Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Memoirs of a Greek Taxi Driver

A Little Before Death

Shortly before the year 2000, my mother came over to my house and said, “Son, a few blocks away there is a distressed family with two elementary school girls. They need to live with their grandmother because they are going through a terrible ordeal. Their father, who is about your age, is a drug addict. I know his mother. Please drop by to see what you can do, because his wife and his mother told me that he is in his last days.”
“And what do you think I can do, mum? I can hardly keep up with my own dirty messes, and now all of a sudden you think I can help others?”
“Come on, my boy, you need to go; please, don’t upset me.”
The next day, I complied with my mother’s wish. With the blessing of my mother and my spiritual father, I prayed briefly and said, “My Panagia, I will go, but you lead and I will follow.” When I arrived at the home, his mother welcomed me with a hug and a kiss. Then she drew me aside, and while she wept, she explained her Golgotha and the heavy cross the entire family had had to bear. As she was unfolding their very painful family drama to me, occasionally, she would use her apron to wipe her eyes. The poor woman had suffered so much all these years. She had gone to various neighbourhoods and local businesses to borrow money to help her son get his drugs. What pain this mother had endured! What a Golgotha! What crises families in similar situations must be going through! I couldn't endure so much pain. I hugged her, and told her to have her hope and faith in Christ. When I went to the other room, and I saw her son lying in bed, the truth is that I wasn't prepared for it; I was shocked. I went to give him my hand, but he couldn't even exchange a handshake, because his fingers had become deformed. I grabbed him from the wrist and attempted to speak to him, but he would fade in and out of consciousness. With a little patience, however, we became acquainted and shared a few words.
“My brother, I am your neighbour,” I told him “I don’t know you, of course, but you don't know me either. So, since we have become acquainted now, what do you say, can we help one another?”
“It’s too late for me, Thanasi,” he told me in a whispering voice, “I am in the last stage. There is no recovery for me. The doctors can't do anything.”
“Humanly, yes, we agree, but don’t forget the power and grace of our God; what is impossible for man is possible for God” (cf. Luke 18:27).

“I believe in God, Thanasi, but I have fallen into a snake pit. I have made repeated efforts to detoxify myself for many years now but all in vain. I know that I upset my mother, my wife and especially my children. What can I do? I'm not to blame. It’s the deprivation of heroin.”
“So fine, since you believe that you are in a pit with snakes, stretch out your hand and ask the help of Christ. He is the only one who is able to take you out of this pit.”
“What must I do; and how?”
And he faded out again. I needed to wait a few minutes, for him to regain consciousness. In the meantime, I prayed and said, “My Christ, is he listening to what I’m telling him? Can he even think, understand, or remember? Please Lord, only You are able to help us, especially me.” A few moments later, he opened his eyes, and we spoke a bit more. In the end I told him, “I need to leave you now, my brother. The next time I come, if you like, I can bring a priest to read some prayers over you. I think this will do you much good.”
“Yes, Thanasi, I will wait for you. Bring the priest also. I don’t have a problem with that.”
When I came out of the room, there in the hall, I met his wife and their two charming little girls for the first time. They had red swollen eyes. As soon as they saw me they lowered their heads, probably out of shame for the condition of their father. I don’t know, but my heart went out to these little innocent girls; I shared their pain and loved them very much from the first moment. I talked for quite a while with his wife. We said many things, and the poor woman was constantly crying. I left in shambles.
Two days later, I went to his home with a priest, and he read some prayers of Saint Basil over him. I will not forget that I needed to hold him from the shoulder, so he wouldn't fall down. At the end, we told him what his next steps were. He needed to go confess with sincere repentance, to be able to commune, to take Christ in him so that he could be strengthened.
 By the grace of God, my friends, he accepted all this joyfully. Not only he, but his entire family, even his little girls came and confessed to Father , filled with joy and hope for a new beginning. When everyone was finished, Father  pulled me aside and told me, “Thanasi, this man needs all the help he can get; do as much as you can for him, because he is in dire straits, he is not at all well. He needs to recover for the sake of his family. Under the circumstances, he has my blessing to receive Holy Communion whenever he is able.”
“Yes father, he’s going down fast, but please let me share a thought with you.”
“Go ahead, speak up.”
“This coming Sunday, I am thinking of going to church as a family to the monastery of Saint Nicodemos at Goumenissa. I will go with Glykeria, and the young man and his wife. Allow me also to take my friend Savvas, the paralytic, with me, so he can envelop us in prayer. On Monday, with your blessing, I'd like for all three of us to venture to the Monastery of Vatopedi, Mount Athos, for all of us to venerate the Precious Belt of our Panagia. I will make all the necessary arrangements with the fathers.”
“Very well, but are you sure you can manage all this?”
“I cannot without God’s grace and your blessing and prayers.”
“Do accordingly, however God enlightens you. As far as I am concerned I bless you with all my heart.”
Then I proceeded to relay to the lad and his wife my ideas, to see if they would agree. They joyfully accepted my suggestions, especially his wife who responded with tears of joy, perhaps because a gleam of hope was finally on the horizon. I then turned to her husband and firmly told him, “My brother, I ask you, and I beg you. Between now and Sunday, while preparing yourself for Holy Communion at St. Nicodemos monastery and during the days of our pilgrimage to  Mount Athos, don’t even think about using heroin.”
“Listen, Thanasi, I will speak to you with all sincerity, especially since I just confessed. I give you my word, here and in the presence of my wife, that I will not use heroin. I will take some kind of opiate substitute, so that I can stand on my feet. If I don’t do this, my bones will be creaking. My temple blood vessels will begin to burst; I will scream uncontrollably, because the pain is excruciating at the final stage of heroin addiction.”
“What are these substitutes?”
“They come in the form of pills[1], and they help me to stand on my feet.”
“Mr. Thanasi, don’t worry. I will be very careful, and I will not let him leave from my sight. I promise you,” his wife told me.
So, early Sunday morning, we all headed out. Savvas, my paralytic friend, was sitting in the front seat, and I asked him to pray unceasingly. The young man in the back however was sweating profusely and nonstop. The sweating continued and several times during the Divine Liturgy we had to exit the Church so he could catch his breath. I made sure always to be at his side to console him and help him as needed.
Soon enough, the voice of the priest was heard, “With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near”; I held him by the arm and we waited for all others to commune first. Then as we slowly walked towards the chalice, I turned to the large icon of the Virgin Mary and silently asked her, “My Virgin Mary, please, help us to commune today and be with us as we travel to your perivoli[2] tomorrow." It seems that my prayer was heard.
That morning, everything went well at the monastery, thank God. The Abbot, who sensed the gravity of the situation, and learned that we would be leaving the next day for the Holy Mountain, was quite moved. Upon our departure, he walked towards the lad and prayed and said in a loud voice, “May Angels accompany you." His poor wife couldn’t control her tears all day long.
The next morning, we took a taxi, and all three of us arrived at the bus station[3]. I helped the young man onto the bus, and guided him to the open seats toward the back. I then lifted Savva the paralytic on my back, carried him onto the bus and placed him next to the young man. I reminded Savva to continue with unceasing prayer.

While on the bus and later on the ferry boat, we were able to discuss various nice things. The lad was listening to me carefully although he was sweating quite a bit due to acute withdrawal symptoms. He was constantly wiping his sweat, and he struggled to stay on his feet. In less than two hours we disembarked and continued on a minibus towards Vatopedi. The driver dropped us off a few hundred yards outside of the monastery. I looked around for some help but there was no one in sight. It was very difficult to roll the wheelchair on an uphill gravel road. I remember holding the lad with one hand, and pushing the wheelchair with the other. I will not be ashamed to tell you that my tears were running, while I was pleading to the Virgin Mary, silently saying to her, “My dear Mother, help me first, and then my brethren because I am the sickest one of all." When we entered inside the gates of monastery, it was noon, and everyone was resting. There were many stairs for us to climb. I first helped the lad up the stairs and then I lifted up the paralytic on my shoulders since there was no other solution at the moment. Finally I went back down once more to bring up the wheelchair.
When we found the Archondari[4], he received us with much love. We had notified the fathers about the purpose of our visit a few days prior. They were happy to see us because Savvas and I had visited Vatopedi before.
When we got settled in a room, another monk came and told me, “Thanasi, the Geronda (Abbot) wants to see you." I immediately went to him, did a prostration and received his blessing. We talked for quite a while, about the condition of the lad. The Abbot was very moved, asked that we write down our names, and promised to commemorate us during forty successive liturgies[5]. He asked us to come to one of the chapels in the afternoon, to venerate the Holy Relics and the Precious Belt (of the Virgin Mary). Upon entering the church, the father told the lad to kneel so that he could place the Precious Belt on his head, and to pray over him. I sat back and savoured every second of this most beautiful hour. These were truly heavenly moments. When the priest finished with the young man he asked the paralytic to bow and receive the Precious Belt on his head as well. Then the father took the Belt, and went to leave. While he was preparing to depart, I asked him, “Father, please, don’t deprive me of this blessing, because I am the sickest one in the group. My body is healthy, but my soul is paralysed." The father turned back, looked at me with a blank stare, and asked, “What’s your name, my son?”
“Kneel, Athanasios[6], and may you have all the blessings of our Virgin Mary.”
The very Belt of the Virgin Mary was now resting on my head! What an indescribable feeling this was. I have no words even to begin to tell you what this felt like. Even if I did, you would not be able to understand it.
This was such an uplifting and truly beneficial pilgrimage. When we returned home, I went to find Father, to inform him how things went. He was very pleased and said, “Thanasi, don’t worry, the Virgin Mary will do her miracle." After this the recovering young man, stayed close to Fr. Triantafyllos[7] and continued to go to holy Confession, with his entire family.
Now, I am sure you are probably anxious to find out what happened to this young man and his family. Well, he is well, very well. The same man who could hardly even exchange a handshake, nor stand on his feet without being held, now returned to his old job of hard physical labour, and even works overtime. The smile returned to his family, especially to his charming little girls. They were no longer ashamed of their father at school. More importantly, he returned to our Christ. For this we are ever so grateful to the blessing of our Virgin Mary, to the supplications of the fathers, and to the prayer of the paralytic.

[1] The irony is that most people come to this sad position because of these prescribed painkillers. Dentists and doctors often overprescribe opium derivatives such as oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco), codeine, morphine, etc., for pain management. These are usually highly addictive and when these prescriptions expire, a high percentage of their victims turn to heroin which is rather inexpensive in its beginning stages but later becomes very costly and deadly as its addictive qualities totally enslave the human organism. Overdosing is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, accounting for more deaths than traffic fatalities or gun homicides and suicides. Fatal overdoses from opiate medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone have quadrupled since 1999, accounting for an estimated 16,651 deaths in 2010.
[2] According to tradition the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist were on a ship to visit Lazarus who was serving as a Bishop in Cyprus. Along the way, the weather became severe, and the swollen waves carried the boat north to the present location of the monastery of Iveron, on the Athonite peninsula. The Virgin Mary was truly enchanted by the paradisiacal beauty of this location so she asked her Son to gift it to her. This is why, to this day, the Holy Mountain is the exclusive “Garden of the Panagia” and no other female-human or animal-is permitted to set foot on it.
[3] Mt. Athos is not accessible by land so visitors and pilgrims must travel to Ouranoupolis (150 km from Thessaloniki), the last seaport with frequent ferry boat rides to Dafne, the central access point to the one-thousand year-old monastic community with twenty major monasteries and their dependencies. At present there are approximately 2000 monks on the Holy Mountain.
[4] The monk in charge of guest accommodation.
[5] The most important of all Orthodox services, also called Holy Eucharist.
[6] Thanasi, the nickname for Athanasios (immortal), changes the meaning of this dogmatic Christian name from immortal to mortal. This is precisely why the Father used Athanasi’s baptismal name.
[7] Triantafyllo (thirty petals), is the Greek word for rose.

Used by permission of CZ, 

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