Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 2.6]

About two weeks later, just as I was arriving home from school, the phone rang and it was Grandpa Shultz. He was going stay at the Little League park—where he coached a team—a while longer and wanted me to go check on Grandma for him. I jumped on my ten-speed and made the short trip down the block to their house. As I entered through the sliding back door, I was struck by how silent and dark the house was. I gingerly walked through the dining room to Grandma’s bedroom and saw the door halfway open. A small lamp on her nightstand was on.


She didn’t move, so I slowly walked closer to see if she was sleeping. I was confused when I noticed that Grandma’s eyes were closed and that her mouth was open slightly. A trail of fresh blood trickled down her cheek toward her ear.

“Grandma?!” I touched her shoulder and she took a little gasp of air.

I ran into the kitchen and called Dad. He wasn’t home yet. My mind blanked about who to call, so I ran next door to the Prices’ who had grandkids my age. Before I’d finished explaining things to Mr. and Mrs. Price, Mr. Price told me to stay put and he ran over to the house. Mrs. Price put her arms around my shoulders and told me to come inside. About a minute later Mr. Price ran back, yelling to his wife to call 911. She ran to the phone and he joined her. I stood in the hallway, listening to the call.

“She appears to be having a seizure and she has blood coming out of her mouth,” Mr. Price told the operator.

Within minutes, I heard the faint, then growing, sound of the ambulance siren. Grandma was taken to the hospital, and I waited at the Prices’ until Dad came to get me. Most of the family was already waiting in the emergency room by the time we arrived. Grandpa arrived last with Mr. Price, who’d gone to retrieve him from the Little League Park since there was no way to reach him there by phone.

Grandpa was clearly beside himself, so Dad and Ellen ran over to brace him. Dad explained what happened, and then Ellen began telling Grandpa that everything was going to be okay. “Mom’s going to be fine. I’m sure of it, Dad. She’ll be OKAY.” Grandpa put his head in his hands and started moaning Grandma’s name over and over. Ellen stood in front of him and grabbed both his upper arms, forcing him to look her in the face.

She calmly yet assertively, and in a peculiarly soothing voice with a smile on her face, said, “Dad, it’s not Mom’s time.”

The tone in her voice made Grandpa momentarily stop crying. “What are you saying, Ellen?”

“Dad, listen to me. I prayed two nights ago and Jesus came to me. He stood before my bed and told me with absolute certainty that it’s not her time. He said she is too bright a light on this earth to be taken so young. Mom is needed here, with us. God understands this. She’ll be okay.”

Grandpa threw his arms around Ellen and began crying again and repeating, “Thank God. Thank God,” over and over.

I had one eye on my father’s face during their conversation, for it appeared he wanted to interrupt and say something several times but didn’t quite have the words. When he looked at me, I raised my eyebrows in a questioning look. He glanced back at Grandpa and said he was going to check on Grandma’s status. I followed him to the check-in desk while he waited for the doctor.

“Dad, what’s Ellen talking about?”

“I don’t know, Michelle, but she shouldn’t be talking about it, getting Grandpa’s hopes up like that. It’s crazy,” he said with anger now in his voice.

Grandma was admitted to the critical wing; she’d slipped into a coma. Almost eighteen hours later…we got the call she’d died.

Grandma’s viewing was surreal; Grandma looked nothing like herself and yet I recognized her body. The adults were openly upset and my grandpa was very doped up on sedatives, which gave me a creepy feeling in my stomach that he wasn’t in his body either.

When we pulled into our driveway that night and began walking to the door, Dad stopped abruptly and asked, “Hey, wanna walk to the fountain?”

About halfway there, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. For so many reasons, I needed someone to give me an answer. “Dad, what about what Aunt Ellen said to Grandpa in the emergency room, about her talking to Jesus and Grandma not dying? What does she say about all that now?”

Instead of answering my question right away, Dad vented his anger for a moment first, “Oh, Grandpa’s devastated about it. He really believed her. Ellen gave him such hope. False hope. Grandpa cornered her for an answer this morning.”

“And…?” I prodded.

“Well, it’s just crazy. But Ellen said that after Grandma died, she summoned Jesus again to ask him why God had taken her.”

“And…?” I said irritated. I was angry. Only one answer was going to satisfy me. I focused on the rainbow domes for comfort.

“Ellen said that during this ‘second conversation,’ Jesus told her that something had ‘come up’—some sort of ‘new and serious problem.’ God needed ‘a very special person’ to help him with it. The most special person he could think of was Grandma, so he had to take her to save many others.”

“You’re kidding!” That was not the satisfying answer I’d hoped for. Ellen was supposed to admit that she had been wrong, that this was actually proof that there wasn’t a god, and that all her beliefs are crazy.

“No, I’m not kidding. And I know what you’re thinking, Michelle, but Ellen really believes that’s what happened because she WANTS to—HAS to, more like it—believe that’s what happened. She can’t handle facing the possibility that she could be wrong about her beliefs. It would be too frightening to her to think God doesn’t exist. It creates too much dissonance. So, her mind has to find a way to justify—to rationalize—the wrong message she thinks she received.”

“But Dad!” This was an outrageous injustice. I hated Ellen in that instant, then felt bad for doing so.

“I know, Honey. Remember when I said how difficult it is to debate religion with religious people? Well, this is a good example. If something goes against their beliefs, or against some piece of information or evidence they received that substantiates their beliefs, they just change the information, reinterpret it, or twist the belief for another purpose. You can’t win an argument when there’s never an underlying testable assumption shared and when their data can always be modified. It’s called ‘ad hoc reasoning’—reasoning after the fact.”

I needed time to ponder this.

“Dad, since you don’t believe in heaven, are you sadder than everyone else knowing that you’ll never see Grandma again? It doesn’t seem right that someone as nice as Grandma should have to die so young, does it?”

“Hmm. I’m not entirely sure. I think I accept death, in general, differently than most people. To me, it’s a natural part of life. I don’t think people get ‘chosen’ to die, especially based on whether they have done something right or wrong. I think we die randomly and naturally as our bodies break down, we get a disease, or end up in an accident. Those are all things that we cannot necessarily control. All living things will die and just go back into the earth. We’ll end up providing nutrients for other living things.”

It hurt to hear this. I didn’t want to accept it. “But Dad, what is ‘the soul’ everyone always talks about? Don’t we each have a soul that makes everyone different from each other? I guess, I mean…what makes us alive?” At that instant I looked at my dad and tried to feel his energy, his animation. I sensed his aliveness and then tried to imagine him as just a body with all the life gone, like I’d seen Grandma earlier that day. I shuddered.

“I don’t believe there is a soul that exists beyond our physical body, which is made up of organic tissues. What you sense as ‘aliveness’ is actually just the brain’s electrical activity controlling our movements and making our organs function. Once the brain or the major organs die, all the electrical activity and functioning stops and we cease to exist. And, it’s final.”

I imagined my organs and brain slowing down to a stop, and I tried to imagine that moment—at the threshold of life and death—hoping maybe I could peer slightly over to another side. Then I tried to jump inside Grandma’s body in her hospital bed to imagine what she may have thought or felt in those last moments. Had she known she was about to die? Was she scared or had she found a way to calm her mind? I hoped her religion had done that for her. I was unsure how people coped with dying without religion. It seemed so sad and terrifying. How do atheists ever truly get peace of mind about it? I couldn’t see myself ever being okay with it.

“Got any pennies?” I asked after a long silence.

Dad reached in his pocket and gave me a penny and a nickel.

I threw the nickel in and wished Dad would live a very long life. Then I threw the penny in and wished for Mom to be really happy.

But, she wasn’t. A few weeks after Grandma died, I came home from school to find Mom and Dad talking on our couch. Mom was sitting cross-legged and had her hair twirled behind her. Her face was red from crying. Assuming Mom was sad about Grandma, I sat down in the orange chair, feeling welcome to join the conversation. But Dad was telling Mom he was sorry about something and asking her how he could help. It turned out Mom and her boyfriend, Dan, had broken up. Mom found out that he’d date-raped a friend of hers a year or so ago, and when she confronted him about it, he got nasty, pushed her, and admitted he was seeing someone else. Mom was afraid to sleep in their apartment until she could have the locks changed.

So, Dad let Mom sleep on the couch for two nights, during which time they talked frequently and civilly to each other. I didn’t feel welcome in their conversations, or maybe I just didn’t want to interfere; they seemed to be getting along so well. Once, I passed the bathroom and they were standing at the sink, hugging. Their tenderness took me back. I waffled between wishing they might get back together somehow and fearing that they would. By Friday, Mom was back in her apartment and I asked Dad if Mom was going to be okay.

“Yes. I think so.”

“Are you guys going to get back together?”

“No, Honey. Although your mom did say she wanted to.”

“Really? What did you say?”

“Well, sadly, I had to tell her that I thought sticking to the divorce was the best thing for everyone.”

I went to my room and cried, not because I was sad they weren’t reconciling, but because of the overwhelming pity I felt for my mom.

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