THE BLOG
06/05/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Dr. Peter Sheehan: A Physician's Farewell

The news comes as it often does- broadside one weekday afternoon. The smartphone lights up with a familiar name, my smiling vanishing when I read the Sheehan who has messaged me is not my friend Peter, but his son whom I am soon for the first time to meet. And like that, in a moment, everything changes. My time with Peter ends.

Calling our ever-decreasing circle, the physicians who have shared ranks with me for decades, I dispense the sorrow. We are knit closer by each death that we commemorate and we have learned what they don't tell you when you are younger: real friends are those with whom you mourn.

As I deliver the news in small doses, we each minister to our own patients. Messages of mourning are left with secretaries, on voicemails, with answering services. Quickly, we shelve our sorrow in private corners as we attend the patients in our immediate charge- their steady ebb and flow the metronome of a physician's life.

Entering the consult room, my smile abandons me as my patient extends the pleasantries of a routine visit. I just can't muster it. How hard it is to hide our sorrows from our obligations. Briefly, I wonder how often Peter must have concealed his.

Driving home, at last I allow my memory to focus. I see sunlit afternoons. I am younger, shorthaired, as I scribble into a chart. It is a bygone era when time moved more gently, when conversations could be finished, when emails didn't interrupt a train of thought. I am writing orders in long hand as I hear the familiar lollop. Turning to confirm my suspicion, I see Peter (Dr. Sheehan to me then). He greets me. His smile ignites the sun.

Always with a laugh and a twinkle, Peter helps me with our patients as we tinker with their diabetes or meddle with a thyroid. We minister to ragged feet, liberally sprinkling our patients with hope that a digit might be saved, an amputation staved. Throughout, Peter paces our rounds with his leisurely cadence and laconic speech. He lavished on his students and patients his kindness and generosity, the softness of a voice never raised, a pause for a fine anecdote, cultural reference, sometimes even a saunter into the history of medicine- everything could always wait while we made these delicious excursions through his intellect.

Never rushed, his laughter bubbled like an Irish brook, spilling into the hushed corridors of medicine practiced with a capital M. Though Yale trained, and classically educated, Peter showed everyone the same level of respect, whether we be sapling students, everyman patient, or the most acclaimed colleague. All were his equals, a reflection of his integrity.

I can see him now. Blazer and slacks, an old college tie curiously British on an American, a cup of coffee in his right hand. We spent four years like this sharing patients together at the very beginning of my New York City medical career, a much-loved fixture of my Staten Island University Hospital days. Though the time seemed endless then, I wouldn't realize how much I would miss Peter until three continents, fifteen years and several jobs later I found myself relocated to New York City.

And just like that, he reentered my orbit. Someone, somewhere, mentioned 'Peter Sheehan' and at once he returned to life in my memory. My curiosity piqued, within a day I had found him, now living only a few blocks from me. Two excited phone calls and an email later, we were seated for a late lunch. How good life could sometimes be!

It was a steaming summer day and as I arrived to the Atlantic Grill. Treading carefully not to slip on the cherry wood floor, I spied Peter, sweltering, yet strangely crisp in his archetypal seersucker. Few men can carry off seersucker, but Peter did so better than the best.

Finding my gaze as I approached, his twinkling smile returned. Soon, the witticisms and ribbing began and I found myself less an Associate Professor and once more an intern of medicine beguiled by her engaging teacher.

His voice was unchanged: always throaty, often leaving me wishing Peter would either spit or swallow. But somehow here on the brink of mirth he lived, suspended mid-anecdote, never pausing to clear his throat. Now we recounted memories and details of mutual friends. We talked of medicine and America and how much the world had changed and how much we each remained the same. For a while we remained like this, enjoying the tide of nostalgia lapping at our feet. Peter talked excitedly about his children and his wife. Being so close by, of course we would meet, of course we could dine, we both assured one another. Ending the serendipitous afternoon which Peter said made life good, we separated to our own weekends in the Upper East Side.

Over the years that followed, we met a number of times. Now that we had found each other, ours was the luxury of email and phone tag, lunches and dinners and even some professional collaboration. Both of us had busy careers, his in consulting, mine of my own practice with residents and students of my own. In between, we both traveled for yet more medicine-related activities.

Thus our friendship puttered against the background of our frenetic New York lives. Coordinating for dinner, I told Peter I would meet him 'after Paris'. 'Bon Voyage', he messaged back, advising me to visit the medical museum at Faculty de Medecine University Paris Descartes if you had "an hour or two to spare'. 'It's on the Left Bank on Rue de L'Ecole De Medecine- a very humbling and poignant experience for a physician,' wrote Peter. Always providing me direction and inspiration.

But New York life exacts an inexorable pace. The excitement of finding Peter again faded against the demands on my time. We had one last meeting with a group of colleagues and always intended to get together again, but intentions aren't always enough.

When I hang up the phone with Patrick, whom I learned in our sad talk was Peter's youngest, I search through my emails for our last communication. It had been almost two years - when I had last advised Peter 'of course I would arrange to meet' for dinner. Alas, I didn't follow through. Struck by how easily a beautiful friend had escaped me, how careless I had been - like dropping a jewel in the dust, I felt the loss anew: the loss of good times squandered, and a gentle friend neglected. I hadn't made time for one who made time for me.

I am at the wake. In the elevator, gauche visitors, far too festive, squeal with delight at finding each other attending an alternate wake. Relieved to find none of them were Peter's friends, my faith in the world is restored when leaving them, I exit to level three.

For a moment, I pause, uncertain where to go, what to do. Immobilized, I glance sideways to see a display - Peter's last article. Someone has placed it on an easel and from the article I see Peter's image. He looks much as I last saw him with that same, inimitable smile. I begin to read the publication, soon to sad to continue as I realize this is the last time Peter will teach me.

A new sorrow occupies me as I don't find my fellow physician colleagues visiting. I am the only one from those years on Staten Island, a strange discovery. In our light hearted amblings of his lifetime, I hadn't realized Peter would move me so in death. Somehow his sweetness and sincerity had separated me from my classmates that evening as I embarked on the search that it is to say goodbye to one valued, one who had impact on my person, one who crafted my medicine.

Ending my dilemma, an elegant woman approached. Immediately, she guessed my name, though we had never prior met. Of course she knew who I was, she remonstrated as I discovered Peter had talked of me often to his wife Nadege. In her sorrow, she lead me to her fold. There I met Peter's siblings, his offspring, his aunts and uncles, all of whom shared his twinkling eye, his easy laugh, his rangy frame. In their similarities and special warmth, these strangers surrounded me in friendship. In their presence, Peter's absence grew larger still.

I described my memories of the physician teacher I had known. As they listened, I kept to myself my private iconic memory of Peter- his blue and white seersucker suits. Too vivid a memory to disclose, I was afraid it might trigger my own tears. Yet I was enthralled by how clearly I could see Peter in that moment when I had found him again, my neighbor, in those blue and white stripes as he nursed his drink .

As I settle into a sofa, I learn of a sudden illness overseas, the last speech given, the concerned colleagues, the ambulance, the short stay in a Jamaican hospital and the peaceful departure that was Peter's destiny as he escaped us in his sleep.

It was only after that I allowed myself the discovery that Peter's body was with us, in the room. Somehow, with the large Irish American family that was Peter's clan, the stories of levity and sorrow which we were exchanging, the casket had escaped my gaze, until Peter's college friend, himself a physician and like Peter, a Catholic, directed me, explaining, if I liked, I could kneel and say a prayer.

I couldn't resist visiting my friend a final time. I moved to the side of the room where I noticed the crowd had given way, as people spent some private moments with Peter in prayer.

Against the creamy billow, Peter's hair was exactly as I remembered: windswept, mostly black, eternally wavy. I couldn't help smiling. Even in death Peter remained boyish. In this new stillness, Peter's animation newly inhabited my every memory. But it was when I looked away from his face, that my eyes filled with tears - Peter was dressed in that very seersucker suit.

It was just as well starched, just as sharply pressed as the day we had reunited closing the decades between our chuckles and smirks, between his instructions and my learning. A pin of the American Diabetic Association graced his lapel, an institution for which he had worked lifelong, and a United Nations emblem twinkled nearby, where he had met his beloved wife.

I studied the stripes growing cloudy in my salty gaze. I felt inexplicably glad in my sadness that his family knew him so, to have dressed him in his favorite suit on his final journey. I knew Peter would have thought that it simply splendid- I could almost hear Peter wisecracking, clapping, then rubbing his hands in glee "To go to one's Maker in Seersucker Qanta, now that's the spirit!"

Finding the railing, I kneeled and recited the Surah Fateha, the Muslim's Lords Prayer, the Islamic Shema. I looked at Peter's busy hands made still, his wavy hair no longer wind-strewn, his seersucker crisp and cool, his complexion which no longer glowed.

In those moments alone with my gentle teacher, my kind friend, I learned Peter's final lesson. However dark it now feels here, where Peter goes, there will always be sun. His seersucker will serve him well, I think to myself, and we can each remember him gladly, seersucker clad, legs crossed, throat chuckling, in the golden light of long afternoons and low, slow sunsets.

Keep blazing, my friend, I have been thinking of late, keep blazing in your blue and white finery, in your crisp Southern creases, and always, we say to you dear Peter, keep us each for ever in your golden, gorgeous beam.