An Unwitting Teacher and Hero

Dionne Gray
3 min readDec 16, 2021


Portrait photo of a young, smiling Black man.
My father, an unwitting teacher and hero.

At 12:15 p.m. on Sunday, December 16, 2018, my father died. I had spent the two days prior in the ICU while hoping he would recover from a massive stroke. His brain stem was so severely damaged that he could not breathe on his own and he was comatose.

My father and I were not close — in fact, I barely knew him. This would become even more obvious to me as doctors and nurses asked basic questions about his employment background, medical history, address, finances. I knew nothing. He was estranged from most of his family. He hurt people during his lifetime, but hurt people hurt people. Now, the man who had abandoned his loved ones lay abandoned on his deathbed.

Four Black teenage boys standing with arms folded, each wearing a shirt, long pants and tie.
My father, second from left in his high school uniform, told the most cerebral jokes (that most people never got), evidence of his brilliance.

But my father was one of my greatest teachers. Because of his actions, he taught me what it means to truly forgive someone, to accept them as they are, realizing that they may never change despite their best efforts. He taught me that sometimes people are incapable — not unwilling — of being their best selves. And most of all, he taught me empathy.

So although I didn’t have to, I chose to be with him. In that moment, he was no longer my father, but a human being getting ready to transition out of his body, and I didn’t think that he should do it alone just because he didn’t technically deserve it. So I chose not to abandon him.

Young Black man wearing a blue shirt standing next to a smiling Black woman wearing sunglasses.
My parents on their honeymoon in 1975. Look at those smoldering eyes!

Over three days, my sister — who couldn’t travel from her home in Europe in such a short time — and I were the only ones authorized to make decisions about his care as he slowly progressed towards brain death. His friends where he lived in Atlanta all had opinions about what we should do, his religious friends all heard different messages from God about what we shouldn’t do, and the rest of his family had no opinion at all. But no one offered to help with the mounting medical debt to keep him alive. No one thought about the quality of life he would have had if he survived — the 24-hour care for someone in a vegetative state, unable to move, breathe, think on his own.

By Friday, my father’s organs started shutting down. It was clear that he wasn’t going to make it. We had a tough decision to make. The man who had given me life now had his life in my hands. After much prayer and consultation, I signed the paperwork, and the nurses left me alone to have my final moments with my father.

A decorative object next to a gold photo frame with a photo of a Black man and his daughter.
This photo was taken in 2014, which was the first time I had seen my father in 10 years and the last time I would see him alive.

At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday December 16, 2018, about an hour after my father was taken off life support, his liver was flown to Louisiana where it would be transplanted into another person on the brink of death. Some of his tissue may have been used to save others, and he may also contribute to medical research.

My sister and I chose to bring meaning to my father’s life by allowing him to save others’ lives. So here’s to my father, unwitting teacher and hero.



Dionne Gray

I’m a storyteller who helps organizations communicate with employees. As a resume writer, I help people tell the story of who they are.