Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.
One of the privileges of the priesthood is that I get to be part of the last mile of many people’s lives. I do not work miracles. God does that. And I am not sharing these stories to boast about something I’ve accomplished. I share them with you so that you can know that death can be beautiful and not only painful, and that sometimes little miracles happen even in death. This story is about a man named John.
On my first day as the priest of St. John in Tampa, September 1, 2004, a man came to my office door as I was unpacking boxes. He introduced himself: “Hi, my name is John and I have cancer. Some people are dying from it, I’m living with it. I am going to be a miracle.” I didn’t know what to say, I think I just said, “Hi, my name is Fr. Stavros.” Over the course of the next few weeks, every time John wasn’t having a cancer treatment, he would stop by the office and take me out to lunch. He had good tastes and introduced me to some of the finest restaurants in Tampa. We quickly became friends. I also found out that his cancer diagnosis was pretty bleak—he had pancreatic cancer, and wasn’t expected to live many months. He had been diagnosed at the end of May, just over three months before I arrived.
In October, John’s daughter got married. We were invited to the rehearsal dinner and invited to sit with John. In the middle of the dinner, John whispered to me that he wasn’t feeling good and that he wanted to go home and asked if I could take him, he didn’t want to ruin his daughter’s day. After I dropped him at his house, I watched him struggle up the front steps. I went back to help him and asked if I could stop by his house the next morning to say a prayer for him. He said that would be nice. The next day was Sunday, and I stopped by before church and offered a prayer in his kitchen. The prayer was simple: “Lord, we are not here asking for a miracle today, we’ll be back to ask for that tomorrow. We just need this man to be able to walk down the aisle with his daughter and to dance with her. That is the prayer for today.” God answered that prayer—John walked his daughter down the aisle and danced with her, that was a little miracle in itself.
I remember asking my spiritual father how I should pray for John. I didn’t want to pray for the miracle of healing, which seemed unlikely. I also didn’t want to pray for him to die, because that didn’t seem imminent either. My spiritual father suggested I pray the Lord’s Prayer for John—Give us this day our daily bread (Matthew 6:11)—in other words, give to him what he needs on a particular day. I started doing that.
It was now November. On one of our many talks I had asked John if he had ever been to confession. He said he never had. I suggested that was a good thing for someone in his position to do. One day he came in and said “let’s do that confession thing you’ve been talking about.” We sat in the church for two hours. His voice was like thunder. I remember only two things that he said. One was that he had gone to the seminary but never finished and always wondered what it would be like to be a priest. The other was that he looked up at the Lord on the icon screen and said, “Lord, You are my everything. I wake up to You. I fall asleep to You. I think of You during every painful treatment. Lord, You are my everything!” When he finished, I was speechless. His depth of spiritual maturity in those two hours was beyond description. I remember telling him that he would have been an excellent priest and that I felt like he should hear my confession. He asked if we could sing a hymn together—“O Gladsome Light”—the beautiful hymn from Vespers. Most men who have contemplated the priesthood are enamored when many priests sing this together. We sang it together—I sang, he harmonized. I still hear his voice when I sing it to this day. He asked me to set a goal for him, something out in the future to work toward. I asked him if we could sing a hymn together on Good Friday afternoon at the service. He agreed.
John and I continued to hang out in December and January, though the treatments became more frequent and more painful so I saw John more at the hospital than I did in restaurants. In February, John called me one day and asked me to come to the hospital. When I arrived, he said, “I’m having a small procedure tomorrow, but I know this is the end for me.” I answered, “It’s just a small procedure, I’m sure it will be fine.” He insisted that it would be the end, and asked if he could go for confession again. Everyone left the room and it was just me and John. He began by saying “This will be my last confession.” It is stunning when someone says it will be the last of something. Again, I don’t remember what he said (I never remember the things I hear in confession—the grace of the Holy Spirit that comes on a person to wipe away their sins, comes on me also and wipes out my memories of the conversations). At the end, he grabbed my hand and said “Thank you for being my priest. I don’t need you as a priest anymore. I just want you to walk the last mile with me as my friend.” We both cried.
The next day, he had the surgery. He was right, the cancer was everywhere. There would be no more treatments. His wife asked me if I would come to the hospital and be there when they told him it was the end. I went. The doctor actually asked me if I would say the words to him, that it was the end, and then the doctor gave the reasons why. John was understandably emotional. When he collected himself, he said that he had four requests—he didn’t want to die in pain, he didn’t want to die in the hospital, and he wanted to stop by his church one more time, though it wouldn’t be for a service. He just wanted to light a candle. He also wanted to ask forgiveness from someone before he died. He asked me to call someone in particular and to tell this person that he wanted him to come by the hospital for two minutes, that he didn’t need to say anything, but that John wanted to ask forgiveness from him before he died. Thankfully that happened quickly. No one knows what was said in that room besides those two men, but it was a magnanimous gesture on the part of each—on the part of one to come to the hospital and the part of the other to ask for forgiveness. Perhaps they forgave each other—I don’t need to know. The other man died several years ago as well.
On a Thursday afternoon, February 24, an ambulance brought John to our church. They brought the stretcher in through the side door. They asked John if they should put the stretcher on the solea. He smiled and said “no, that’s where they’ll put me next week, put me in the center aisle by the pews where the people sit.” John received Holy Communion. He asked if we could sing “Christ is Risen”, even though it was February. He said he wouldn’t make it to my first Pascha in Tampa but wanted to sing that hymn together. He apologized that he wouldn’t be able to sing with me on Good Friday afternoon, the hymn we were going to sing together. And we arranged for his son-in-law to do that with me, a tradition that continues still.
Psalm 18:1-2 reads I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress and my deliverer. Right before the Creed, the priest venerates the Holy Gifts offering these words from Psalm 18. Since John’s confession, each time I said those words, I would think of him, and how he said “I love You Lord, my everything!” I took out my Liturgy books from the altar and told John: “I know that you are going to die, and I would like to have a souvenir from your life, I would like you to write your name in the margin of my Liturgy books next to this prayer, so that each time I celebrate the Divine Liturgy I will think of you, and see your name written with your own hand. With a very shaky hand, John signed all my books. I still see his name today and think of him each time I offer that prayer.
I asked John if there was anything else he needed. He motioned for me to put my ear next to his mouth. I bent down and he whispered in my ear, “I’m ready to go home, and I’m not talking about South Tampa. (where he lived) I got my miracle after all.” I looked at his face. His eyes were focusing on something far away. His smile was radiant. His face was filled with joy. He was looking up at the dome of the church, but it seemed like more than that. I looked at his face and I have never seen an expression like that before or since. It was as if God slid the dome off the church and showed him heaven. And for the rest of my life, I will believe that I saw a man see heaven, because he was so happy, euphoric actually.
John passed away three days later, at home, at 5:15 a.m. on Sunday, February 27, 2005. I was there. It was raining. That day was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the day we read about the son that returned home to his father. It was as if the city of Tampa was crying as one of her sons returned home to his Father. Of course, I was sad that I lost a friend. However, I was grateful for my friend of six months, who was like a father-figure to me. That night, we had a gathering of young adults and one of them asked me if I was nervous or sad to do John’s funeral. I remember I told them I couldn’t wait to do John’s funeral, to tell his story, that I have recounted here.
Just before John’s forty-day memorial service, his daughter called me and asked me how I would explain the concept of death to a 3-year-old. I didn’t have a child at the time and honestly I had no idea. I told her I’d think about it and get back to her. That night, I had a dream, and in my dream, I was sitting on a hill, looking over the ocean. A phone was in my hand, and it rang. I answered the phone. And on the other end I heard a familiar voice: “Hi Father, this is John, and I want to tell you about heaven. It’s wonderful here. I’m happy. We worship all the time and I love it. Please Father, do me this favor, please tell my 3-year-old granddaughter that Pappou helps God put the moon and the stars in the sky each night. She will understand that.” I woke up from the dream, looked at my clock and it was 5:15 a.m., the same hour that John has passed. I went to my computer and wrote out every detail I could remember from the dream. When I told another priest about my dream, and what I was going to tell John’s granddaughter, the priest suggested I make a keep-sake for her, since at 3-years-old, she probably wouldn’t remember what I would say. I had an artist paint my dream. When John’s daughter and granddaughter came to my office to receive the painting, John’s daughter asked her daughter to describe what she saw on the painting. When a small hand in the corner holding the moon and the stars was pointed out and she was asked whose hand is this, the little girl answered, “That’s Pappou’s hand.”
There is one more piece to this story, a gift that keeps on giving. I have a very strong sense of John’s presence two times a year. One is on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, right before Lent. The other is when we sing the hymn “O Gladsome Light” on Good Friday afternoon at Vespers. In both instances, I feel a presence next to me for a few moments, and I know that it is John.
I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised. . .This God—His way is perfect; the promise of the Lord proves true; He is a shield for all those who take refuge in Him. For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God? The God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe. . .The Lord lives; and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation. . . For this I will extol Thee, O Lord, among the nations, and sing praises to Thy name. Psalm 18:1-3, 30-32, 46, 49
Memory eternal, John!