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My father, art thou in heaven?
27 May 2001
Yesterday I flew 3000 miles to Bangor, Maine, USA to be at my father's side when he died, and this morning, after an all-night vigil in the hospital, he did just that. My brother Harvey and I were at his side, holding his gnarled and cyanotic hands, as first his breathing stopped and then, a minute later, his heart stopped and his face started to turn blue. Everyone's father eventually dies, so my experience is not unique, but he was my father.
He was a difficult and cantankerous atheist. He was a mathematician who worked on the problems that arise in designing military weapons, but I don't think he ever understood his work as weaponry. He needed to find someone who was willing to pay him to do mathematics; many years ago he found that armourers employed mathematicians and paid them well, and he was at peace with that concept. I never was.
My father ridiculed religion and religious people. He never accepted the truth or reality of anything that he couldn't express in differential equations. The words 'faith' and 'belief' meant nothing to him. To the end, he lived in a world of 'proof' and 'measurement'.
But I got to watch God take him. At age 84, his body just stopped working; his kidneys and heart and hip joints and eyes and the left side of his brain all stopped working in the space of a few weeks. His death certificate says that he died of sepsis from a bacterial infection of his hip prosthesis, but I know that he just reached the end of his time and had to move on.
We were never close; it was his way to be close to nobody. He was difficult even as a young man, and as he aged he became impossible. Past the age of 80, he was booted from more than one 'assisted living centre' for unruly behaviour, and at the end it eventually fell to my brother Bruce to take care of him because the system couldn't deal with him.
But he was my father, and so I loved him; he was God's child, and so God loved him. I don't think he loved either of us in return, but I couldn't let that matter. He is in God's hands now, which is where he belongs.
Cynthia and Simon will get Anglicans Online produced this week while I mourn and recover from the sleep lost at his deathbed. Someday your fathers will die, too, if they haven't already. I think that part of what attracts me to the Church is a sense of continuity with past and future faithful. In my distress I left my prayer book on one of the airplanes I took to get here, but I more or less know the prayer that I said at the moment of his passing is not unlike the prayer that someone like me said a thousand years ago at the passing of his father. I hope that a thousand years from now there will be a similar prayer said. That is, to me, the meaning of the Communion of Saints, and my father, atheist that he was, is part of it now.