Brown, white and ash — a last photo of the author and his father, November 2020.

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Listen to the sunrise. It says things like:

“You are truth embodied.”

“You are a miracle.”

“Enjoy every sandwich.”

The last one was channeled by musician Warren Zevon. He told that to Letterman when he had terminal cancer. Zevon died nine months later.

The Internet can’t decide if Zevon was atheist to the end, or got religion. The man proves the point that labels don’t matter for a life fully lived. I mean, the same man that wrote a song like “Dirty Little Religion” on a masterpiece album titled Life’ll Kill Ya, also wrote stanzas like this:

Shadows are fallin’ and I’m runnin’ out of breath

Keep me in your heart for a while

If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less

Keep me in your heart for a while

– “Keep Me in Your Heart,” Warren Zevon (2003)

Zevon lived hard and he lived to the end. And that’s easier said than done.

Greeting the sunrise. Saying a blessing before a meal. Making an offering in gratitude.

Why do we bother with these gestures?

I’ve had many sunrises occur that I didn’t notice, didn’t stop to take in. I slept through it. Didn’t bother pulling back the curtains.

I’ve had many meals where I didn’t stop to say “Grace” or even a note of gratitude.

You might assume that’s because I wasn’t raised saying grace, and that’s true but not the whole story.

Even those of us who aren’t raised with religion find heaven and hell through our parents one way or another.

This is the story of another.

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My dad was raised Presbyterian, my mom Catholic. I don’t know how soon after they met in college they became atheists.

What token religious practices they tried to pass to my brother and me, he vetoed. He refused to return to the second day of a Bible day camp. The way they talked about the body of Christ scared him. And with a huge and gruesome painting of the crucifixion looking down on us kids in the Schuylerville Central High School auditorium (until a federal court ordered it removed in 1990), I could see his point.

I remember him coming home in the eighth grade from a single Christian Youth Group meeting crowing about how he had wowed the group with parroting their teachings, but acting “bona fide.” And it’s true that my brother can bulge his eyes at you with zealousness if he’s trying to oversell a point. I imagined the youth group falling for that kind of thing. Between that and telling us they wouldn’t have sex till marriage, their credibility dropped beyond repair.

My dad didn’t have much church in his youth to pass on to us. His grandfather had been a Congregational minister before becoming a lawyer in Stetler, Alberta. My Opa was never a devoted congregant at the Union Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, New York, where he took my father. But he believed in keeping a minister around to “pray over your bones.”

Publisher’s Clearing House sent millions of elderly couples like my Oma and Opa fat envelopes promising that a $40 million prize was already theirs, if they only claimed it. (Your numbers also had to match, but that came later.) The entry form required you to comb through several catalogs of discounted magazines and books and other merch to find a series of stickers.

You didn’t have to purchase to enter, but you had to know that going in and hold fast to your beliefs. Every neon word on the Publisher’s Clearing House instructions was worded to make you think it would help if you bought something.

I’d go and visit my Opa and Oma in order to play basketball on their paved driveway. Opa would have me sit with him, the heat on in June, and ask for help. We’d rip off the stickers and put them in the exact correct envelope.

Then he started buying Time-Life books on the historical life of Jesus from the same sources, and wanting to share.

I don’t think anyone in his family, other than Reverend Bailey at the Reformed Church, gave his developing religious beliefs any deeper meaning than the sweepstakes. It gave them both a lesser light in my eyes.

I loved my Oma and Opa, but they distressed us all. When their bodies started to fail in old age, they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Their household habits went from lovable to disordered.

The dried-out chicken or beef was served on china plates. They pre-heated the plates in the oven and often cracked them from forgetting.

Their house didn’t make sense to them anymore.

Oma often found sweeping the asphalt driveway like it was her kitchen, wandering closer to the busy county road. But taking them out of their house and into a nursing home left them unmoored. Opa would tell us for years that he was going home the next day, not recalling his house was being lived in by an elderly in-law, and then sold.

As their minds failed, their bodies baffled us by living on for years longer than seemed humane. Oma succumbed to Alzheimer’s at 88 in 2002, Opa to a series of mini-strokes, dementia, and plain old age, dying at 99 in 2000.

After home care became impractical, they moved into the Wesley nursing home in Saratoga Springs. My dad happened to run it, a big facility with 300 beds or so. Even after his mother no longer recognized him, he fed her breakfast every weekday morning.

He pledged never to live in such a way himself.

When we look upon another’s life as unlivable, we see our own hell.

But is it hell for them? Or a reflection of what we see? Or, of what we don’t want to see?

Questions like these are explored further on the author’s website,, under the heading My living will in case I get Alzheimer’s disease, and why I’m sure you won’t need it. Roberts lives in Halifax and enjoys correspondence at