I’ve had a variation of this conversation a few times. I meet someone and the topic of why I’m in Peoria comes up. I talk about the choices that my sisters and I have made to take care of my mother, to which the well meaning person I’m talking to says something like, “There will be a special reward for you in heaven.”
As an atheist, I’m really not sure how I should respond. Usually, I’m polite and nod and say nothing. Like I said, they mean well. It’s difficult to know what to say in that situation. I believe they are trying to say that I’m making a good choice by being here. They certainly don’t mean to say something awkward. Instead they wish to comfort me. They have no idea that I don’t share their belief in the afterlife or god.
I could respond by saying, “Well, I don’t believe there is a heaven. And even if there is one, I don’t believe in your god and therefore I won’t be in heaven to get my present. I’m choosing to do this because it’s the right thing to do.” However, I don’t say this because it would be a monumentally jerky thing to say given the circumstances. I think I’m already responding to it in the best way I can respond, by simply letting it slide. Still there is something about them saying it, and the underlying assumptions, that bothers me.
I guess for me, thinking that somehow I’m going to be rewarded for this in the afterlife cheapens the experience. Do we really do good in this life because we want to get presents in heaven? I don’t think we do, whether we believe in a god or not.
I guess I can only speak for myself, but when I have a decision to make and one choice clearly feels more good, more moral, or more ethical, I feel compelled to make that choice. I don’t make it because I want a reward in heaven. It just feels bad to do the wrong thing. There is a certain emotional chaos and angst that I experience when I don’t do the right thing. When faced with the choice two years ago of whether I should help my sisters take care of my mom, the right thing seemed obvious. Had I walked away and not helped, I would have been haunted by that decision the rest of my days. It simply would not have been worth it.
Recently, I read Black Swan Green. It’s the novel about a thirteen year old boy. Late in the story, the boy finds the wallet of another kid, a kid who has been horrible to him through most of the book. The wallet contains a lot of money, more than $1000 in US currency, a fortune for this boy. It seems like a no brainer, the boy should keep the money, but there is a wrinkle. He finds out that the money belongs to the mean kid’s father. This guy is a real son of a bitch who beat his wife over much less than $1000. The boy knows if he keeps the money, the evil kid is going to get beaten bad, maybe even killed.
For most of a chapter, this boy tries to convince himself that he should keep the money and throw the wallet away. He anguishes over the decision but seems quite certain he will keep it. But in the end he gives it back, the money isn’t worth the strain of knowing that it’s not the right thing to do. Immediately he feels much better.
So what does this have to do with my mom? Well two years ago, when we started down this path, the right choice seemed clear: keep mom in her home and rotate between the three of us 24/7. For the most part, that’s what we have done. But things have changed. Her condition is worse, her care is mostly now in the hands of CNAs and nurses that we have hired. We still participate quite actively in her care, but much of the hands on dressing, bathing, feeding and bathroom help is now done by people we have hired. Two years ago, we think it would have been quite distressing for my mom to move to a nursing home. Two years ago, it made a great deal of difference that one of her kids was nearby in the house. I’m sure it made her feel safer to know one of us was nearby. Now I’m not so sure.
It’s very hard to tell what is going on with mom today. She has not spoken in many months. It’s hard to remember, it may be over a year since she has said a full sentence or an understandable phrase. You can read some emotions in her face for sure. If she is in pain or distress, you know it. She has a way of opening her mouth and biting down which means she is hungry. It’s even possible to still make her laugh, although that has become much harder. Beyond that, it’s hard to know if she understands what is happening around her. The bottom line is that I’m not sure she would feel much difference between being taken care of at home and being taken care of in a nursing home, provided that caregivers were kind to her and that we visited her often to spend time with her.
There are other parts to this story as well. All three of us have made sacrifices to do this, sacrifices that I don’t think my mom would have wanted. I think she would want us to make sure she got excellent care, and would want us to be a part of that care, but she would not want us to have put our lives on hold like we have.
Also, I’ve begun to feel the cost to our mental and physical health. This summer was a particularly bad one for me. My mom’s situation was not the catalyst, but my ability to deal with the issues I was faced with was badly compromised. Emotionally I was a wreck and it’s taken me a few months to climb out of it. And I’m afraid my compromised mental state will only get worse over time.
Someday soon, my sisters and I may come to a different conclusion, that perhaps the best thing for all of us will be for my mom to be in a nursing home and for us to start rebuilding our lives. If we make that choice, will there no longer be a reward for us in heaven? Will we have forfeited it? I don’t think so, but then I don’t think there ever was such a reward. I would hate to think that there was a god that allowed all the suffering in the world and tried to make up for it by giving us presents in the afterlife. That’s a truly repugnant idea to me.