Thoughts From Six Feet Away: Requiem For a Friend
Before I get serious, allow me a random, amusing thought: the same people who used to gripe about my “Devil’s music” being too loud are the same ones who have phone conversations in public on speakerphone and wear portable speakers around their necks at the gym. Not headphones, but portable speakers. I guess I’m not ready for the “boom boxes” of the 21st century.
I’ve been involved in the medical field now for 27 years. During that time, I’ve learned to sublimate feelings surrounding death into a process of continual improvement. I’ve shoved so much grief into my subconscious that it’s safe to say that, at times, I’m an emotional dead space. And while my patients are near to my heart, and I care about them in a way that only their physician could, most of them are not part of my “inner circle.” In that regard, I’ve been fortunate – many of those who hold that distinction still enjoy a decent quality of life. But as is the case, the longer you float along the journey of life, the shakier that foundation becomes. It’s the natural progression of things; there is a time in your life where you’re constantly going to weddings, then baby showers. I am rapidly approaching the chapter where funerals will be an all-too-common occurrence.
Last week, I lost a friend.
When I met Wes Peters, he was a large man with a larger personality. From the time we met him, as a young couple moving to a new town, he embraced us like old friends. When our kids came along, he treated them like his own grandkids. We became part of his extended family, and many weekends were spent sharing laughs at the “Peters Party Palace.” Wes had been injured in a lawnmowing accident and lost the lower half of his left arm. He never allowed it to limit him, even in his role as a police officer, where the department was gracious enough to keep him on traffic detail. He was the kind of man that possessed an extraordinary amount of “common sense wisdom,” and he wasn’t afraid to let you know his opinion, not regurgitated ones from others. But the thing that struck me the most about Wes was that he was never afraid to admit that he wasn’t a perfect man. In fact, at a time in my life where I had made some mistakes and was immensely ashamed of showing my face in public, it was Wes who sat on my patio with me one Friday night, laying his soul bare before me and pointing out his own imperfections and regrets, showing me that the only shame is in letting our mistakes define us. He never stood in judgment of the times I had erred, and I extended him the same courtesy. He loved to tell stories over a good dinner, and he loved a good laugh. I will never forget how much he loved a certain apron that was surprisingly obscene in an innocent way. Even when he had bariatric surgery and lost a lot of weight, his personality was still larger than life.
When I speak of Wes, two stories illustrate the kind of man he was. First, during a conversation on safety, I remember asking Wes, “If someone is breaking into my house, who should I call?” Wes informed me that where we lived, I should contact the sheriff, then call him. After a moment of quiet contemplation, he looked at me and said, “Scratch that – call ME first, then call the sheriff. I’ll get there a hell of a lot faster.” Wes had a way of making you feel safe, and he was a man you could call in the middle of the night in trouble, and his only question would be, “Where are you?” Another time, I had noticed what I thought were some abnormally large mushrooms growing in my side yard. We had an acre of property, and it was a part of the yard I didn’t visit very often. As I got closer, I discovered that instead of mushrooms, there were three to four pumpkins growing. I then remembered that we had thrown our rotting jack-o-lanterns into that part of the yard last fall, and the remaining seeds had taken root. Wes had been mowing our yard at the time (yes, he still mowed yards even after the accident that claimed his arm), and I thought it was odd he hadn’t mentioned it. The next time he came to the house, I asked him if he had noticed the pumpkins. With an incredulous look, he responded, “Of course I noticed! I’ve been turning them for the past month to make sure they were fully round!” Although we didn’t speak as often after I left Logansport, Wes remained a special part of my life, and somehow my laughs won’t be as loud in the future. Rest easy, Pete.
Last year, I lost a friend.
If Wes was slapstick and rude humor, John was a British comedy. Subtle in his humor, he embraced life with a reckless abandon. He was a colleague and a friend, and he was my kids’ pediatrician. A man who came to medicine later in life, he practiced like he had been born to do it. As with most professions, you are drawn to people who make excellence look effortless. Kids loved him, but parents loved him even more. He projected compassion, and he imparted wisdom in ways his patients understood, literally. During well child visits, he talked to his patient – the child. Fairly often, John didn’t speak to a parent until he was done talking with the kid, a medical unicorn whose very pores oozed medicine. John’s kindness made it impossible for him to say no, and he was often overwhelmed when I saw him. Most souls like his are, but they never speak of their burdens.
John’s greatest escape was the bike, the kind you pedal. In warmer weather, he would bike the 9 miles to his office and back every day. He and I would always discuss riding, and our schedules never synced up to go riding but a time or two. I remember driving to his house one Saturday morning for a ride, and despite having to do hospital rounds earlier that morning, he looked invigorated by the idea of going for a ride. “How far we going today?” he asked me. I suggested twenty miles, and without a moment’s hesitation replied, “I know the way. Let’s go.” He was not the kind of cyclist that rode to show you how much better he was than you; he wanted you to enjoy the experience like he enjoyed it. We chatted about many things during that ride, and the things that stand out to me now are the things of which he was most proud – how he loved taking care of his patients, but even more, how much he loved his wife and his two daughters. They were the joy of his life, and it made the stress of his work worth it.
I’ll never forget the day I got a call from one of his colleagues last year, telling me that John had collapsed while riding his stationary bike the night before, never to regain consciousness. A feeling of numbness crept over me, denial coursing through my veins. Don’t they know he bikes to work every day? I asked myself, unwilling to accept that there would be no more rides. My friend was gone, my kids’ doc was gone, and there was nothing I could do about it but cry. I’m thankful that there’s a movement to endow a medical scholarship in his honor, and we celebrate his legacy each August with a bike event around the time of his birthday. I ride with his Peloton username on my crossbar, and I feel the same sense of calm and enjoyment that I had when we rode together. He would have been so proud of the event, and I owe it to him to carry on. I pray that I may be half as devoted to my patients and family as he was to his. I miss you, John.
A friend contacted me recently and asked when a good time to get together would be. My response has been the same since John died – any time. Spending time with those I care about has become a priority for me, and I’m willing to rearrange things about 95% of the time these days to share moments with my friends. I pray that the rest of you would do the same; as the recent country song reminds us, you can do all of these things, ‘til you can’t. The yard chores can wait. Time will prove that tasks that are seemingly important now are anything but. Hug your friends. Share a beverage. Hold your loved ones as long and as strong as you can. ‘Til you can’t. Be excellent to each other, and…