To watch an adult abruptly transformed before one’s eyes into a paralyzed, whimpering vegetable, all too conscious (at least in a general fashion) of what had befallen her, yet as powerless to rectify anything as if she had been six months old, is in a way worse than losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. There, at least, the decay is gradual. This was as abrupt an assault on life as if it had been a homicide. But a homicide can instill in you justified wrath; how can you feel wrath against as impersonal a cutting-down as befell my mother?
From the day of her stroke to the day of her death, almost eight years afterwards, she was in twenty-four-hour-a-day nursing care. By that time my father had long since left the scene. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and convinced beyond all reason that his announcement of this diagnosis to Mum had brought about her stroke, Dad simply unraveled. So, to a lesser extent, did those watching him.
All Dad’s elaborate atheist religion, with its sacred texts, its martyrs, its church militant; all his ostentatious tough-mindedness; all his intellectual machinery; all these things turned to dust. Convinced for decades of his stoicism, he now unwittingly demonstrated the truth of Clive James’s cruel remark: "we would like to think we are stoic…but would prefer a version that didn’t hurt."
Already an alcoholic, he now made a regular practice of threatening violence to himself and others. In hospital he wept like a child (I had never before seen him weep). He denounced the nurses for their insufficient knowledge of Socrates and Descartes. From time to time he wandered around the ward naked, in the pit of confused despair. The last time I visited him I found him, to my complete amazement, reading a small bedside Gideon Bible. I voiced surprise at this. He fixed on me the largest, most protuberant, most frightened, and most frightening pair of eyes I have ever seen: "I’ll try anything now."
(Years later, I discovered—and was absolutely pole-axed by —the following passage in Bernard Shaw’s Too True To Be Good, in which an old pagan, very obviously speaking for Shaw himself, sums up what I am convinced was Dad’s attitude near the end. The passage runs: "The science to which I pinned my faith is bankrupt. Its counsels, which should have established the millennium, led, instead, directly to the suicide of Europe. I believed them once. In their name I helped to destroy the faith of millions of worshipers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now look at me and witness the great tragedy of an atheist who has lost his faith.")
Eventually, through that gift for eloquence which seldom entirely deserted him, Dad convinced a psychiatrist that he should be released from the enforced hospital confinement which he had needed to endure ever since his threats had caused him to be scheduled. The psychiatrist defied the relevant magistrate’s orders, and released my father.
Within twenty-four hours Dad had hanged himself in his own garden.
This was in June 1994. I cannot hope to convey the horror of this event. It dealt a mortal blow to the whole atheistic house of cards which constituted my own outlook. Was Dad in hell? If not, did he have the smallest hope of heaven, despite the manner of his death? If so, by what means? How much did my own evil contribute to his suicide? And how could I even begin to make amends? The story of the next eight years, until my own gruesomely belated baptism on August 11, 2002, is very much the story of how I writhed over — and wrestled with —such questions.
I read and read and read: mainly magazines (both Australian and American) as well as catechetic texts; sometimes entire biographies of saints and Catholic heroes. Though I read Chesterton and Belloc and Waugh and Christopher Dawson and Fulton Sheen and Frank J. Sheed and Arnold Lunn, the single most important volume to me — and I thank God for the priest who, having been informed of my existence by friends of mine, brought it to me while I myself was hospitalized — appeared years back under the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart’s aegis: