I am not a religious person.I never have been, apart from a brief zealous period in the Brownies when I wanted to carry the flag in the Sunday School parade. I completed my A Levels at an Irish Catholic school which strongly resembled a spin off of Father Ted crossed with St Trinians; lessons were cancelled if a crucifix fell off the wall ("a sign"), classes were taught via the medium of various versions of Jesus Christ Superstar (I wish I was joking) and everyone generally ran riot. I was indifferent to the religious attitudes surrounding me day in day out, but really very fond of the community I was in. I became decidedly more atheist after going to university and encountering some for more militant religious types who thought that bullying others because they disagreed was acceptable. I know these were mainly in the minority compared to hundreds of gentle, caring soul but it was an unpleasant eye-opener. My family are not religious but my parents and sister quietly have their own beliefs which they follow in ways they feel comfortable with. My father had a slightly more traditionally Christian upbringing from what he says, but his own way of doing things is more insular and private. Many of my friends have faith, from the agnostic maybes to the very committed. I like the idea, but I just cannot believe. This is not just about religion though.
I often wondered that if faced with a dreadful situation, would I instinctively call on God, a God, any God, multiple Gods, to give me strength? Did I feel atheist because I had never been challenged enough in my comfortable life?
Sadly in January 2009 this was put to the test, when my father having contracted an aggressive infected that was shutting down his body and ulcerating his heart was rushed for emergency and life-saving surgery at a major London hospital. We were were a 33% chance of survival. As we sat in the waiting room all night for 6 hours waiting, watching as dawn broke and the smoke from the incinerator several floors belows curled up into the crisp new sky, I thought many things. I wished many things and hoped many more and worried about stupid stupid things. I wanted to find an inner strength, a inner connection, an inner belief. An all-knowing kind benevolence that could be a guarantee on saving the life of this intelligent and kind man who's life hung in the balance on an operating table, at mercy of the experience and capabilities of a team of surgeons we never met before, and at the mercy of even worse: chance. Chance has no compassion. Chance doesn't care about statistics or history. Chance strikes opportunistically.
But I found nothing. Nothing but blindless hope that I hadn't hours earlier spoke my last words to the man who gave me life and brought me up. I wished and I wished; to no one but the silence that cloaked us. When finally, we were told the operation had ceased and we must now watch and wait to monitor the success of that and the antibiotics, the wishing carried on. Wishing is probably the wrong word; it was to no one but for everything. It was a mundane disbelief that this could not be happening to the strong man I knew. Almost a deliberate lack of acceptance and a need to keep going, for if we did as a family, then he would too. And in April that year, he came home.
Many times afterwards, the odd religious friend who knew about the experience would say, "so surely now you believe, now you have been spared."
I'll admit, that made me angry. Being without the foundations and faith of religion, I did not see how I 'should' be a convert. Yes, my father had been saved. By the quickness of the NHS, by renowned doctors and clever nurses. By luck, maybe, but my precision and skill also. By the brilliance of modern care and the civilised world. If I was to believe, even if I wanted to, and goodness did I some bleak days, where was this omnipotent God when my father got that ill? Who, who saves, would let someone get in that situation in the first place? My atheism was more concrete than ever, although with a much softer edge and more understanding of those who did believe. The attitudes mentioned above did make me cross, but I understood how some people needed and felt healed by religion and their faith. Me, I found the things that got me through was not belief but monotony and memories. Memories of happier times and monotony must pay bills, must eat, must update relatives, must wash, must dress.
And then Wriggles came into the world, 12 weeks early on my bathroom floor.
And again, no God even so much as poked His nose around the door of NICU. If I had had a glimmer of believing, I might have done the religious equivalent of leaving him a sherry and mince pie to entice him into my life to give me some cheer and the best present ever, that was currently fighting in an incubator. But I didn't. I couldn't. Where I imagine some keep faith, was an empty box. A hole that was filled certainly with cautious hope as days ticked by, but not directed anywhere. Again monotony gave me strength. That and an-increasingly dog eared photograph of a little scrap that was called my daughter. In order not to be allowed thinking time, I tried to do everything under the sun. Including a spate at work in the middle of the NICU stay. Partly I was run ragged about finances and a very grey-area-ed work contract, but it also offered some salvation of not having to hope or wish or think or be guilty. Hello you're through to .... can I help you? I could just burble under the surface and then run, often literally, as fast as my legs would carry me through the city centre, up past St James football ground, through the park, past a&e and up, up the stairs into NICU where the world stopped turning again until I left.
She started to look like a shrunken baby, and then came home with me. Life started up again. Things fell into place, ironed out, I tried to forget, but even if I didn't, I had a very real reminder of the happy outcome. I could pick her up and carry her around and kiss her until she got fed up with it. And then suddenly I was in my third Intensive Care unit in two years.
I didn't find anyone there. I didn't expect too. A little of my heart was feeling hardened to the testing and mostly, I knew that the one thing I had faith in didn't have magical properties or an all-seeing benevolence, reason and complex plan. She did have ten fingers and ten toes though. Having had a taste of "normality" was what drove every day into the next day. I could barely leave her side without feeling that the distance might bring us further apart not closer, so my set up vigil provided my hope. I was touched though by a little community drawn up for me by others.In absence of local family, my circle of friends outstripped any expectation and went beyond the call of duty to bring me food parcels, sit with me silently, bring me clean socks, provide a shoulder to cry on (not that I did. That would mean admitting how bloody terrified I was) and some times not leave until 3am in the morning because I refused to leave Wriggles' side. Until the point my mother arrived, and beyond that, all I had to do was mention something and it was done. If I ever needed belief in humanity and kindness restoring, it was now. They didn't do it because they had to or had been told to or believed it would get them to a better end, but because they cared. On my first mother's day there on PICU I received three cards all "by Wriggles" because no one wanted me to feel alone.
Now that is what I believe in. Love of the here and now.
Now that is what I believe in. Love of the here and now.