Thanksgiving 1994. Dr. Jay’s Aunt Renee died in a car accident. It was a horrible driving day. I had driven Jay from Long Island to Cleveland because he had a serious hockey accident only a few weeks early where his orbit was broken by a freak play. He wasn’t allowed to drive, but he was going to leave Cleveland to go to a meeting in Mexico, so I just wanted to get him to his family.
I left to get to Buffalo and deal with hideous snow. I almost got into an accident myself. When I got to Buffalo, I gave Jay a call to let him know that I was safe. He let me know that his aunt, his father’s only sister, had been in a fatal accident. She was taking the dog to the kennel so they could visit Cleveland. A semi-tracker trailer crossed the double yellow on the curve of a 2 lane road. She was in critical condition and mercy flight took her to the hospital. She died while in the OR.
It was devastating. Her 5 children were lost. Renee was the light of everyone’s light and with a turn of the wheel, it was out. Dr. Jay missed the funeral to go to his meeting. When he got back, he and I took a trip to Maryland to visit his Uncle and cousins. We talked and read the mourners Kaddish with the family. At one point, I found myself talking with Uncle D. He was at a total loss. He showed me the certificate they had received from the school board. With all of the legalese that is required, they had resolved that Renee was a good person and they resolved that she was dead and they resolved that she should be honored for being a good person who helped the schools. The resolutions made us laugh, but that quickly turned to another story of how a little girl told Uncle D that Renee couldn’t be in heaven. She was a Jew and Jews can’t go to heaven. The girl’s mother tried hard to backtrack it, but that stupid part of “my religion is better than your religion” snuck in. Eventually, Uncle D explained to the girl that Jews have a different part of heaven and that Aunt Renee was waving from her side of the fence. The girl was happy, but the mother wasn’t.
The came the conversation I can still hear in my head. Uncle D and I were just talking, crying, talking. He said “I can’t believe in a god anymore. A god would never let this happen. Just like a god would never let little children die.” I’ve heard this before and I turned the discussion to faith. “If no children died, wouldn’t that be proof of a god?”
“And doesn’t religion require faith, not proof?”
“So to avoid proof, any god that does exist needs to allow bad things to happen to good people”
Uncle D thought about that. I thought about that. I wasn’t sure where I had gotten it from, but it suddenly clicked that I didn’t need proof of a god, nor did I need faith. I just needed to be.
It was this conversation and others that Uncle D and I had that night that started to pluck away some of the last threads that connected me with religion. I didn’t want the idea that my life was controlled by some unseen force. I didn’t want my free will to be a good person because I felt it was the right thing to do to be forced because I felt guilty that I was disappointing some omnipotent being who would allow good people to die. And worst of all, I didn’t want to accept that a “loving god” would allow a wonderful,kind soul like Renee be snuffed out as part of a bigger plan.
From this point, late 1994 to early 1995, I started to draw my morality from who I wanted to be, not from an ancient book.
1999 was a rough year. My grandmother’s alzheimers became worse and she passed away on February 1. My niece was born a month later, but that year saw 11 deaths between Jay’s family and mine. I was looking forward to 2000.
I had planned a trip to El Paso for the second week of January. Jay was going to the American Astronomical Society meeting, so I would go visit my friend and her family. Her husband, Corey, worked on Patriot missiles at Ft Bliss. She had a 7 month old baby girl and her 2.5 year old boy. I hadn’t seen her in a year, so I was excited for the trip. Three days before the trip, I got a call at dinnertime. It was my friend’s (let’s call her Becca) mother. I was surprised to hear her and said “Hey! I’m going to see Becca and Corey next week.” She told me she knew and then asked me to sit for a moment.
Corey was dead. He went out to work on the base. They were taking a caravan out to the firing range for testing. A train was coming down the track at 60 mph. The caravan turned a corner and crossed the tracks. The first truck crossed without seeing the train. Corey’s truck was destroyed. Later, we found out that Becca’s mom, who is a pathologist, asked permission to see the remains. She advised Becca not to view them. Corey’s wedding ring was never found at the crash site. Way to start, 2000.
I went out to the mall to walk around with Jay and expressed my anger at everything. How could Corey be dead? He wasn’t even 30 yet? How could everybody be walking around so normal? Life should stop? I told Jay that I was no longer on speaking terms with any god. I think Corey’s death was the final clipping of the delicate threads that held my belief in any sort of divine being attached to me. After this, god was gone. No malevolent guy who flooded the earth, no relaxed old man on the beach. Nothing. Nada. No. I let it go. I didn’t need nor want the so-called love of any being that had all powers, yet allowed such good people to suffer. Again and again I heard about god’s plan. Really? His plan is to let a little girl grow up and NEVER KNOW WHO HER DAD WAS? Great plan, there!
I supported Becca as much as possible. I was there to listen to her when she needed to vent. I drove to Buffalo for the funeral. I can no longer listen to TAPS without crying over Corey. I even sat quietly in her church, the Catholic Church of my little town, while the priest talked of the goodness and mystery of god. I was good. I didn’t scream out how that was a pack of lies. I didn’t yell how unfair it was to the kids, to Becca, to Corey. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
God was dead. As dead as Corey. I stopped accepting the belief of a higher being and made a pledge to treat other humans with respect. To treat others the way I expect to be treated. I pledged to be the person in charge of my life. Accidents will happen and I will not blame and imaginary person. Successes will happen and I will no longer thank someone for the strength to get there because the strength was within. Not everything is my fault, but not everything isn’t. If I screw up, stand up and admit it. If I do well, be willing to accept it as the fruits of my work. If luck plays into it, so be it.
That is how I became an atheist.
However, 2 years after Corey’s death, I became a mother, and this opened one last can of worms. (part 5 soon)