On Dying, As An Atheist

I grew up with a Buddhist Korean mother. Unlike Buddhism in the west, our “religion” was just a patchwork of superstitions held together by heart-thudding fear. Fear of poverty, injury, bad grades, dog bites, running out of ice … pretty much anything you can think of. Except death. It’s something we accepted, talked about, joked about.

My mother is now 82 years old. Many of her friends have died, and my father died over a decade ago. Even though I live in the US, I am still Korean enough not to be willing to relegate my mother to a nursing home. So, she lives with me and my family. In the past few months, my mother has become obsessed with her own death. Unlike in years past, when I would respond with a snarky comment, I realize she is now truly facing her own mortality.

She nearly daily dreams that my father is coming to her in her sleep and beckoning her to join him. I know that this is her mind attempting to calm her anxiety, and I told her that several times. But as the months have passed and I watch her deteriorating, I now just ask her if he’s grown any hair in the afterlife, because his comb over in this life was a travesty. I had no real trepidation at playing along with her delusion. Recently though, she asked me flat out, “Do you believe me? Do you believe daddy is waiting for me and that we’ll be together when I die?”

She knows that I am an atheist. She knows that I don’t believe in an afterlife. But she’s asking just the same. I realize this question stems from her fear. She doesn’t want to die. She’s terrified of blinking out of existence. And I don’t blame her. But it leaves me in a very uncomfortable place. I make a point of not lying about the big stuff. The real stuff. The stuff that matters. Oh, I have absolutely no problem telling her that her brown polyester pants and white socks with old lady sandals are gorgeous and all the rage in the fashion world. But this, this is big, real -- stuff that matters.

So, do I lie? Or do I tell her what I know to be true? Does it make me a hypocrite to be an atheist until I’m looking someone that I love in the face and want to alleviate her fear? This comes down to the reason for religion. The bait that snares people: we don’t want to die. And this is the comfort that religion provides. My mother trusts me. And in the end, I lied to her face and told her that, yes, I think it’s entirely plausible that my father is roaming around in the afterlife just waiting for her.

To many people, this is an innocuous white lie that won’t hurt anyone. But it makes me question my integrity. It’s like forgiveness. Forgiving someone for calling me a bitch is easy and inconsequential. Forgiveness only counts when it’s the big stuff. For example, when someone hurts my child. Do I only believe in forgiveness when it suits me? Or can I be that person that I think I am when it really, really counts? Am I only an atheist when it’s easy?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that my father is still “living” in some fantasy kingdom. I know that, when my mother dies, all that will be left of her will be atoms floating in the wind, lying in the ground, and making me feel perpetually guilty and somehow still disappointing her. But I can’t bring myself to tell her that. I can’t bring myself to extinguish the hope in her eyes that there is something more, maybe better, waiting for her when she dies.

In the end, I have decided that giving my mother hope in her final weeks/months/maybe even years is not wrong. Making her own death less terrifying is my final act of love and loyalty. But being an atheist has also given me a wonderful gift in all of this. I know, with all my being, that once she dies, I will never have her again. I won’t see her, touch her, hear her, for all my existence. (I say existence rather than death because while I don’t believe in an afterlife, I’m holding out hope for a technological advancement in cybernetics that will allow my consciousness to live on indefinitely in an adamantium shell.)  And because of that, I don’t rest on my laurels and tell myself she’s off to a better place and I’ll see her again someday. I actively take advantage of every single moment I have left. I never turn down a lunch with her, a trip to the casino so she can roll her slots, or even a trip to the grocery store. I am more patient with her, I live every moment with her in absolute presence. I strive to etch them into my memory. Because I know that, someday soon, that will be all I have left.

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