A Death He Freely Accepted

Greg Gatjanis - Alexandria, Virginia
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, October 19, 2012
Greg Gatjanis

Greg Gatjanis's father told him he loved him nearly every day, but Greg had never told his father he loved him. Now, Gatjanis believes that everything he knows about living a good and worthy life, his father passed on to him in one still moment.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: family, love

All I believe about living a good and worthy life my father passed to me in one still moment.

On a July afternoon in 1983, my mother and I were out together when we got word that my father had collapsed. We rushed to the emergency room and found him lying on a stretcher, unconscious. He had suffered a massive stroke, and the doctors warned us there was very little time, if any.

I remember standing behind my mother as she placed her hand on his and leaned over him. “Tommy, can you hear me?” she asked several times and with no response. I glanced at a nurse, who just lowered her eyes. After several minutes, my mother whispered, “I love you, Tommy,” and turned away, trembling and in tears.

I stood there alone beside my father. His pallid face was turned away from me. His half-closed eyes were fixed, and his lips were chalky and cracked. He was gone. And yet I had no emotion—no fear, no sadness, no grief, no anger—nothing, except one paralyzing thought—that every day my father told me he loved me, and I had never once said it to him. “It’s too late,” I murmured over and over. Finally, I leaned down and for the first time whispered in his ear, “I love you, Dad.”

As I rose to turn away, my father stirred. He strained to turn his head, and his eyes wandered in search of mine. Slowly, he raised his arm and gently laid his hand on my cheek. He held it there and looked into my eyes. The silence between us seemed at once to be a confession, a forgiveness, and a blessing. Seconds later, his hand dropped as he fell into a coma. He died the next day.

Today, twenty-seven years later, I am still discovering the mystery and miracle of that moment. It is both my deepest heartbreak and my greatest blessing, and yet it still guides me in times of fear, sorrow, and uncertainty. In those last minutes, when he knew his fate, my father cared nothing for himself and wanted only to comfort me. In that final moment, my father passed to me all I believe about living a good and worthy life.

I believe faith, family, and service are the pillars of life. I believe all of life’s virtues and miracles are rooted in sacrificial love. I believe in the redemptive power of forgiveness. I believe each of us is called to serve and inspire others through our good works. And I believe that with faith and humility we can discover that every tragedy and unbearable heartbreak holds the promise of a divine blessing.

Late at night, when I rock my infant son to sleep, I secretly hope to lead a life worthy of my father’s last lesson. And when I lay my son down, I lean over him, touch his cheek, and whisper, “I love you, Tommy.”

Greg Gatjanis lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and two young sons. His mother, Eloise, died on July 22, 2009, twenty-six years to the day after her husband.

Produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.