My father died as my plane landed in Athens on May 11, 2000. I got the news that he had taken a turn for the worse when I was in Madison, Wis., to give a speech. From Madison to Milwaukee to New York to Athens — it seemed like an interminable journey. I talked to him from the plane: “I’m going to wait for you,” he said.
“When is her plane landing?” he kept asking my sister Agapi, who was already with him. He insisted that she meet me at the airport along with the two nuns who helped care for him in the last months.
I sat in the front of the car with Sister Stavriani who, if she had chosen a different career, would have made a first-class race-car driver. There she was in her black habit, weaving in and out of traffic to get me to my father’s bedside as quickly as possible. In the back, Sister Diodora, the monastery’s abbess, who looked like a young Julie Andrews, kept answering her the cell phone.
At one point, she passed it to me. At the other end was Vicki, who had cared for my father like a third daughter. “He left,” she said. “He left the moment we told him your plane had landed.”
Mixed with my grief was the guilt: I should have canceled my speech. I should have arrived earlier. It wasn’t just guilt about missing my father’s last moments on Earth but about every misplaced priority.
When I arrived, he was lying on his bed looking just like himself — except without the worry. I was in total turmoil. He seemed in complete peace. Two days earlier, and for the first time in his life, he had chosen to take confession from Father Dionysios, the spiritual head of the Monastery of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, where the sisters had come from. It had been a long and very profound experience for him. As I sat beside him caressing his forehead, I kept returning to the tales of his courage that I had been brought up with.
During the occupation of Greece by the Nazis he had published an underground newspaper, was arrested and sent to a German concentration camp. Back in Greece — one of the few lucky survivors — he met and married my mother. As a child I was always torn between the awe in which I held my father and the pain I could see he caused my mother. When I heard him telling her that she should not interfere in his private life, I started urging her to leave. And when I was 9, she did. He went on to a succession of women and a succession of small newspaper ventures — all of which failed. He often quoted to me his favorite story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who was asked why he kept begging from statues. “I’m practicing disappointment,” he replied.
Ten years ago, my father was struck by the toughest blow of all for someone who had lived his life immersed in books and words: He began to lose his eyesight until, as he told me with deep sadness in his voice, he could no longer tell his two granddaughters apart. The sadness, though, seemed tinged with a sense of relief. “The outer world has softened,” he said. I guess it made a certain sense that a man who had survived a concentration camp, financial hardship, divorce and myriad career disappointments would welcome some softening of the world’s harshest edges.
As they were preparing the coffin in the other room, I looked through the drawers of his desk. There I found a small brown book filled with passages from his favorite books. He had copied them as a college student in his own elegant handwriting — Nietzsche, Malraux, Sartre, Wilde, Dostoevsky. It was clear from the quotes that this was a young intellectual caught in the century’s existential belief that we live in an indifferent universe that we need to shape through our will. But that wasn’t where he ended the century. As in so many of his beloved myths, only after he lost his sight did he start looking for wisdom in a greater vision — one that had room for God.
We buried him at the Holy Cross monastery, on a hill overlooking Thebes, the center of so much of ancient Greek history, mythology and drama, including Euripides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. My sister and I spent the night after the funeral at the monastery talking, crying, praying. At 3 in the morning, we went to visit his grave. It seemed fitting that a man so steeped in ancient Greek history would lay buried in its midst.
A passage read to us at the supper following the funeral came from St. Chryssostomos: “And death comes on suddenly, like a thief at night. It is not known when the end of our lives will come about because we must always be prepared.” This same sentiment was why Memento Mori — Remember Death — was carved all over ancient Rome. And it seemed etched in the heart of every monk and nun I talked to.
The monastery is as wired to the temporal world as to the eternal. But it is also a timeless place, where life is lived with the sense of perspective that only the constant awareness of death can bring — death, mind you, as the door to everlasting life.
I’ll return with my children — God willing — many times in the years to come, not only to honour my father but to bring again and again that dimension of the sacred into our everyday lives.
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