The Liturgy today, August 28th, 2011, at St Seraphim’s Cathedral in Dallas culminated for me an amazing and transformative week in which I was blessed to be able to witness the repose of Archbishop Dmitri, who having set an example to all Christians on how to live a godly life, remained true to form and showed us how to fall asleep with happiness and peace in the sureness of his faith. This time was a remarkable blessing to all those who were able to witness it or hear about it.
Having spent nights with him in his room and hospital over the past weeks I often saw and heard him late at night in his semi-consciousness pray aloud for those he knew. Many who spent time with him in these last days will attest to this fact. This was a constant prayer that went through the night when he had the strength to speak. He was never seen to show despair despite enduring an exhausting and sometimes painful deterioration in his health. When he had the strength and alertness to speak he wanted his spiritual children around him and took great joy in telling stories and listening to what others wanted to tell him. By God’s grace his loving and jovial manner remained with him to the end.
When I saw him last Sunday, August 21st, Archbishop Dmitri had become exhausted after his stay in the hospital and had not had the strength or will to eat or drink. He was anxious and jittery in his bed and his speech was nearly incomprehensible. His doctor, one of his parishioners at St Seraphim’s who devoted large amounts of his time to caring for Vladyka, was there to help keep him comfortable and ensure that he was able to repose in his home. Archbishop Dmitri was extremely adamant on this point. By Monday morning his condition had declined further. He was either non-responsive or barely able to respond at all. An Unction service had been scheduled on Tuesday the 23rd, but due to his condition permission was given for another service to be conducted in his bedroom Monday afternoon. I have said what Vladyka’s condition was prior to the service. As the Unction was conducted those who were there witnessed Archbishop Dmitri slowly respond to the prayers and chants of the choir. He began opening his eyes and looking around. He began smiling. Eventually he could be heard singing. By the end of the service Vladyka’s melodious one-of-a-kind Texan voice was heard by all participating in the service. All were struck by his joyful recovery. This service was attended by over 30 people in Vladyka’s 2nd story bedroom next to the Cathedral. It was nearly 110 degrees that day and he had only one window unit and several fans in his room. The combination of body heat, candles, and incense brought the temperature of the room to around 90 degrees, but after standing witness to this remarkable transformation in our beloved Archbishop no one was greatly bothered by the discomfort. I stayed with Vladyka that night and realized how much he had recovered after seeing him ask for coffee and cough drops, two simple pleasures he loved.
The next day Archbishop Dmitri was brave enough to be taken next door to the Cathedral for the previously scheduled Unction service, an exhausting experience for him but a gift to his spiritual children. As Fr. John Anderson said, the events that occurred at the beginning of this week were a blessing to all of us. He personally did not need to remain with us, but we needed him. Vladyka was always ready to leave this life, and in a way that I can only hope to achieve. Having a few more days with him and being able to witness his grace and joy as he left us was an experience beyond words.
By Friday it was apparent that he would soon depart from us. His consciousness slowly slipped away. When I saw him Saturday morning he was virtually non-arousable. His breathing was regular but weak. He was not moving voluntarily. I left him around lunchtime with Metropolitan Jonah and Fr Seraphim Hipsh quietly praying over him. I returned that night at 9 to stay with him overnight. He was surrounded by those who loved him who quietly sat at his bedside while turns were taken to read the Gospels. He took shallow breaths and did not move. Through the course of the next few hours his situation remained the same. People who knew him or were inspired by him trickled in and out pray at his bedside. His room was dark and dimly lit. He was without any suffering. At midnight there were about 15 people left with Vladyka, including some who have known him and been close to him for decades. Fr Seraphim held Vladyka’s hand and stroked his head as others gathered around him. At midnight, which began th Dormition of the Theotokos, Bishop Alejo, who had been there since I arrived, stood and said some prayers for him in Spanish. Vladyka must have been overjoyed by this. For the next two hours Archbishop Dmitri remained the same, slowly breathing in the faint light of his bedroom. At 2 AM, he suddenly took a big breath, perked up his head and opened his eyes. I was sitting right at the foot of his bed and he looked right at me. He looked like he was about to speak. Everyone came to him immediately and put their hands on him. He slowly let out his breath and departed this life. As everyone held tightly onto him Fr Seraphim immediately began to pray. Archbishop Dmitri was completely at peace.
Over the next hour Fr Seraphim prayed for Vladyka. I called Fr John Anderson who came immediately and performed a Panikhida with Fr Seraphim. Others who loved him came as well when they were notified. At around 3:30 Fr John and Fr Seraphim began to prepare the Archbishop’s body as a deacon and subdeacon read the Scriptures. I was blessed to be able to help with this, and will never forget how I was struck by the tremendous care and affection with which his body was handled. It was such a great testament to the immense love which we had for him. I also will always remember that despite having departed us hours earlier and having been sick for some time, Archbishop Dmitri’s body had a lively hue that I am not accustomed to seeing in the deceased. After he had been properly cleaned and dressed, people continued to trickle in to silently pay their respects to this godly man.
I went home to sleep for a couple hours until the Liturgy. Besides the other things I have mentioned that will stay with me, I will also remember with happiness and tears Metropolitan Jonah’s homily, in which he charged us to keep Archbishop Dmitri’s memory eternal, and to model our lives after his example. The deacons’ voices cracked as they chanted prayers for his soul. There was sadness that we will not see Vladyka again in this world, but great rejoicing that God sent him to us and brought him back home.
A friend asked me to write recollections down of what I witnessed over the past week, and I thank him for it. As I write this I’ve been eating a handful of Vladyka’s cough drops. That, combined with the smell of incense still on my clothes, is bringing tears to my eyes as I become nostalgic for my remarkable experiences with him over the past weeks.. I’ve only known him personally for a few short years. I was never able to witness the full force of his personality, but I was able to be transformed by the gravity of his influence. One did not need to know him on a deep personal level to be affected in this way. Just the way that he would smile at you as he walked through the crowd after the Liturgy on Sundays would make you want to follow him. I rejoice that I was able to be a part of the end of this great man’s life. He was truly an example of how we should live our lives in Christ. May his memory indeed be eternal!
h/t Fr. Alexander Fecanin