Gage Pacesky jumped from picnic table to picnic table and said in a clear, loud voice “Dad, watch this!” His father, Justin Pacesky eyed his oldest son and shot him a look of warning. Nestled in the crook of his arm was his newborn son, Spencer. Justin Pacesky quickly responded, “Let’s not do that.”
A little while later, the father and his older son chased each other around a playground within walking distance of their Flowery Branch home. Spencer, 3 months old, is safely strapped into the baby carrier a short distance away.
To the average person, the playful scene between Pacesky and his 6-year-old seemed to be a typical father-son moment. But these moments for the trio are routine. Pacesky is now a single father.
The 30-year-old Flowery Branch man lost his wife, Ashley, on April 4 to congenital heart disease, less than month after she gave birth. Now Pacesky is raising Spencer with the help of family and Gage, his son from a previous relationship. Gage spends weeks at a time with his father in the summer and every other weekend during the school year.
When Pacesky cares for both boys, he explained he lets his oldest son choose their daily activities.
“I like to give him a lot of options and I have ever since he was little,” Pacesky said.
The father of two explained adults have to make a lot of decisions, but he has met many young adults who cannot seem to make a single one. Therefore, he is teaching his son to make a choice simply by giving him options. Some options are staples in the Pacesky household.
“I’m a musician, so I am trying to teach him,” said Pacesky, who plays the guitar. “I got (Gage) a little drum set.”
Spencer, who was born March 13, is too young to learn an instrument, but Pacesky has one already in mind for him.
“He’s going to be my piano player,” he said as he gently touched and spread out his newborn’s hands. “Look at these fingers.”
In fact, musical hour is a typical activity. Others include playing Legos on the floor with Gage or reading a book with both of his boys.
“I will have (Gage) read to me,” Pacesky said. “And I just took him fishing for the first time recently.”
With his sons, time matters most.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or what you can give them, time is what they need,” he said.
So in between his two jobs — one as grill cook at OO Cafe inside the Hall County Government Center and one as a server at IHOP in Buford — he enjoys the quality time with his boys. It is what Ashley would want.
“The funny thing was, Ashley didn’t want children. At least, that’s what she said when she was (younger),” Pacesky said with a quirky smile as his eyes drifted away as if looking at a memory.
Pacesky met Ashley on a chance encounter in July 2011 in Flowery Branch. The couple married more than a year later. During their time together, Ashley apparently changed her mind about having children.
“We both wanted (Spencer),” Pacesky said. “And I really wanted to give her that baby.”
The pair were ecstatic when they learned they were having a child in the late summer of 2013.
“He and Ashley were very happy,” said Dannella Burnett, who is Pacesky’s boss at OO Cafe in Gainesville. “They were thrilled and over the moon.”
Then complications arose during Ashley’s pregnancy. She was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, a disorder that occurs during pregnancy and is characterized by high blood pressure and presence of protein in the urine.
“She was having problems and complications, so Justin wouldn’t let her work,” said Amy Slabiak, one of Pacesky’s sisters. “So he was working two jobs.”
Pacesky worked at the OO Cafe in the Hall County Government Center every day in the morning and afternoon and at the Buford IHOP on Wednesday nights and every other weekend. Then he picked up a third job repossessing cars at night.
“He picked up extra shifts just to prepare for the additional expenses of a new baby,” Burnett said. “That level of responsibility you don’t often see in an employee and a young dad.”
His level of commitment then met its ultimate test.
After her 31st birthday on March 16, Ashley experienced chest pains. She called her sister and was taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center. She was taken to a heart catheter lab and it was determined she had congenital heart problems.
When it appeared Ashley’s condition was improving, the hospital started to move her into her own room.
“And she collapsed on me,” Justin said with downturned eyes. “We had breakfast that morning, and it was the last time I talked to her and she talked back to me.”
Ashley was rushed to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and Pacesky was told his wife needed a heart transplant. But then doctors decided to repair her heart instead.
“She had two surgeries down there (at Piedmont),” he said. “Then they let her rest up for a week following surgery.”
However, Ashley succumbed to her condition April 4, leaving her family to grieve and Pacesky with the task of raising Spencer alone.
“It was a shock,” Slabiak said. “At one point in the hospital after her first surgery, we were told she was going to be OK. Then all of a sudden she was transported to Piedmont and she was not going to be OK. It was really hard.”
Following Ashley’s death, Pacesky’s family and her family circled around the newly single father to provide support. They epitomized the saying “it takes a village to raise a family.”
Slabiak cared for Spencer immediately following Ashley’s death while Pacesky dealt with his grief. The 42-year-old woman, who has three daughters, said her family just absorbed Spencer, Gage and Pacesky into their family.
“It felt natural for me. My mom was the same way,” Slabiak said. “Anytime anybody needed anything she was always there. No one would go hungry or go without a place to stay. It just came natural to me.”
Her daughters also view Spencer and Gage more like brothers than cousins.
“When Justin came over the other day, Spencer fell asleep,” she said. “So when he got up to leave and take him home, my daughter said ‘You have to leave him here. You can’t go home.’”
The connection to family also extends to Ashley’s family. Pacesky makes sure Spencer spends time with Ashley’s father and her sisters as well.
“Her sister keeps him, too,” Slabiak said. “We’ve had to adapt, but that baby has a lot of love.”
Pacesky attributed his ability to handle his new responsibilities to Slabiak, his other sisters and Ashley’s family.
“They help out a lot,” he said.
With Slabiak agreeing to keep Spencer, Pacesky returned to his job as grill cook at OO Cafe. He was out of work for a few weeks following Ashley’s death, leaving him without an income for several weeks.
Many of his co-workers, friends and one of his bosses collected donations to help Pacesky. They admit they don’t know how they would handle such a tragedy. But all agree Pacesky has handled it with courage, perseverance and an immovable faith.
“He is just one of those good guys,” said Burnett, owner of OO Cafe. “He has a strong faith and is very dependable. He is the kind of employee and friend you want to have.”
Burnett said she has not noticed a change in his attitude since the tragedy. He is just as courteous, generous and hospitable to the customers at the cafe.
Lisa Ritchie started working in the Hall County Government Center following Ashley’s death. Ritchie said she wasn’t sure what to expect from Pacesky after hearing about his tragedy.
“He was friendly and nice,” she said, noting he quickly gave her the nickname “Precious.”
“He’s friendly and makes you feel at home.”
For Pacesky, returning to work allowed him to forget about reality.
“Work is my escape,” he said as he counted the money in the register at the cafe. “I can put on a mask here and be a clown and not deal with the reality.”
However, the reality of his loss does creep in, but he deals with it in stride.
Ritchie observed that firsthand. She saw one of the new employees at the cafe talk about the loss of a family member to Pacesky recently. She was impressed by his response.
“I really thought Justin would lose it,” she said. “But he just kept listening.”
Pacesky said talking about Ashley helps him deal with the grief. In fact, the father recently got a tattoo on his right forearm in memory of her.
The tattoo is a picture of Maleficent, the Disney character in “Sleeping Beauty.”
“It was Ashley’s favorite,” he said as he lovingly brushed the tattoo with his fingers.
Nestled near Maleficent are lilies, Ashley’s favorite flowers. Encompassing the whole tattoo is a heart, signifying her heart condition.
The unique piece of body art acts as an icebreaker to talk to people about her.
“It helps to talk about it, even if I cry,” he said. “It helps me to remember her.”
And memories are precious to Justin. He admitted knowing Spencer will never know his mother is the hardest thing. But he is going to give Spencer as much of her as he can.
“I’ve kept a lot of her things,” he said. “And I don’t think I will ever let him call someone else ‘mom’ if I’m lucky enough to find someone else.”
Explaining the loss of his mother when Spencer gets older is something he is prepared to do. He faced the task head-on with Gage.
“I don't remember sugarcoating it,” he said. “I told him she wasn’t going to be with us anymore. She would be in heaven with Grandma.”
His sons are also the reason Pacesky is able to get up in the morning and function.
“They are my reason for going on.”
For this new single father, the hardest part is doing stuff alone with the kids. But the best part is “the love and feeling loved.”