Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
In my over 25 years as a priest, I have participated in the death and/or funeral of over 300 people. One motivation for this unit is to share some of the good experiences (while also touching on a few of the harder ones). This reflection is more personal, because it involves the death of my dad and the lessons, good and bad, that I took away from it. This post will probably be a little bit longer than my usual ones as there is a lot to his story. I’m not going to reflect on his life or what kind of dad he was. He had a good life and was a good dad. These are thoughts about the end of his life.
First of all, dad had a lifelong fear of death. He didn’t want to talk about it, he didn’t want to think about life insurance or a will or anything like that. He took it very hard when family or friends died. Second, dad was a devout Orthodox Christian. He sang in the choir every Sunday until a few weeks before his death. He was always in church. He knew many verses of Scripture. The pages of his Bible and prayer book were worn thin from use. Dad loved going to church. He lit a candle in front of our icons at home every morning, without fail. Dad also wasn’t as faithful about going to the doctor as he should have been. He survived prostate cancer in his 60s. However, he never went for a colonoscopy until he was 76, which came back as stage 4 colon cancer. So, lesson one from my dad—if you are over 50, get a colonoscopy. No one should die from colon cancer.
Dad lived about 30 months with colon cancer, which is about 12 months longer than they gave him. He was definitely a fighter. And most of that time was actually good time, he still went on living, and he assumed he would beat the cancer.
In May 2014, dad was in the hospital and things were starting to deteriorate, as far as his health was concerned. My brother told me that I should come home, that the end was coming and if I wanted to see dad while he was still aware and with it, this was the time to come. I told dad I was coming home and he got upset with me. “The doctors are all wrong,” he said, “I will be fine.” I told him that I wanted to come home and see him despite his objections. I flew home on a Wednesday and dad got out of the hospital while I was en route. So I saw him at home. The next day happened to be Ascension, and I asked dad if he wanted to go to church. He said he wanted to go to church, but wanted to go to a different Orthodox church in the area, because he didn’t want his friends to know how sick he was. We went to church, he saw me celebrate the Divine Liturgy one last time, and I was able to give him Communion.
That night, he asked me if we could talk. He said, “Son, I think I am going to die, and I am afraid to die. Will you make me not afraid?” I answered him, “Dad, I’ll have this conversation with you if I can have it as a priest, and not as your son.” He said “whatever makes you feel comfortable.” I asked him, “Dad, do you believe in God?” He said, “yes, I believe in God.” I asked him “What do you believe about God?” And he answered, “I’m not sure.” This was the second lesson I learned. Here was my dad, who went to church every Sunday, who sang in the choir, who did everything we hope our parishioners do, who has one son that is a priest and the other that is the parish council president of his parish, who sat though so many Holy Week services, and now at the end of life was not only scared, but confused about what he actually believed. This was a “light bulb going off” moment for me as a priest. We need to do a better job of educating people about life and death. And from the non-priest perspective, the people need to be better students, invest the time, ask the questions and have the tough conversations.
I served as the camp director of our Metropolis summer camp for many years, and one of my responsibilities was writing the curriculum. I told him, “Dad, you are in luck, our theme for summer camp this year is the Creed, and what we believe, and I was working on it on the plane ride over here.” So I got the curriculum out and we went through the Creed, what we believe. We talked about why we die, about how death is like graduating from college, some of the things we have already reflected on in this unit. When we got done, he said, “Now, I understand death, but how can I prepare?” I asked him “Have you ever gone for confession?” and explained what confession is. He said that he had never been. I suggested that we call a priest to come over to hear his confession. He looked at me and said “You are the priest, you said you are not my son tonight. You hear the confession.” That was super awkward, but I put on my stole and sat next to him, on the right side, as I do for all the confessions I hear. I remember nothing of what he said, because I never remember anything I hear in confession. All I remember was when we were done, he said to me “Father (he always called me by my first name, but in line with the theme of the night, he called me “Father,” something he rarely did), get on your knees next to me, and pray for me to die. Because if I die now, I am ready.” And he added, “Stavros, thank you for making me not afraid to die. I wish I had had this conversation with you thirty years ago, I wouldn’t have spent my senior years in fear of this. Son, I was so sad when you left for the priesthood, and you didn’t come home often. But this makes it all worth it. Your (younger) brother was like my first-born son, he helped take care of me throughout my life, and you son, you came to take care of me in death.” It was the best conversation I ever had with my dad. I asked my dad, “do you want me to serve at your funeral, or sit in the pews with mom and Joe (my brother)?” He said “I did not give you to the church so you could sit in the pews and watch someone else do the funeral. You do the funeral, and make me look good. And please don’t cry when you do it. Be the priest at my funeral.”
We finished the conversation with me encouraging my dad to call his friends and let them come to the house to say their goodbyes. I told him that these people had loved him his whole life and that they should have closure. He finally decided to tell his friends. He also signed a DNR and the papers for hospice, so he could die at home, which he did.
Lesson three I learned from my dad’s death, was that he found his salvation in the way he died. What do I mean by that? Two thousand years ago, if someone had walked up on Golgotha, they would have seen Jesus, a young man who lived His life doing good things—working miracles, teaching, hanging out with the downtrodden—being killed in the most heinous way. One might have wondered “what was the point of this?” Two thousand years later, we know that what happened on Golgotha opened the gates of Paradise to billions of people who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and through His sacrifice have found purpose, meaning and ultimately salvation. For my dad, as he sat there in sweat pants wearing a catheter and in obvious discomfort, I wondered “why cancer? Why like this?” And the answer now, in retrospect, was that in his suffering, dad found HIS salvation.
I’ve heard many people throughout my ministry express how “if I had one more conversation with my dad (or mom), there are so many things I wish I could say.” I knew that trip home would be the last time I would see my dad, and I decided that when it was time to leave, I would say what I wanted to say and then I wouldn’t feel the regret so many people feel because they didn’t get proper closure. I decided that right before I was going to leave for the airport, I would say goodbye to dad in the living room where he was sitting, and then my brother would come in and sit with dad and I would get up and not look back, and dad wouldn’t look out the window and see me drive away. I asked my brother and my mom to give me some privacy with dad, which they did. I told my dad, I loved him, I thanked him for being my dad, I said a prayer for him, we sang the hymn of St. Nicholas, his patron saint. And the last thing I did, was I got on my knees, like the figures of the Old Testament—Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, and many others—and I asked my dad to put his hand on my head and to give me his blessing. The last thing my dad said to me was “na ehis tin efhi mou,” a Greek expression which means “you have my blessing.” I kissed his hand, stood up and left quietly, and my brother came and sat with my dad. Both my dad and I had tears during this conversation, but we both felt at peace when it was done. Lesson four—say what you want to say, say a proper goodbye, don’t fight it all the way to the end.
After saying goodbye, I came back to Florida (he lived in Los Angeles). Dad lived just over 16 more days after our goodbye. We had a few more interesting conversations. Dad shared with me that he had had two significant dreams. In one dream, he was running through the harbor of Chania, the city in Crete where he grew up. People were yelling at him to go and catch his boat, that it was leaving. He told me that he thought the dream was odd, because he never owned a boat. I told him I thought the dream was about him exiting this life and God coming for him, like a boat sailing out of the harbor in Crete, that dad should run to the boat and get on it. In the second dream, he told me that he was standing in front of the Royal Gates of the altar in the parish he attended, and that our mom was standing a little ways away from him, and that someone was beckoning him to go through the Royal Gates, and he was arguing that only the clergy go through there. I told him that the Royal Gates represent the gates of heaven, that mom was not going to be dying now, and that he should listen and go through them. What amazing dreams my dad had. I never have dreams like those.
My last conversations with my dad weren’t much at all. He grunted a few words, didn’t say anything much. However, I had already had my goodbye conversation with him, so these conversations didn’t really count in my mind. I had already had the conversation that had counted. On Fathers’ Day in 2014, my dad was somehow still clinging to life. It had been 16 days since I said my goodbye to him. I texted my mom during the Liturgy (I hardly ever do that, it’s inappropriate to text in church, but I made an exception that day) and I asked my mom if he wanted me to come home again, if that’s why dad hadn’t passed away yet. My mom said that dad was waiting for me to say the Creed again, he was watching the service on livestream. And dad said he didn’t want to die on Fathers’ Day, he didn’t want to ruin the day for us. My mom said that dad said the Creed with me that Sunday. He never spoke another word after that. His last words were “I look for the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Amen.” (Official Translation of the Nicene Creed, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, as found in the Divine Liturgy book, p. 47) After reciting the Creed, Dad closed his eyes and rested. Dad passed away shortly after 1:00 a.m. Pacific Time (4:00 a.m. where I was in Florida) on Monday, June 16, 2014. Indeed, he had made it through Fathers’ Day.
On the plane flight to California, I cried the entire way. I did his funeral in my head several times and I cried each time. When I did the funeral for real a few days later, I didn’t cry, dad got his wish. Dad was buried on June 20, 2014, on what would have been his 79th birthday. He shared his birthday with my brother, whose birthday is also June 20. People told me that they thought I looked peaceful and content at dad’s funeral. I told them that his wish on the day of his funeral was for me to be in the role of priest and not son. Something beautiful happens as a priest when I step in front of the altar with my vestments on. I feel (most of the time) happy, peaceful, content. And I certainly felt that at my dad’s funeral. I did take a moment to be a son—I told the other clergy who were there that at the time we sing “Memory eternal” at the end, I would go and stand in the front row with my family, and it was during that hymn that I shed a few tears.
One thing I asked my dad, in my last visit with him, was to visit me in my dreams once in a while, so that I know he is okay. About once a year I have the same dream about him. I dream that I’m at St. Anthony Greek Orthodox Church in Pasadena, my dad’s parish, and I’m in the altar getting my vestments on to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Dad comes hobbling up the right-side aisle. I rush to greet him. I say “Dad, what are you doing here, you look terrible.” And he answers “You told me to visit you once in a while to let you know that I’m okay.” I’ll say, “You don’t look okay.” And he’ll answer, “I’m very happy where I am. God told me that when I go visit you, I have to have my old, tired body, so I won’t want to stay here with you. So, if you just do the service quick today, I want to go back, because I’m very happy where I am.” When I wake up from this dream, about once year, I’m always happy, because he is happy.
Save me, O God by Thy name and vindicate me by Thy might. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For insolent men have risen against me, ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before them. Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. He will requite my enemies with evil; in Thy faithfulness put an end to them. With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to Thee; I will give thanks to Thy name, O Lord, for it is good. For Thou hast delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies. Psalm 54
Memory eternal, Dad!