I'm a Believer

There are no atheists in foxholes, but what about in hospital ICUs?

When I was 16, my friend Barak took me out for crepes as a birthday present. He drove the car; he paid the bill. But what really made the outing feel adult was the question he posed afterward, as we wandered through a nearby park.

We were talking about God. Barak's family was more observant than mine; he and his brother avoided driving or using the phone on Shabbat. I was struggling to explain my Jewish identity—which, at the time, was an amalgam of Sunday morning bagels, my Pop-pop's jokes and my own recently fixed nose.

"If you don't believe in God, then what do you believe in?" Barak said.

No one had ever asked me before.

Anything I could think to say sounded feeble: I believe in newspapers? In algebra? In Passover Seders where my cousins dare each other to swallow a whole spoonful of horseradish? I changed the subject, ashamed that I didn't have an answer.

I thought of Barak's question again recently, when I spent part of nearly every day, for nine anxious and exhausting weeks, watching my father grow suddenly ill, then slightly better, then much worse from pancreatitis.

In the end, he died.

In the end, we all do, but this was my father—a warm, funny, unassuming and gifted 86-year-old sports writer who appeared on the radio the day before he went into the emergency room and had planned to make wild salmon for dinner that night.

During the hospital eternity, a lot of people—friends, colleagues, my favorite teller at the bank—asked if there was something they could do. When I smiled ruefully and shrugged, "If I think of anything, I'll let you know," some followed up with, "Your family is in my prayers." Was prayer the default button, the last-gasp strategy when the bag of tangible tricks was empty?

I recalled that adage about the absence of atheists in foxholes. What about in hospital ICUs? While my father lay there with four different IV concoctions dripping into his veins, my questions were more practical than existential: Why was the propofol up, or the norepinephrine down? What did it mean if his lipase was high or his red blood count low?

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Outside the hospital, though, I found myself qualifying my sentences with holy parentheticals: "He's supposed to get an award on April 13, God willing," or "What about CPR if his heart, God forbid, stops working?" Where were these phrases coming from? I don't believe in a God who wills, forbids or sits atop a throne micromanaging our destinies.

And yet, my words stemmed from somewhere: from a desire to make meaning of this chaos, to lay a narrative over our formless days. From the moment my dad entered the ER, the uncertainty was the hardest part: Would he get an infection? Would his chest X-ray be clear or murky? What would tomorrow bring?

In the face of such shattering apprehension, some people reach for the Johnny Walker. Some, for the nearest warm body. And some, for God.

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I started to look for signs. Was it a grim indicator that my father was in bed No. 13—really, they couldn't have skipped 13?—of the hospital's ICU? Was it a good omen when my cousin "contacted" her recently deceased mother, beseeching her to help my dad, and the next day his blood work looked a little better?

Four days before my father died, I walked across the campus of Drexel University and heard the bell tower chime six o'clock. But after the half-dozen pong pong pongs, the bells began to sound a familiar tune: the title song from "Cabaret," one of my parents' favorite musicals. I stopped, recalling the lyrics: "Start by admitting/from cradle to tomb/isn't that long a stay/Life is a cabaret, old chum/only a cabaret."

Did that mean my dad would survive to see another Broadway show? Or was the song signaling his final bow? Perhaps it was just a crazy coincidence; for all I know, the guy in the carillon plays show tunes every Monday.

I'm a pragmatist. I don't envision some poufy afterworld or feel certain that I used to be a Macedonian princess. I figure this life is it, and we'd better use our finite minutes well. But in the face of grief and longing, I reached for the flimsiest straws. One dusky night, as I drove home from the hospital, a deer and her fawn darted across a quiet, curving road. Let him live, I whispered, as they vanished into the trees.

Driving back the next morning, I fantasized that I would walk into room No. 13 and find my dad sitting up, eating lime Jello. If I pictured that hard enough, could I make it happen? Could my remarkable father defy the doctors, his age and the severity of his illness and be the one-in-a-million, the Powerball champion, the One Who Lived?

And why not? I've known enough close brushes with what our rabbi likes to call "the mystery." My cousin was on a cruise during her mother's final days; she learned later that her watch, tucked in the ship's vault, had, stopped at the exact moment her mother died. On the way to my father-in-law's funeral, a single can of Orange Fanta—featured in an often-told family story—turned up in the cooler of the limousine. My partner is certain she once saw a ghost, an evanescent little boy climbing up a bookshelf at the foot of the bed.

Do fear and loss make us irrational? Are we kidding ourselves by imbuing the ordinary with supernatural signs? Or is it that hard times strip away the veils we usually use to divide the empirical from the mysterious, this bricks-and-mortar life from the one we can't control, predict or understand?

All I know is that nine weeks in the ICU made a believer out of me.

I believe in the friend who drove 150 miles to bring me eight quarts of homemade chili, and the one who texted photos of fresh flowers every Friday, and the cousins who showed up at the hospital bearing chef's salads and bottled water.

I believe, ever more fervently, in the resilience of the flesh—and its fragility. I believe that everything is connected to everything else, and that this applies both to the body's moist pipelines and the earth itself. I believe the important question isn't "Why must we die?" but "Why do we live?" and that the answer should animate our days.

It took me almost 40 years, my friend, but here you go: I believe in love, which lashes us to each other and keeps pulsing even after death, the timpani of our trampled, aching hearts.

Tags: family