about his presence, even in that room.  He was just absolutely gone. He is nowhere.

We had a private cremation and the casket looked too small.  I felt I almost had to ask if he was really in there.  There were tuis out on the branches of the blossom trees and winter Daphne flowering—two things he loved.

I got the sense that if anywhere, maybe he was going to stay there for a while, but when I came back to Auckland I was instantly a non-believer.  I had always tried to be Catholic about my beliefs about the afterlife.  Not so now.

There is nothing, except what we have in front of us today.

I am starting to process the death just now.  I’d do anything to bring back my father, but not how he was at the end.  That’s just cruel, and to see a big Kauri down is devastating.

We are going to put his ashes into the ground soon.  I think then we’ll be able to feel happy again and have a place to visit ‘him’, even though he no longer exists.

There is nothing, except what we have in front of us today.


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  1. Just re-read this to my mum K. Currently going through a similar process with my lovely Dad. Just sucks. X

    • Oh no.. NOthing can prepare you, but just stay by him if you can it makes all the difference to the grief after I promise. Thinking of you guys xx

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