Remembering Michael J. Falatko
My father was born in New Castle, PA. He was the first of two boys. He grew up in a small town outside New Castle with a few hundred people. He used to tell me about his childhood. His small town was fairly carefree. He would spend his summers playing baseball, hunting on the mountain side, and fishing in the Beaver river. His father was a blue-collar worker at the local power plant, and his mother was a strict homemaker. He was a standout student at New Castle High School and graduated with honors.
He met my mom at Youngstown State University. She was also from New Castle. Their union was quite unique considering they went to the same high school, but rarely socialized at that time. They fell in love and got married. This was the beginning of our family.
After Youngstown they moved to Columbus, OH where he received a masters from Ohio State University in Healthcare Administration. He accepted a position at Fremont Memorial Hospital as his first administrative job.
He took great pride in his work. He had a flare for healthcare administration. It was the perfect blend of humanity and business that challenged his mind. Every job he took throughout his career we would hear to same things; “Your dad is such a pleasure to work with.” “He has done such great things for our Hospital.” “He really cares about his employees.” He loved his work.
He was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. He fought a great battle over the next two decades. Towards the end of his days he suffered mightily. We all spent many days worried about him, worried about the end, what it would be like. Most of all we wished for his suffering to end. For him to be made whole again. To remember the great man, he was before his illness.
I have many memories of my dad. When I sat down to write these thoughts, I thought I would be writing about the major events in my life we shared together. My wedding day, the day he met his granddaughter Nora, or the day I graduated from medical school. Although I cherish those memories, I came to realize I had a few others that were my favorites I wanted to share with him, and everyone else.
He used to call me “Royboy,” after Elroy Jetson. That was the nickname he gave me. I know he also gave me my proper name, but there’s something special about a nickname. Groups, or packs of men give each other nicknames. When you’re a kid you want to be a good son, but what you really want to be accepted in your pack.
He was an avid Steeler fan. I remember watching a specific regular season Monday night football game with him. We were living in Fremont, OH at the time. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old. The Steelers were at home against the Bengals. The Bengals opened up a 14-point lead in the first few minutes of the game. He was so mad. As many of you know he could have quite the temper. He was throwing couch cushions at the TV. He was getting up and stomping into the Kitchen. He was calling them slime-dogs, and dirt-bags. They looked awful. I remember sitting on the floor in front of the TV. I kept telling him, “Don’t worry Dad. They’ll come back.” They’ll win the game.” We stayed up and watched the entire game together. All the way to the closing handshakes. They lost 34-7. To this day it is my favorite football memory.
He loved to Golf. It was one of his true passions. We have played many rounds together in my life. We were members of the local country club when we lived in Fremont, OH. They had a long, finely polished, wooden bar that stretched most of the length of the club room. Along the bar were tall barstools with black leather cushions on top. I used to climb to the top of them and get on my knees so I could see over the bar. He would order a beverage before we would head out to play. The bartender would give me a small bowl of green olives while he waited to sign the check. Next to him, I felt larger than life.
Sometimes when we were out on the course, I would switch his beverage with my sprite as a joke. He would get this surprised look on his face when the taste hit his tongue. Then he would start tasting all the other cups in the cart. When he got to his, he would look at me and say, “you didn’t drink any of that, did you?” I would always get a good laugh out of it. A couple of times, I would switch the cups, dump his out, and pretend like I drank it. Which is ridiculous to think a 10-year-old kid would pass up a sprite for anything an adult would drink. He got a good laugh out of it once. He wised up pretty fast. I was only able to pull that off a couple of times. These were the times he let his guard down. You could see a childlike zest for life in him. He was my friend.
I remember the day we had to put our dog Oreo down. They had a very strong bond that strengthened as my dog aged. After he was euthanized, we brought him back home. He wanted him buried in the back yard. We spent the evening digging a grave. We placed him a blue Tupperware bin with his favorite blanket and dog toy. When it was time to fill the grave, he sent me inside and filled it himself. When he was done there was this big mound of dirt in the back yard over the grave. When I asked my dad if he wanted to level it off, he said, “No. It will settle.” It took over a year for the dirt to settle and grass to begin to grow over the site.
It’s always the little things about someone that stick in your memory. Those things that only you know about that are special. He had these subtle ways of showing love and admiration for his children and his family. Some of these moments you could feel, without the words being said. It’s funny how you can feel what someone else is thinking, there’s no real reason it should feel more special in those moments, especially when the other person can just come right out and say how they feel. I will remember the words as well, but those times in which it doesn’t have to be said are special and lasting in our minds.
My sister Michelle will always remember him when she hears the Allman Brothers Band. He used to play their greatest hits during our family trips to Pennsylvania. One song in particular called “Midnight Rider.” The song has a very distinct 4 chord baseline that resonates the carefree stride of its persona. The song is about a drifter. One bad thing after another comes his way, but its ok. He’s not going to back down. “Not gonna let them catch me no/ Not gonna let them catch the midnight rider.” It personified a part of his personality that we all looked up too. The fighter. The survivor.
When I asked my sister Melissa what she will remember most, she reiterated this part of him. Life was not always kind to him. He fought many battles for his family, coworkers, and himself. He never quit. He never gave up. He always got back up to fight another day.
The gifts he gave us as adults are far more valuable than those memories. Most of these he did not state explicitly. They were observed as a part of his being. Take pride in your work. It’s not ok to be idle. An individual should always be growing. What others think of you matters. You need to stand up straight, dress well and make a positive impression. What you do in life matters. Your work should have purpose. Your work should bring value to those around you. This is our call.
I wish it were possible to bring back more of those happy memories we had to replace the sorrow he experienced towards the end of his life. I won’t go into much detail. It was such a slow and tortuous disease. There seemed to be peril at every turn. We would work to solve one problem, then another would arise, then things would seem to get better, and then more setbacks. I can’t imagine what it was like to live in that body. He was a prisoner. His captor was his own flesh. And there was no hope of escape.
The author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously said, “He who has a Why, can bear almost any How?” A week before he died, we had our last conversation. When I told him, he could let go and he didn’t have to live like this anymore, he said “I have a lot to live for, I want to be there for your mother. I want to be with my family.” He really loved my mom. His devotion to her never wavered. Even when his body was completely beaten down his desire to keep his commitment to her overcame. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her, of leaving us. At his weakest and in his darkest time, his honor shined brightest.
He was raised catholic and became a born-again Christian later in life. He has professed his faith in Jesus Christ and has been baptized, probably as many ways a person can be baptized. As his time on earth drew to a close it was evident that he was anxious about his passing. This anxiety was one of the more difficult symptoms to ease. Even with the promise of heaven from God to him, it is quite natural to question one’s prospects. All of us fall short of the example Christ set for us. As we look back on our actions, none of us can honestly feel worthy of this promise. As his illness progressed, I used to tell my wife, “there is no way I could live like this, please just let me go if I am suffering this much.” But I’m sure I would be anxious staring into the abyss knowing all the mistakes I have made.
I’ve spent many hours thinking about life, death, inevitability and eternity over the past months. I’ve been thinking about that moment when the potential of life ends, and the space it occupied is now empty. Because of his Faith and the Mercy of Jesus I know my dad will now spend eternity in the presence of God. He has been promised great heavenly riches. To be restored whole. To live his days in paradise. But his eternity is also promised to him here on earth. He is a part of me. He still lives in me, and in my sisters Michelle and Melissa. He lives in his grandchildren Annie, Mia, Mattie, Nora and Benjamin.
It’s not as simple as, “oh we get it,” part of his genetic code is a part of you and that will be passed on. Genes don’t get passed down like family heirlooms. These building blocks compete and are selected to pass from one generation to the next. If you could imagine them like millions of on/off sequences working together in a giant network to make you, You. I’m not just talking about your physical attributes. Your life has so much more depth than that. In fact, for most of us, your physical attributes barely play a role in who you are. Your mind, your thoughts, your behavior, that’s the good stuff. And your mind is not some happenstance collection of thoughts.
There’s a reason why one person cries watching a sad film, and another won’t. Or why one person will find a proof in Calculus class exciting, and the other can bench press 200 lbs. Not only are your physical attributes passed down to you, but your Being, who you are, is imprinted upon you by your parents. Successful on-off sequences, or imprints, are permitted to be passed to future generations, while unsuccessful sequences are dormant, and their line perishes. So, it’s not just what you look like. There is a physical passing of his knowledge and intelligence down to offspring, and it lives on and on. God doesn’t just promise you eternity in heaven. It is promised-on earth as well. The important stuff lives on long after your body passes. It is truly a masterful design.
Here are some examples of God’s promise of eternity to His people:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life.
He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the book of life, but I will confess his name before My Father and before His Angels.”
John 14: 2-3
In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.
And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.
So, I say to my father. Rest peacefully for your suffering is over. Be joyous for your return to your eternal home in Heaven. Rest assured the eternity that is promised to you on earth has already been granted by God. Your memory will live on for generations. We love you.