Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Flashback: The Great Perhaps…and The Great Sure-Thing.

[Memories over more than fifty years for my kids and grandchildren].

Father was asleep when I came to his hospital room after work. I sat there and watched him for about fifteen minutes when he woke up.

I’ve just been to Mass, I told him, and I offered it up for you.

“Thank you,” he said. “Here I’ve been sleeping away and you’ve been here watching me. I’m sorry.”

We want you to get a lot of sleep.

“I will have plenty of time for sleep.”

What does that mean?

“I meant much of what I do is sleep—and I’ll sleep some more after you leave. Not pessimistically, don’t worry. How was Mass? Where did you go?”

St. Peter’s in the Loop. As you know, the first reading is always Old Testament and my mind wanders during that reading. Which causes me to wonder--what earthly value has the Old Testament to us? I mean it’s archaic; God does not seem to be the merciful God as He appears in the New. Yet it’s read in formulae every day at Mass along with the New. What value has it for us? Like it clearly states in the Old Testament that pork should not be eaten. Now we can. Why, then, keep reading from it? Why dwell on the Old?

“You remember that Jesus declared, I think in Mark, that all foods are clean and that in Acts Peter heard the voice of God saying `What God has made clean, you are not to call unclean.’ So that dietary law doesn’t apply to Christians. But it did once. You’re a kind of amateur historian. Don’t you want to know what went before?”

Yes. But it’s archaic.

“But it’s a link. The Old Testament was all that Jesus had since God began revealing Himself long before Christ’s time. We can’t understand the New Testament without having read and understanding the Old. It’s like the essential first chapters. The world first learned about who God was from the Old. And the Jews were the first to understand the unitary God…not the exertion of nature as some pagans thought but the Creator. We should know that they were the first because without them, we’d still be worshiping many gods.”

What are the historical lessons, though? Things often botch up in the Old.

“Of course, as things often botch up for us. But God constantly delivers his people from slavery, oppression and sin. And the Jews keep changing tactics constantly. They’re an inspiration in persistence. They win wars, then lose them; their kingdom splits, kings turn into betrayers, the Jews sin, are carried into exile, return to the land, repent. God works through leaders, through judges, through kings. After the king fail, He turns to the prophets. When the Jews lose their land God watches over them in their exile and suffering. When the temple is destroyed He inspires them to write the books of the law; when the Greeks and Romans take over, He gives the Jews hope. I enjoy how the Jews deal with God. He demands love, friendship and obedience; they give Him thanks, trust Him but not too much; they praise Him, complain about Him and to Him, are driven almost nuts by His silence, plead for His mercy and enjoy His love. The Old Testament gives us—me—and should give you—hope.”

It was time for his dinner and I left and went home to my family. It was August 9, 1966, a little over a month since the first heart attack.


After my dinner and as I was playing with the kids, Conley called and said, “Get over here quick. I’ve called your Mother.”

I got over to the hospital quickly, saying a prayer as I drove. He had suffered another massive heart wallop. The oxygen tent was back but he wasn’t complaining.

Mother was sitting by his bed, holding his hand. “Your son and I are here—your entire family. We love you.”

He smiled, looked up at me as if he had a sudden thought he wanted to communicate to me…as though a thought had just struck him and he wanted to tell me something important. He said, “say, kid--.”

And was gone. Eyes opaque; jaws slack; the hospital team rushed to him; the clappers; we stepped back and prayed the rosary.

The hospital superintendent, a nun, took Mother outside and told her the hospital had done everything. Mother was dry-eyed. As for me, I sat alone in the room and looked at the mound of flesh, transformed from a vibrant human to a container for flesh, lying inert in a bed with sightless open eyes, jaws agape…eyes which a nurse tried to shut but which opened disobediently. A few minutes earlier he was a vital, engaged human being. I took his hand, looked in the sightless eyes and spoke to him. I had always been told that life does not leave as quickly as one might think, that he may have been able to hear—and so I told him how much he meant to me. When I looked up, Mother was there—dry-eyed.

“It’s so final, isn’t it?” she said. That was the end of their 43 years together.

I struggled. What does it mean—I mean, really: what does this mean?

“You know better than that,” she said. “Don’t be the skeptic. It’s the end of the first chapter, the beginning of the next. He is in heaven.”

Now Conley beckoned her to leave and join him. I continued to sit there with what a few minutes earlier had been a vibrant, cognizant man full of wisdom after 68 years of experiences—now, I hated to say it, now an inert sack of guts that would quickly decompose. Was the fulfillment of 68 years to be lost forever…all the rich experiences gone to vapor…and the cycle would begin again with someone else: beginning with babyhood—maturing up and up and to be ended again? I was seized—not for the first time—with skepticism. Then as I continued looking at what once was Father, I decided (as I always have) that it would be unreasonable to suppose the perfect contrivance of a man such as he would end and never reappear. Just as I came to that conclusion, I looked up and Mother was studying me.

“I always told you and your Father you both think too much,” she said.

“Who was that philosopher you always told me about—the one who admitted he was boring…?”

She was thinking of Immanuel Kant who described his masterwork, “The Critique of Pure Reason” as “dry, obscure, contrary to all ordinary ideas and on top of that prolix.” When he sent the manuscript to a friend for criticism, the friend sent it back with this note: “I send it to you unfinished. If I go on to the end I am afraid I shall go mad.”

“That’s the one I mean,” she said when reminded. “Now we must go home because I have a lot of planning to do.” She kissed Father’s forehead and we left. Still no tears.

At her house that night, continuing tearless, she outlined the logistics of the de rigeur run to the downtown banks to change the accounts (to fool the estate tax people, a mission now mercifully unneeded). No remembrances, just the inevitable pad and penciled schedule of events regarding the death notice, funeral, pallbearers, celebrant of the Mass, the site of a post-Mass reception, plans to close his international travel agency, what to do with its files, etc.

I said: You accept this just as if it were a mere change of address for him.

“Well, it is, isn’t it?”

I’m afraid that at age 38, Catholic as I am, I have not accepted death as an escalator to the hereafter yet; I’m afraid I’m bitter at his being taken from us. Goddammit, Mother, how do we know beyond all doubt there is heaven, that he is in a better place? Until a few hours ago, we had a man who was wiser beyond measure about life, whom the two of us loved—and now all we have to show for it is a mound of inert flesh. And we’re supposed to understand it? Praise God for it? Say sublimely that He knows what is best? What happens to the accumulated wisdom and views that were once contained in that body? Lost forever, that’s what! What do we do--start all over, is that it, with a baby and watch him grow in wisdom and years and have him taken away? Is this what you call a divine plan?

I am sorry to say I began to weep. She came over, patted my hand, stroked my head.

“Well, that’s a fine bit of skepticism you have just unloaded on me now. I know beyond all doubt there’s a heaven: how can I get you to know? If your father were here he’d say you are doing—what?”

He’d say I just bought into skepticism—just implied that truth is unattainable because in this instance I despair of intellect and reason—the tools used to discover truth--and look for truth to instinct, feeling or action…because I don’t accept the rationale of death. Further, he’d say that truth is neither impossible nor easy but difficult to attain. He’d say that what I just uttered was cowardice.

“Exactly. He still is with us. You’re his successor, don’t you see? That’s the great thing, Tommy, and you don’t recognize it. But you will. He would say truth is possible to attain, right?”


“And do you believe that? Here—stop weeping and answer me.”

I guess. I wish I could stop this infernal crying.

“Cry, then. Look, I’ve never had patience with deep thinking, with either you or your father because I’ve felt it gets you into trouble. I’ve always said that common-sense is far more important than this philosophy stuff—and it is. I dread it when people go on with theories; I’d much rather concentrate on the concrete. But when you get into the fix you’re in, you have to resort to the guy you’ve told me about so often.”

Pascal. Who devised Pascal’s wager.

“And what did he say? Do me a favor and blow your nose and wipe your upper lip, please.”

It’s the philosophy of hedging your bets. He said: if you believe and God exists, you gain everything. If you disbelieve and God exists, you lose everything. So it is prudent to believe.

“There you are. You are like a lot of kids. Because I’m a lot older than you, I know in my heart God exists—it’s faith. You don’t, exactly. So you use the wager. And what is the other side? You told me once. The atheist’s wager?”

The atheist says: It’s better to live as if there is no God and try to make the world a better place for your being in it. If there is no God you’ve lost nothing and if there is, He’ll give you credit for trying to improve the world. That’s the secular credo.

“Do you think that’s what Christ told us? Did Christ command us to love humanity?”

No. He simply commanded us to love one another.

“Did he command us to raise the poverty level, give everybody national health care, raise taxes on the rich?”


“Then you know Pascal’s wager is right.”

Of course. I’ve gotten over that doubt.

“And you’ve stopped weeping.”

Yes. I’ve just been acting up, feeling sorry for myself because Father has been taken from us.

“Then apply what he told you. If you accept Pascal’s wager, you have the duty to love and obey God. You have to. Nobody knows first-hand. All life is a wager, Tommy. Now get over this self-pity. Because that’s what it is.”

Despite all the theology, when we die, we all say we go to the Great Perhaps.

“No. It’s perfectly okay for you to say. I’ve got to tell you I will say: I expect to go to heaven. For me, if you live right, heaven’s a certainty—not The Great Perhaps.”

For me it’s still The Great Perhaps.

“That’s the kid in you. The longer you live the less you will think it’s The Great Perhaps. Pray for an end to thinking it’s The Great Perhaps. Pray the prayer: Lord, help me to overcome my unbelief. Can you say that?”

Lord, help me to overcome my unbelief.

“Good. For now, it’s o.k. The important thing is to believe not swim in doubt. Now stop thinking about all that deep stuff and help me out with these details. Work is the great therapy. Keep away from all this deep-thought stuff and when the time comes, The Great Perhaps will become The Great Sure Thing.”

As it was with her when she died six years later at age 76. But before that, a lot of interesting things happened to her. To be continued.

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