I met Jack (not his real name) in the assisted living portion of a retirement community. Although ravaged by a stroke and the rapidly progressing physical and cognitive symptoms of a neurological disorder, he still had finely sinewed arm and neck muscles that spoke of a lifelong routine of fitness.
He was still quick with a snappy comeback and had a fiery glint to his eye. Jack was ex-military through and through, a problem solver by nature and profession. He thrived on chasing down answers and solutions and took great satisfaction from getting the expected results from following proper procedures.
A man with a temper not far beneath the surface, Jack became very unpredictable as symptoms of dementia crept in. He replayed past and recent wrongs over and over in his mind, not realizing which were already resolved and which were not.
He was unable to tell if a conversation he was quoting took place yesterday or last week or last year. His bulldog nature would not let his mind rest or allow him to accept it when even his children told him to just let it go or let them take care of it.
He lashed out at nursing staff helping him with personal care needs. He was ashamed one moment, in violent denial the next and an apologetic gentleman the moment after that.
He and I bonded over dry cleaning and a shared heritage.
Soon after meeting, I helped him sort out an issue with being overcharged by the dry cleaner. He was so happy that I took him seriously and we got to the bottom of things. In retrospect, it was the last time in his life he was successful at such an endeavor.
In a state below the Mason-Dixon line, we were both Yankees who knew about towns that boomed when coal was king and floundered when only cinders were left. We knew of neighborhoods that, even two generations later, were divided into European ethnic subcultures, each with their own Catholic church, annual church picnic and mouth-watering Old World cuisine. We talked about halupki, halushki, potato pancakes and pasta fagiole, and our friendship was sealed.
I became the one the nurses called whenever he was having a really hard day. They were afraid of him on those days. He never scared me, even when he was trying to. I was part of the team that arranged his move to the nursing home when he needed more care. That move ripped apart the last shreds of his grasp of time.
‘You figured it out!’
Then one day he revealed an old war he was fighting that he’d never spoken about to anyone before.
He’d been raised to be devoutly Catholic, and as someone who liked formulas and results, he took well to Catholic ritual and routine. There were plans for what one should do and avoid and how to be forgiven when mistakes were made. There were days to celebrate and to repent with the right God-pleasing words.
There were prayers for peace, for marriage, for soldiers and prayers to find your lost keys. Jack learned all the rules from his fastidiously Catholic mother and followed them to a T. But he didn’t get the promised results. Jack and his wife had serious problems over the years. He had strained relationships with his children. And finally, he admitted to me one day, he just didn’t feel it.
Jack spoke to me with great clarity and honesty about the moment and his internal struggle. He didn’t feel what he was told his whole life he was supposed to feel about a relationship with God. That led him to two possible logical conclusions: Either he did it wrong and therefore the lack of the promised result was his fault, or, he was, as he put it, “duped.”
He gave himself the proper credit in that he felt he did go through all the motions properly. That only left the other option, and Jack was mad.
I sat with him as he seethed over the profound betrayal of the whole “racket.” He was mad at his mother for indoctrinating him and mad at the church for being the reason he denied himself life experiences he now wished he had pursued.
He was mad at himself for being “So stupid!” as to go along with it for so many decades, hoping for something magical to happen that never did.
He was mad at being pressured by his Catholic upbringing to marry so early, because maybe he would have taken his time and found a better match. He felt guilty about “dragging my kids into this mess” of also believing. He went on and on.
It was like the anger over the realization lit up his brain. He spoke with such lucidity and expressiveness. The atheist in me wanted to enthusiastically grab him by the shoulders and yell, “Yes, you figured it out! It is all just shit!”
I wanted to welcome him to the club and congratulate him for putting the pieces together for himself through honest introspection. But I was trained to not interject my opinions into the experiences of those who confided in me. So I held his hand and reflected back his thoughts to him to validate that I was listening.
No crisis of faith
I was happy that it was me there with him instead of one of the chaplains, who would have seen this as a “faith crisis” and would have tried to assure him he was mistaken and it would all be OK. Jack probably would have punched them.
But there was no joy or celebration for him in this eye-opening experience. Jack was dying and he knew it. This was a dying man’s furious lament.
If I had been the type to pray, I would have prayed for Jack’s dementia to sweep his brilliant and devastating epiphany back into the dark corners of his awareness. The air around his bedridden form crackled with his pain.
Eventually he was exhausted, and I was able to take my leave. The next time we saw one another he did not speak of it, and I didn’t bring it up. He still had some bad days and good days. I was not there when he died.
Jack’s children, believers still, probably made their peace by thinking that he was a good enough man in the end to make it into heaven. Or perhaps, if they diligently followed the letter of certain canon laws, they mourned the image of Jack suffering for his shortcomings in the afterlife.
Jack and I mourned together before he died. We mourned the loss of the lovely lie he tried so hard for so long to convince himself he believed. I was so proud of him and yet so sad for him all at once that day.
Carrying his secret confession for some time now has weighed heavily on me. I decided to write it down and share it with others because I felt it would be a good legacy for Jack.
It turned out that the dry cleaner overcharging him was not the final thing he got to the bottom of after all.
FFRF member Sarah Jones (a pseu-donym) lives in Virginia.