On Dying Without God

My phone rang. It was him. “Can–gasp–you just–gasp–come–gasp–put me to–gasp–bed?” he said, ragged breaths coming between the words. “I’ll be right down,” was my reply. It was always my reply. What else could I say to the man who couldn’t breathe well enough to speak a full sentence and was terrified each time it happened?

I ran down to his place to find him clinging to the kitchen counter. “Morphine,” he whispers, barely able to speak at all. I draw up 3mL in the syringe and squirt it into a cup with 1/2″ of water in it. He drinks it quickly, accidentally inhaling on the swallow. He coughs it all back out into the kitchen sink. “Need–gasp–more–gasp”. I drew up the same amount again, added some water, and he took it without trouble.

I followed him to the bedroom, and he leaned on the bed to breathe while I helped him take off his slippers and compression socks. “Those things are so damn tight,” he complained, “I think I’ll just stop wearing them. It takes me 10 minutes per sock to get them on in the morning anyway.” I slipped them off and tossed them in the laundry basket. He unbuttoned his pants and they fell to the floor. I took them as he steps out of them, then he turned to lie down in bed. “Anything else?” I ask, pulling up the covers. “No. Thank you. I’ve got everything I need and I can reach my phone if I need you.” I dimmed the lights and headed back up to our place.

He had told me the day before, after speaking with his VA case manager about a hospice consult, that he wasn’t planning to do chemo again. He could have, but the chance that it may have extended his life was slim. At the time, we didn’t know just how short his time was. I’ve held to the belief that doing chemo again would take more from him than it would give, and he also concluded the same. Sadly, I’m thankful.

man in wheelchair next to man walking down a boardwalk

“I’m just so damn tired, Dawn. All the time. If I do chemo again, I’m afraid I’ll be too tired to get out of bed at all.” This was my fear, too. We were told he only had months left. Four months is the “median survival time”, according to his oncologist. That means that 50% pass away before that point and 50% pass later. Still, just months. 2-6, if the estimate were correct.

It wasn’t. He had noticeably gone downhill in only two weeks since the oncologist told us the cancer was back. I suspected we were looking at the shorter end of that time estimation. His seeing Christmas was unlikely. Even Thanksgiving was doubtful.

He was tired. I was tired. It’s not like life had been a cakewalk recently. (Does anyone even know what a cakewalk is anymore?) Cakewalks are easy. Eventually, most of the contestants win a cake. But there are no cakes awarded for Small Cell Lung Cancer. There are nebulizer treatments, PET Scans, doses of morphine for air hunger, naps, and anxiety. Lots of anxiety. Not being able to breathe is a terrifying thing. Watching someone who cannot catch their breath is, too.

Christians would tell me that I need to pray for my Dad.

They would say that I should “pray that he would come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ before he meets God.” There was a time when that would have been my Number One Priority. I would have hounded him and made him absolutely miserable until he caved and “gave his life to Christ”, even on his deathbed. It would have been a huge triumph for my self-righteous Christian walk. Another salvation notch in my belt– and this was MY DAD! It would have been glorious.

I don’t believe in that anymore. I don’t believe in salvation or heaven or hell and I don’t believe in guilting anyone into something which would have given him nothing just so that I can get a shiny little badge for piety. I feel that layering deception on top of an already trying season of life as they are coming to terms with their own mortality is just cruel.

It’s been a weird season for me. I spent six months straddling life and death, quite literally, with my Dad, and not having that “comfort in my salvation” was actually quite a comfortable place to be. It IS weird because there was a time when I would have agonized over the fact that he wasn’t a believer and wrung my hands at the thought of his going to hell.

But I don’t believe there IS a hell.

The realization of this is absolutely freeing.

My dad went into the unknown universe just 20 days after his diagnosis of cancer recurrence. His struggle with this life has ended; with his health and his nonstop battle with lungs that no longer function the way that they are supposed to. It was a terribly hard process to witness but knowing his struggle is over is a COMFORT. He will neither burn in a lake of fire nor be stuck in Purgatory until someone prays him out.

He will just.



There are many layers to my feelings about this entire process.

This post only addresses one layer. We did not have good years when I was growing up. He was an abusive authoritarian. My sister and I did not “respect” him. We were terrified of him and for good reason. But that’s another chapter, another story, for another time. I still have past crap that comes up along the way, but I know that I did what I needed to do to help him because he’s my Dad.

my Dad's folded military flag with his service dress cover and a photograph of him
In memory of QMC Richard Johnson, Retired
1945 – 2019

Leave a Comment