March 1, 1990 was the last day I would ever spend with my father. It was a Thursday, and I had flown home to Cleveland the night before from Boston where I was in the second semester of my freshman year of college.

Mom was adamant that I call Dad right away when I got to the house from the airport. She gave me the number to his room at the hospital, telling me “He’s really eager to talk to you and very excited to see you tomorrow.” I dialed.

“Hi, pal.”

“Hey, Dad. How you doin’?”

“I’m alright. You got in okay?”

“Yep.” It was a very regular conversation, considering the circumstances. Dad was having congestive heart trouble and was scheduled for a bypass surgery on Friday, March 2. It was his second time, since he’d had a successful open heart surgery sixteen years before. When I think back, the only thing unusual about that brief phone conversation was that Dad seemed particularly eager to see me the next day. I remember him telling me that he wanted me in his room the minute visiting hours allowed.

imageIf Dad’s tone on the phone was a bit more serious than ususal, I was probably in too much denial to notice. He was no doubt putting up a “nothing to worry about” front. To me, there wasn’t any reason to worry. The idea of something bad happening was something that happened to other people. Not us. Other people’s dads died, like Uncle Bill Clements, Uncle Bill Skelly, Dr. Callinan or Judge McCrone. This wouldn’t happen to us. Though I certainly understood the seriousness of the situation and hardly took it casually, my invincible and naïve nineteen year old mind failed to foresee the distinct possiblity that this could go horribly wrong and that life could take an abrupt and dark turn.

Dad’s surgery was being performed at St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland. It was the hospital where my grandfather, the original George Hahn, died in 1978. When Mom and I parked the car in front of St. Vincent’s the next morning, I remember looking up at the windows of the hospital and having a vivid flashback to being seven years old and seeing my grandpa, my buddy, waving to me from his room, which was the last time I saw him. And here I was again – the young George Hahn here to see another George Hahn at St. Vincent’s, though this time it was Dad.

If visiting hours started at 9:00 a.m., we got there at 9:01. We weren’t going to waste a minute. The first thing I remember noticing when I first walked into Dad’s hospital room was how diminished he looked. He still looked like himself, but he looked tired and a bit wilted. In fact, over the past few months, he was getting easily fatigued. But he still looked like Dad. I was so happy to see him, and he was very happy to see me.

I should interject here that I had been with Dad just about a week prior to this. My parents spent their twentieth wedding anniversary (February 14th) in Naples, Florida. Except for my brother Mark, who was on tour at the time with Nine Inch Nails as the tour manager, all of us children secretly flew down and surprised Mom and Dad and spent a few days with them. It was wonderful. On the last day in Florida when everyone flew back to their respective lives, Dad’s flight was earliest. I remember him waking me up early that morning to say goodbye, dressed in his suit and tie, ready to go straight to his office from the airport. He was sobbing. He told me he was so overwhelmed by the gesture of our surprise visit and overcome with love and gratitude for such a wonderful family. I kissed him, hugged him and told him I loved him. And off he went. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the reasons Dad was so upset was that he was not feeling quite right and was actually going to the doctor from the airport. He was admitted to the hospital that night and never did get to the office and, ultimately, never got back home again.)

So there we were, in Dad’s hospital room, where I spent the day. We talked a lot. We laughed a lot. But there was no crying. I knew Dad needed levity, and I tried to keep it light. Since we had spent several days together so recently, there wasn’t much news to share school-wise, although Dad did feel badly that I would not be able join my friends for spring break, which was starting that week. I couldn’t care less. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

Later in the day, he asked to be left alone with me for a bit. After everyone cleared the room, he got quite serious. The details of what he discussed with me shall remain private, but I will say that his words echo in my head every day. I will share what he said about the prospect of dying:

“I want you to understand something, George,” he said. “I’m not afraid of dying. Whatever happens, I’ll be okay. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

He was at peace – at peace with life, at peace with himself and content that he had done his best. No matter what was going to happen, he was alright with it. There was no fear.

Over the remainder of the day, even after what he had told me about dying, the gravity of what stood before my father started to sink in for me, and I began to realize the possibility of losing this coin toss. Several extended family members came to visit during those last visiting hours, though the specifics of who was there is really a blur. It seems strange to say it, but it was a good day. And it was the last day I would ever sit, talk and laugh with my Dad. That was March 1, 1990.

I did see him briefly again the next morning on Friday, March 2. He was the first surgery scheduled for the day, and we got to see him for a very short time as he was being brought from his room to the O.R. on a gurney. I remember Mom instructing us to be positive in those few moments so that Dad wouldn’t get upset, but it was useless. We were upset, and dad was upset. My last memory of him alive… the very last image of him… was looking into his tear-filled eyes laying on the gurney in the hallway of the hospital. Before the nurses rolled him away, he said to us “I love you.”

The surgery went as planned. Bypass operations were routine at that point, and we were all very optimistic, as was his surgeon. My four siblings, the Cleveland-based extended Hahns and my Dad’s brothers and sisters were all there waiting at the hospital that day. It felt like a very long day, but being with my family – both immediate and extended – was the best thing one could ask for. And I must say that the Hahns can be a pretty boisterous and hilarious bunch with an uncanny gift for finding the humor in the worst situations. As my cousin Mary once said to me, “We put the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral.'” I love my family.

Dad was in surgery for what seemed like forever but was probably more like several hours. Once we got word that the surgery was over, the doctor spoke to Mom and happily reported that everything was fine. There was some scar tissue from his first surgery in 1974, but everything looked okay. For the moment, with Dad recuperating in the Intensive Care Unit, there was nothing more to do at the hospital. We all went home to eat, rest and wait. We would get to see him tomorrow.

Early the next morning, while we were all getting ready to go to the hospital, I was in the kitchen making coffee when the phone rang.


“Hello. Can I please speak to Mrs. Hahn?”

“She’s not available at the moment. Who’s calling?”

“Hi, this is the nurse from the Intensive Care Unit at St. Vincent’s…”

“Is this regarding Mr. Hahn?”

“Yes, it is.”

“This is his son. My mother is in the shower right now. Is there something you can tell me?”

“Well… We’re having some trouble. You’ll need to come to the hospital as soon as possible.”

As soon as I heard those words, I realized then that everything changed. Everything. Then I felt a crack in the universe. And then I got my mother out of the shower.

I don’t remember who drove to the hospital or the ride at all, for that matter. I just remember being in that room, the off-white room next to the I.C.U. where we waited until all of the immediate family had arrived. I remember my brother Michael sitting in a chair, crying. I remember my sister Megan swaying with her arms folded. I remember my sister Tracy heaving. Mark was on his way. I remember my mother standing, silent, looking at the door and waiting for the doctor to come in. The only sounds were the faint hospital noises outside the door. Then the doctor came in.

When the doctor closed the door, he stood in front of my mother and started talking. The faint, distant hospital buzz was replaced with the sound of the doctor’s voice and a loud ringing in my ear. It was deafening, but I could still hear the doctor. I remember him saying things like “We tried… We did… He couldn’t… We couldn’t…” Then it occurred to me that he was speaking in the past tense. That crack in the universe was getting louder and the floor was starting to shake. The doctor put his hands on Mom’s shoulders, and she nodded while he spoke, hearing, understanding and accepting his information. More nodding from Mom, then shaking. And then it happened. She looked right at me, stepped toward me and grabbed me. She whispered in my ear, “I’m sorry, Georgie.” The universe crumbled and the floor fell out from under me. What only happened to other families had happened to us.

A little time passed. Ten minutes? Twenty? I don’t know. A nurse came in to tell us that we could go in to see Dad. Part of me didn’t want to do it, but I had to. I needed proof that it was true. I needed to know that this was real. Seeing my father, lifeless on a hospital bed, perfectly still, silent, not breathing, was a particularly painful twist of the knife that had just been shoved into my stomach.

Dad spent his last fifteen years as a sober man. My one memory of him being drunk was when I was three or four years old and he was passed out on a sofa one night at home. I remember pounding on his chest and crying, “Wake up, Daddy! Wake up!!” The next morning, everything was okay. But on the morning of March 3rd, 1990, I felt like that three year old boy again, except this little boy was suddenly forced to face the terrifying truth that everything will not always be okay.

* * *

When you’re a teenager, your parents aren’t cool. They’re the opposite, actually. Where I come from, if your teenage kids actually like you and are fine with the values and boundaries you try to establish for them, you’re probably doing something wrong. My Mom and Dad drove me nuts when I was a teenager. One of the most painful things about losing my Dad when I did was that I was starting to mature out of that adolescent mentality and beginning to develop a really adult friend-like relationship with him. During my first semester of college, I had some of the greatest conversations with him on the phone. Parents Weekend was a total blast, that first Christmas home from school was wonderful, and that time in Florida for their anniversary was, well, a gift beyond description.

The week after Dad died, which included the wake and the funeral, was surreal. Almost dreamlike. Seeing my father lifeless on a hospital bed was a horror. Seeing him embalmed and laying in a casket literally knocked the wind out of me. I will always be grateful to friend and funeral director Timmy Berry, who took me outside and held me until I could breathe somewhat normally again.

The funeral at St. Malachi’s in Cleveland was hard, needless to say. But as tributes go, it was a beautiful one, with songs exquisitely sung by Meg and Molly Donnelly. After inspired words from Fr. Welsh and Dad’s youngest brother, my Uncle Mike, I shared a few words that I’d prepared. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do recall getting a good laugh on a joke I made about Dad’s height. (He was short.) And a memory that will always bring a smile to my face was looking up during the ending procession and seeing the guys from Nine Inch Nails in the balcony. I love Trent Reznor, Richard Patrick and the rest of that touring band for showing up for my brother Mark.

Coming from a church packed to capacity, it was a very long funeral procession of cars to the cemetery. In the car on the way there, my brother Mark clutched my hand, indicated the long train of cars and smiled out of pride at how well-loved my Dad was. He touched the lives of a lot of people, and I was overwhelmed by how many of them were there to pay their respects and honor him.

Burial is so final. It’s the end. All done. Since Dad’s burial, visiting a grave is a very strange custom to me, and I don’t like to go. It just reminds me of that day we put him there, and it’s a horrible memory. I’d rather visit our house, visit the golf course at Avon Oaks where he taught me to play, or drive down to the high school we all attended, St. Ignatius, where Dad took such tremendous pride in doing service as the Chairman of the Board of Regents. Or put on a record he loved. (Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits, in case you’re wondering.) If it weren’t for the sake of being with my Mom whenever she likes to go when I’m in town, that day we buried Dad would have been the last day I ever went to the grave.

Leaving Mom, leaving the house and leaving Cleveland to go back to school was tough. But she and I understood that we had to keep going. In fact, we had a good laugh about the timing of everything. Since this all happened during my spring break and I only missed two days of classes, Dad – who was VERY heavy into academics – wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Re-entry into school was rocky, and my drinking started to take a dark turn for the worse at the time. I never could have gotten through it without the help and love of my roommate Joe and the amazing young legends in Fenwick Hall at Boston College who propped me up more times than I could count. That dorm was a lifeboat that kept me afloat for the rest of that school year.

Cleveland is my hometown. But since Dad died, visiting became tricky for me. I visit at least once every year and I love seeing Mom, my brothers and sisters, and my nieces and nephews, but I find it very bittersweet, since I will always associate my formative Cleveland years with Dad.

Though I don’t have any children, my mother told me the greatest thing I’ve ever heard about parents and children. She told me that there are really only two things a parent can do for a child: 1) love the child, and 2) give that child a sense of values. Dad (and Mom) did that spectacularly. When we were kids, there were the things they wouldn’t let us do, places they wouldn’t let us go (even though our friends were allowed), things they made us do and places they made us go (even though we hated it), and it was so unfair! But boy did they love us and give us a catalog of values we didn’t know we were getting.

My father met my mother in November of 1969 when he was a thirty-three year old bachelor and she was a thirty-three year old widow with four young children. He proposed to her two weeks later and married her three months after that. He was no ordinary man. In nine months’ time, I came along.

Coupled with the immeasurable love he showed me, my father’s core values could be summed up in one sentence: Always do your best. In everything you do, whether it’s doing a job, being of service, being a friend, loving someone, being a father, a mother, a daughter, a son, a brother, or a sister… Always do your best. Right up to his very last day when he stared death in the face, he was without fear and able to be at peace that he had done his best. Because he stuck to his guns, I had the best father.

After he died, I have tried with every breath to do my best. Sometimes I succeed, and often I fail. I don’t think the point was to hit it out of the park everytime, which I most certainly do not do. The point was to be able to look back, as Dad did, no matter what the outcome, and be able to say that I did my best.


That week after Dad died, my sister Megan and I were at the house going through his things. At one point, Megan shouted my name from upstairs. When I got upstairs, she handed me a small note-sized envelope that clearly used to be white, but had darkend along the edges and yellowed with age. On the front of the envelope, in Dad’s handwriting, it said:

To my son George from his Dad
(Please hold for several years)

It was still sealed.

I swallowed hard and looked at Megan. We sat on the floor and I opened it. It was dated April 21, 1974. I quickly realized that Dad had written me this note when I was three, the day before his first open-heart surgery.

Dear George-

As I’m sure Mom has told you, I’m writing to you the day before I face the toughest battle God has given me yet in my relatively young life.

I want you to know that Dad isn’t frightened about the prospects of the surgery, and I’m fully prepared to accept God’s decision about my fate. If I’m (not) given the opportunity after surgery to help determine that fate through desire, will power and determination, I want you to know, George, that Dad tried. I tried just as hard as I could but it wasn’t God’s will.

I knew from the day you were born, George, that you were very special in many ways. I’m so glad now that you were named after me. You’ll never experience directly, George, the fantastic love I have for you, but believe me it’s whole and forever.

If I’d been able, George, I’d have tried by daily example to show you the kind of man I hope you’ll be. But since I can’t, I’ll ask only one thing of you, George. Always be able to say to yourself… “I tried my best. I really tried my best.” If you’ll try, George, you’ll succeed, and your Dad will know and be very proud.

All my love & prayers, son,

By the envelope’s placement, buried at the bottom of a box in the depths of Dad’s closet, it was likely that Dad had long forgotten he had written the letter. To this day, as I read it, I am astounded at how consistent he remained throughout the next sixteen years, right up to the day he died. He didn’t change a note, as if it were all a very delibertately designed plan.

While I really hate the first week of March, and as much as I want to close the shades, silence the phone and shut out the world for a few days, I cannot help feeling profoundly lucky, grateful and proud. How lucky was I that he was given that opportunity and that I was given his example? I am so grateful that I had this father for nineteen years. I am so grateful that I had that last day with him, leaving nothing left unsaid and no regrets. And I am so very proud to carry the name George Hahn.


  1. Such a well-written and personal story, not to mention an amazingly meaningful tribute to your dad. And so wonderful that his love persists strongly after many years. Reading this makes me grateful that I have a great dad too.

  2. Derek W Shakespeare

    Thank you George for sharing that beautiful yet obviously painful memory.

  3. Christiaan J. van Vliet

    Thank you for sharing this, Mr. Hahn.

  4. Amazing. Thank you.

    Another great tribute I read was by Ajahn Brahm. He likens the passing of his father to having witnessed a great concert – how lucky was he to have known so intimately an extraordinary and wonderful man? What a rich and worthwhile life they had lived!

    Thank you for this wonderful celebration of your Dad’s life, a simply outstanding performance 🙂

  5. Thank you George for sharing this with us. I lost my dad this past September and can fully comprehend the “crack in the universe” that you describe. My life will never be the same but I’m unbelievably thankful for the 47 years I had with him.

    • George

      I’m so sorry, Eric. And thank you.

  6. Well written and moving piece, thanks for sharing

  7. This is beautiful, and thank you for sharing. When I think about loved ones I lost at that age I always wonder if they would be proud of me and what I’ve become. I think your father would be very proud of you George; you have become a role model for so many men.

  8. Beautifully written. My own father died in 2009 three weeks after I got married. It was almost as if when his youngest (me) finally settled down–I was in my forties when I married–my father felt his work was done and could leave this world. For years I visited him at his home in another state the same week every August. If he were still alive I’d be there right now. I always find this week sadder than the anniversary of his passing itself.

  9. Well, now I know why you’re such a great man — great Dad and Mom! You keep inspiring.

  10. William B

    Just read this. Awesome writing, many thanks for posting it.

  11. This is beautiful, George, just so lovely. Thank you for sharing it❤

  12. Johanna Fredrics

    I lost my dad when I was six years old. I never had the opportunity to properly grieve (what does a six year old know about that?). Your essay has helped this 57 year old in ways you will never know.
    You have honored him and his legacy.
    Bless you.

  13. Thankyou George, I don’t know how I stumbled on this today. Let me just say that it has been a beautiful read and I want you to know how much I needed to read this today. What a man your Father must have been. I love him myself. He reminded me so much of my Dad who died 2years ago.
    Across the ocean here in Australia, my day is sweeter because you shared this. xx

      • Beautifully written George. March is also a month that is emotional for us. I lost my dad on March 7th 26 years ago, and my mom will be gone 1 year this 26th, so I feel you. We miss them both. Thanks for a peek into your family. You are blessed.

  14. __birdiegirl

    As one who lost the love of her father some 20-something years ago, I suspect it was fractured well before that particular day in April 2000 of choosing ones own path to living rather than the one planned out for her.

    Immense torment I feel for those who lose them so young when, despite adolescent mentality, there is tremendous love and respect and words of guidance, words to hold on to from conversations, and in the written form. Offering no comfort to you nor I, to know that mine continues to thrive in his current earthly state, it’s heartening for me to read your words, dear George. In the end, we all become stories, and while far too brief, your father’s tale was what we all wish for in that man we call Dad.

    As always, with gratitude.

    X birdiegirl

  15. marcia svantesson

    That was the most beautiful tribute to your dad. Honestly, I cried, and that is a testament to what a great writer you are. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt and personal story of your relationship with your father. Wish the very best to you, George, in every way.

  16. nate alis

    Damn it george. You’ve made me a mess as my moms in the hospital and seems to have early dementia. You painted a picture so vivid, and perfectly written. Fuck you, George, I’m dying now, but that was beautiful….

  17. Karen John

    Thank you George. My wonderful dad ( Eardlie Thornton John Jr.),passed when I was 25. I’m 62. He was Fabulous! Sometimes,it is so hard to think of him,without shedding tears . Reading your Beautiful story made it possible for me to relive so many Great memories and for that , I really Thank You

  18. This is absolutely beautiful. I read this for the first time last year when you’d posted a link on Instagram and I had recently lost my dad. I found it comforting at the time, and still do. Thank you. These moments and experiences we share with family shape us, and while we don’t know each other, I can safely say your dad would be so proud of who you are.

  19. My dad died one month ago today. I made it out to see him in time and got to speak to him, made him laugh, he knew I was there for him. That was the last time he was conscious and he passed the next day. My mom passed in 2007. Now I start the work of finding my identity as an adult with no parents. He lived with my sister and, while I know there aren’t any hidden letters waiting for us to discover, there were a bunch of post-it notes with what I consider to be his last words, “Gone walking.”

  20. Deborah R Citron

    Oh George! Your father would be so very proud of you. I haven’t met you in person, but I just know your father would feel as if he’d been a great Dad. Thanks for this remembrance…you brought me back to similar memories. I lost my father to cancer when he just turned 48; I had just started graduate school in Cleveland. Going there, knowing Dad was terminal was difficult, but we had spent the summer together talking, talking and listening to music. It was a long time ago, but I still tear up thinking of my parents’ faces as they realized together the end was near.