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Father’s death mixes my grief with unbelief

Eryn Johnson enjoyed spending time with her dad, Randy.

By Eryn Johnson

A bout a year and a half ago, my dad went to the ER with what he believed was a kidney stone. He hadn’t been feeling well for a few months, but with five out of six high risk factors, he put off going to the doctor as long as he possibly could to avoid being exposed to Covid-19.  

He called me on the way home from the emergency room after being gone for several hours, and it was so much bigger than a kidney stone. It was cancer — and it was everywhere. He had just been screened in December 2019, so it was violently aggressive. He made it from his diagnosis at the end of June to Aug. 9, 2020.

Rest assured, there were no death-bed conversions. If anything, he went into that good night completely at peace with his convictions. He died at home with a small entourage. The pandemic prohibited most friends and family from getting one last visit or being there for him crossing the finish line.  

Crossing the finish line may seem like an odd turn of phrase for leaving this world, but we have always considered birthdays “victory laps.” It is a miracle there is one good kidney among our Scotchophile crew. When you live like you will die tomorrow, every spin around the sun is indeed a victory lap, so when the race is over, what is there to do but cross the finish line?

The morning before he died, we agreed on one last scotch. Johnny Walker Green Label. Nothing too fancy, but it was his favorite daily dram. By that night, he couldn’t swallow. So, a little after midnight, I poured a double. I held his hand as I sipped and sobbed and he squeezed my hand every time he heard the ice rattle in my glass. A few hours later, he breathed his last.

I come from a fairly long line of nonbelievers. Our family has a tradition of donating our bodies to science, but we like to have something of a bodiless Irish wake after someone dies. Essentially, you throw a party where everyone tells the best “remember that one time” stories about the loved ones we lost, and play their favorite music and celebrate their life. We don’t have a particularly large family, so these events don’t happen often, but when they do, they bring laughter and tears and tremendous catharsis. With the pandemic, a get-together was out of the question. And, as most of his friends are in their 60s, 70s and 80s and not particularly tech savvy, a Zoom call may have sent a few more over the finish line prematurely. So, no tech-togethers, either. 

I had to tell people, one by one, that he was gone. It was gut-wrenching. And when I had to tell believers the news, they all said the inevitable banalities. Every time I heard “thoughts and prayers” or “he’s in a better place,” I had to bite my tongue. I know they meant well, but those platitudes hit differently when you know that they know he was an ardent atheist. You know that they know that you are also atheist. It comes from a good place, but it still makes your eye twitch.

At some point, you reach the end of the list of folks that need to be notified individually. Social media reaches the secondary and tertiary circles of friends, which creates another wave of support. After all the texts and calls die down, you are finally allowed to grieve.  

The grief of a nonbeliever is a more permanent sort. It’s not, “I’ll see you later in heaven” or “maybe we’ll meet again in another life.” There is a finality in the loss of people you love. Death releases all their life force energy back into the universe and it becomes whatever it becomes — but the one thing you know it won’t become is the person you just lost. They are gone forever.

Memories and stories, letters and writings, pictures and videos all give us some comfort, but death is the heartbreaking, inescapable consequence of life.

It is for this reason that I believe the nonbelievers live fuller, more connected lives. We know that we only have one shot at this.  We know there’s no posthumous paradise.  

We are trying to make our paradise in the here and now because we have no idea when or where the finish line will be for us. But, we know when we cross it, this glorious race is over.

My dad donated his body to research, but asked that we get back his ashes so that he could become a tree. They have living urn kits you can buy and pick any kind of tree you’d like to be. Due to the pandemic, it took quite a while to get his ashes back, so we missed planting him on his birthday this year, but we are all set to plant him on his next birthday.  

He will be an orange geiger tree in the Florida Keys. So, if ever you’re in the Keys and you pass an obnoxiously orange flowering tree, the tree’s name just might be Randy.  

FFRF Member Eryn Johnson is a logistician who lives in Florida with her rescued Cane Corso, Amaretto.