An Atheist in the Chapel

It is late enough that most would call it early, but I don’t know the hour myself. Anything that I’d normally use to tell the time is one floor up on the other side of the building, locked in the locker that my wife and I are using to store spare clothes, snacks, blankets. Small items of comfort that somehow make a sterile corner of the Intensive Care Nursery feel a little bit like a familiar environment.

I am sitting on a piano bench in a gently lit room, contrasting the harsh fluorescents that illuminate most of the hospital. I page through a protestant hymnal, searching for anything I might know well enough to be able to fumble through it. My piano skills have degraded since I passed my proficiency test in college — apologies to Dr. Shagdaron, who looked on harshly in my junior year and barely qualified me for graduation — but I think that playing the piano might give me some small comfort, so I persist. I find a familiar title — Abide With Me — and start to stumble through the melody line first. I’ll figure out the harmonies later.

I am in the chapel at Duke University Hospital. I am an atheist. I do not know what I am doing there.

By that point my son had been in the ICN for several weeks following his premature birth at 29 weeks, weighing only 2 pounds and 14 ounces when he first came into the world. The first few weeks — the “honeymoon period,” the nurses like to call it — went smoothly enough. Transfusions, intravenous nutrition, multiple x-rays a day, thorough inspection of all of his tiny, underdeveloped organs, to insure that everything is working smoothly despite his circumstances. Late in December, he stopped digesting food. He was diagnosed with Necrotizing Enterocolitis, one of the leading causes of death in premature infants. 10% of premature infants are diagnosed with NEC. Of those, most cases are resolved with careful monitoring of nutrition and a tube that sucks excess air and waste out of the stomach; relatively few cases require surgery.

On Christmas Eve morning, my wife’s phone rang. Desmond’s bowels had perforated. Gas and stool were leaking into his abdomen. Worst case scenario. Toby, his sweet, calm, friendly doctor, tells us, in his most reassuring tone, that Desmond could die at any moment, and that we needed to rush to the hospital to sign consent forms and see him one last time.

Park the car. Underground walkway to the hospital. Elevator. 8th floor. The receptionist sees us and knows from our faces that we are the couple that the doctors have likely warned them about; that we will look like our son is dying, and to page us back without bothering to ask us our names. The electronic lock on the door to the ICN clicks open, we enter. Scrub our hands clean, take off our jewelry. Through the second door, past the nurse’s station, turn left, turn right. A team of doctors is huddled around Desmond; our sweet, small, wriggling mass. Neither of us have been to work in weeks, instead spending our days huddled around his isolette, watching his every breath and weak cry with a strange mix of awe and sorrow. He is already intubated and prepped for surgery.

Consent forms are shoved in front of me. The resident tells me that the survival rate is 50%, and I burst into tears. He pats me on my shoulder twice, hard—his touch says, there will be so much time to cry later, but right now, every second counts. Wipe your eyes, sign the forms, and kiss your son goodbye, perhaps for the last time.

Desmond returns from surgery with several tubes down his throat — one for a breathing machine, and one for a charming apparatus that sucks the green bile from his stomach via suction, giving us a constant visual reminder of the horrific disease that is tearing his insides apart. The surgery provides no answers; it is a stopgap, a last measure, a band-aid. He is not cured. He is not home free. There is no home free. There will not be a home free for many more weeks. But he is alive. His heart beats, and that is all the doctors could have hoped for in the operating room.

And so, hours later, I am in the chapel on the 7th floor, clumsily adding harmony lines to the melody of Abide With Me, hoping — praying? — that it would provide me with some small sense of peace. The only alternative I can think of is to retreat back to the room that the nurses have set aside for us, so that I can lie awake and grope around hopelessly in the dark for an answer to the terrifying question of whether or not my beautiful, perfect son will be alive in 12 hours, or 24, or a week, or a month.

I close the hymnal and push the piano bench back in. I walk over to a book, lying open on the lectern. I am fairly certain that the text at the top of the page reads “Please provide our congregation with your prayer requests,” and not, “Please ramble on about Pascal’s Wager,” but I have not slept in days and my vision is beginning to blur. So, I write.

I feel silly writing this. I have not been to church since I was in middle school. I don’t have an ounce of religion left in me, and I know I do not belong here. But, my son is upstairs fighting for his life, and I know that as a father I have to put myself aside and do everything I can to save him. There is nothing I can do myself; his life is out of my hands. So I put it in yours, if there is any force that there is to pray to. If there is truth to what some say, and you are angry with me for not believing, please do not punish Desmond for it. He is perfect, and beautiful, and everything that I am not. Please, save my son. Please.

For atheists, I don’t think that moments like these represent any immaturity, or lack of conviction, or that they in any way invalidate the idea of living life without religion. There are moments in life, however, when all of our higher reasoning short-circuits, and we are pushed into a place of pure desperation — a pain so sincere and immeasurable that we will reach out into the darkness for anything that might give us some sense of stability. Moments like when my father died suddenly of a stroke when I was 22, and the idea of life without him just as I was getting married and moving away for graduate school was something that I was simply unable to bear; so I clung to the notion that perhaps there really was some place of divine afterlife, one where he could carry on without worrying about money and just fish his way into eternity, feeling the tide of the river push against his waders. Moments like when my son, my first and only child, my entire purpose on this earth, was cruelly ejected from the safety of the womb only to be attacked by a vicious and cold disease that tore apart his intestines; so I clung blindly to divine providence, hoping against everything that maybe something out there could save him when the doctors could not.

These are learning moments.They teach us compassion. They help us to understand why church parking lots are so crowded on Sundays. Even the religious among us should take moments like these and turn them, in our own ways, into a way of understanding our Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Taoist earthly co-inhabitants.

Please forgive me for quoting Carl Sagan.

The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us can not sympathize and understand? We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined by our own reasoning and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning.