The Ultimate Responsibility As two lives end, a son discovers humanism

In Their Own Words:
Humanists Discuss Their Paths to Humanism

AT 2:30 A.M. on November 2, 2014, I received a call from my sister in Scotland.

“Hamish,” Marji said, “they’re gone. They’re both gone.”

It was expected that mother, age eighty-eight, would “go” sometime soon. Alzheimer’s disease had been killing her through most of her eighties. Father, stalwart and strong as a horse at ninety, had been nursing her almost single-handedly: cooking, cleaning, comforting, caring. That transatlantic call in the middle of the night, like others over the years, could have been about mother falling again, another urgent trip to the hospital, or even her passing. But my newly awakened, middle-of the-night brain wasn’t prepared for the word “both.”

Father had been in fine health right until his end. When respite care came to the house, he’d walk the ten-mile circumference of the island on which they lived, stopping in on neighbors who weren’t doing so well themselves. Or he busied himself with gardening, writing assignments, crossword puzzles, creative cooking, or antique restoration. When the caregivers left, he would resume the hard, grinding work of providing infantile care to his wife of sixty-seven years.

Twenty-four hours before that 2:30 a.m. call, the last line of the final paragraph of my parents’ lives was being written—by my father. He had reluctantly agreed with Marji that he was too old to continue caring for mother in her deteriorating condition. He broke down and sobbed as they made arrangements for her to be admitted to a home on the mainland the following week.

He sobbed because he had let mother down; because this was the end of their long life together; because he would be utterly alone (all of their “crowd,” dating back to university and even high school were now deceased). He sobbed because nobody could care for mother as he had; because he had one last obligation to her—he could not let this thing happen. He sobbed at his need to defy Marji as she left the island on the ferry, expecting to return in a few days to take mother to her new “home.”

He worked quickly. Among many other tasks he left me a brief, handwritten note:

My Dear Hamish,

You should know that many years ago Mum and I agreed we should go together. This seems an appropriate time.

We love you dearly,

He left similar notes for Marji and our brother Alastair. Another note was to the coroner, found beside his open doctor’s bag and evidence of the method of his final act.

We believe that in one of mother’s uncannily lucid moments, father had propositioned their suicide, and she had nodded her head. He had hauled mother from her wheelchair and sat her on the couch in the bay window where she liked to watch the passing ships. There they sat, cuddled, and toasted their lives with bubbly (the bottle and two glasses were found beside their bodies). Then they expired by the hand of my father. Alastair, Marji, and I agreed that this was not a tragedy. It was a love story. Our parents died on their own terms—together.

The earliest I could arrange a flight was three days after Marji’s call. Travel time from Jackson, Wyoming, to Glasgow, Scotland, takes twenty-one hours with two long layovers in Chicago and London. I spent the journey either in a weepy dwam—my tall frame stuffed into economy seats on thankfully quiet flights—or in episodes of soft, shoulder-shuddering grief while waiting at departure gates. It was my fifty-ninth birthday.

Marji and Alastair were well into the double funeral arrangements by the time I arrived. Although we are close, my thirty-six years of living abroad with annual visits home had effectively excluded me from the family affairs. One of the many funereal decisions they made was to ask a humanist celebrant, Jennifer Buchan of the Humanist Society of Scotland, to give tribute at the memorial service. Although I was unaware of humanism or organized secular groups, this was the perfect choice.

Mother and father had given up on religion years ago. Not that we had ever said grace or prayers, or invoked the Lord—and the only Bible was in father’s reference library. But the social mores and expectations of a strict Victorian Scottish Presbyterian upbringing had shoehorned them, then us, into religious regimen. Sunday school was mandatory while our parents, stiffly dressed, were seen in church. As teenagers we were schooled with daily morning prayers and religious assemblies. But in time our parents—thinkers, realists, humanists—denounced the dogmatism and became nonreligious.

Jennifer introduced herself and the Humanist Society of Scotland. I was moved by her obvious pride, captivated by her explanation of how humanists believe that we have one life in which we have a responsibility to ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the earth—and also a responsibility to respect, tolerate, and be kind to others. She told how humanists believe we have no memory from before we were born, and no memory after we die; that we have come from nature, and to nature is where we shall return. I hadn’t heard it said quite so succinctly or with such eloquence; and here, with the newly dead, it rang so true. Her preamble concluded: “I hope that, whatever your personal beliefs, you will find today’s ceremony sincere and meaningful.”

Jennifer had described the core values of humanism by which my parents had lived. More so, I learned of the generosity of humanism—learned to be inclusive and non-judging of others for their faith; to be honest and forthright about humanistic stances, yet not demeaning, as I had let myself become.

Her tribute included a variation on David Harkins’s poem “Remember Me,” which began:

You can shed tears that they are gone
Or you can smile that they have lived
You can close your eyes and pray that they will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see that they have left…

My eyes lifted from the two coffins that lay on the rollers that would send them through the doors to the great fires on the other side. The dreaded moment of removing my parents from my life and from this earth was here, yet this humanist celebrant’s service, delivered with charm, sincerity, and a beautiful smile, brought much-needed light into the crematorium hall; it made the moment not only bearable but rewarding. Over two hundred mostly devout people heard an enlightening, thought-provoking service, devoid of any religious reference delivered on behalf of two deeply respected people who’d had the courage to take their own lives—the ultimate responsibility. It was exactly what my parents would have wanted and I found myself championing the cause of humanism even as the coffins moved toward that door.

Back in the U.S., I researched the American Humanist Association and discovered that the annual conference was coming to Denver—just a hop from Jackson. I attended, with a view towards becoming a humanist celebrant and starting a local chapter. I have challenged myself with humanist learning, starting with Roy Speckhardt’s Creating Change through Humanism, and Lloyd and Mary Morain’s Humanism as the Next Step. I am in fascinated study of the philosophies of the AHA and numerous other secular groups. This learning shapes the ways in which I now see and think about people, societies, and world order. It gives me insight into forming the mission of a new AHA chapter in Wyoming and into my role as a humanist celebrant.