How Faith Saved the Atheist

PAMELA R. WINNICK

A medical resident — we called her "Dr. Death" — at the Intensive Care Unit at Long Island's North Shore Hospital chased us down the hallway.

"Your husband wants to die," she told my mother, again. Just minutes before I had asked her to leave us alone.

"He can't even talk," I reminded her.

"He motioned with his hands when we tried to put in the feeding tube," she said.

Not exactly informed consent, I pointed out as we turned our backs on her and walked down the hallway, trying to avert our eyes from the other patients in the ICU that night, each of them at various points in the so-called "twilight zone" between life and death.


Afflicted with asbestos-related lung cancer, my father, Louis Winnick, was rushed into the ICU in late May after a blood clot nearly killed him. The next day, my husband and I raced to New York from Pittsburgh. I packed enough work and knitting for what might be an extended stay, but I also put in a suit for what I was certain would be my father's imminent funeral. Still, he wasn't dead yet. And we had no intention of precipitating the inevitable.

"Dr. Death" was just one of several. A new resident appeared the next day, this one a bit more diplomatic but again urging us to allow my father to "die with dignity." And the next day came yet another, who opened with the words, "We're getting mixed messages from your family," before I shut him up. I've written extensively about practice of bioethics — which, for the most part, I do not find especially ethical — but never did I dream that our moral compass had gone this far askew. My father, 85, was heading ineluctably toward death. Though unconscious, his brain, as far as anyone could tell, had not been touched by either the cancer or the blood clot. He was not in a "persistent vegetative state" (itself a phrase subject to broad interpretation), that magic point at which family members are required to pull the plug — or risk the accusation that they are right-wing Christians.


Then a light bulb went off in my head. We could devise a strategy to fend off the death-happy residents: We would tell them we were Orthodox Jews.


I complained about all the death-with-dignity pressure to my father's doctor, an Orthodox Jew, who said that his religion forbids the termination of care but that he would be perfectly willing to "look the other way" if we wanted my father to die. We didn't. Then a light bulb went off in my head. We could devise a strategy to fend off the death-happy residents: We would tell them we were Orthodox Jews.

My little ruse worked. During the few days after I announced this faux fact, it was as though an invisible fence had been drawn around my mother, my sister and me. No one dared mutter that hateful phrase "death with dignity."

Though my father was born to an Orthodox Jewish family, he is an avowed atheist who long ago had rejected his parents' ways. As I sat in the ICU, blips on the various screens the only proof that my father was alive, the irony struck me: My father, who had long ago rejected Orthodox Judaism, was now under its protection.

As though to confirm this, there came a series of miracles. Just a week after he was rushed to ICU, my father was pronounced well enough to be moved out of the unit into North Shore's long-term respiratory care unit. A day later he was off the respirator, able to breathe on his own. He still mostly slept, but then he began to awaken for minutes at a time, at first groggy, but soon he was as alert (and funny) as ever. A day later, we walked in to find him sitting upright in a chair, reading the New York Times.


I've never been one of those Jews who makes facial contortions at the mere mention of the Christian Right; I actually agree with them on some matters. And this experience with my father has given me a new appreciation for the fight many evangelicals have waged against euthanasia.

But I'm offended that so many conservative Christians believe that theirs is the only path to salvation. I'm sick of being proselytized. We Jews enjoy a more basic type of faith, a direct relationship to God that requires no salvation, no penitence, no supplication. We do not proselytize. And we don't worry about the next life; we conduct mitzvahs — good deeds — that enhance life for ourselves and others in the here and now. Religion is said to have no grandparents — meaning, we each find our own path to (or away from) faith. Yet it's my grandparents' faith — and not my father's Jewish atheism — to which I find myself being drawn.

A few years ago — perhaps just to fend off the Christians — I joined a local synagogue in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. But the annual dues shot up from $750 to $1,000. And the fund-raisers called nonstop seeking donations to the temple's capital fund. "Jesus saves, Moses invests," my father always joked. Hey, that's our tradition.

On Father's Day, we packed my father's hospital room: his wife, daughters, grandchildren, each of us regaling him with our successes large and small. "Life's not so bad, after all," the atheist said. I wanted to go back to ICU, find Dr. Death, drag her to my father's room and say: "This is the life you wanted to end." But if I'm really to be a person of faith, I'll have to tackle forgiveness.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Pamela R. Winnick. "How Faith Saved the Atheist." Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2006).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal © 2006 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Pamela Winnick has written for Columbia Law Review, Weekly Standard, National Review, and Family Circle and worked as a medical reporter for the Toledo Blade and as a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is the author of A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion and is presently writing a book about Democrats and the religious vote.

Copyright © 2006 Wall Street Journal




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