“Pax Tecum”: My Patient, My Friend

“Pax tecum.” I’ll never forget those two words. And the beaming face of the man who said them. At first, I saw him in clinic intermittently. However, as time went on and his illnesses compounded themselves, our visits became more regular. Quarterly, monthly, every two weeks and, sometimes, even twice in the same week. Infections. Heart Failure. Valve problems. Arterial aneurysms. Back pain. Dick had it all. Did he ever.

I first met Dick and Sharon when their physician of decades retired. Dick, gently bowed by age (in his mid-70s) and illness, was still imposing at his full 6’2″ stature and 250 pound frame. He looked the part of the aging quarterback with the charisma to match. Atop his broad shoulders sat a square jawed face, a grayish shock of hair and piercing (yet dancing) eyes under an intimidating brow. And his smile. His smile. Dick had that one-in-a-million smile. Puckish, mischievous, but always good-natured. That smile was always quick with a joke, an insightful quote or a quick question about my family. Among his first words to me were the witty, but wise advice relayed by their aged, retiring physician about how to approach me, their new doctor, “Go easy on him. Spoon-feed him. Don’t give it to him all at once.” Their doctor knew that understanding – really comprehending – all that went into Dick’s health story was the work of years, not hours. And it was not simply about understanding Dick’s medical problems, but about understanding Dick.

Month in and month out, I would see Dick on my appointment list and smile. I knew which room he was in as I walked down the hallway because this big man didn’t like to be enclosed in small quarters. His door was alway open. Invariably, he would be accompanied by his wife, Sharon. Sharon was and is a saint. A patient of mine as well, I have seen her tired, but never cross. She was with Dick through absolutely everything. Labs, imaging, office visits, ER visits, hospitalizations, surgeries, ICU stays can have there toll on anyone in the smallest of doses, but the quantity that Sharon went through with Dick was simply inconceivable. And yet, in the midst of these demands, Sharon was the epitome of loving composure. Without fail, Sharon always called me “Dear”, always asked about my daughters, always smiled and expressed deep gratitude for my care, even when I was helpless to change things.

Dick was a character. He had terrible edema (swelling) in his legs and had tan velcro based strap-on wraps worn from ankles to knees to compress the fluid. We joked that they had a certain Luke Skywalker look to them, especially when he wore them, unabashed, with shorts. He laughed heartily when the cardiothoracic surgeon who performed his valve surgery first glimpsed him wearing these wraps and simply asking, “What the hell are those?” Dick loved to golf and coached high school kids to state championships even as his health would fail. With some kidney issues, I advised him against using the painkiller, Celebrex. After golf season was over, he sheepishly (yet with impish grin) admitted to using Celebrex “from time to time”. He would call and talk with my assistant Holly, whom he and Sharon embraced as they did me, giving the update on the latest hospitalization (a fever of unknown origin, a fall, or a pneumonia). At the end of the call, he would proudly salute, “This is the ‘Iron Man’ signing off!” And the number of medical and rehab staff that knew and revered Dick is truly stunning. He would declare himself “King Richard”, give playful monikers to the various therapists, nurses and staff within his dominion. Without missing a beat, Sharon was quick to quip, “And here I am, King Richard. ‘Slave Sharon’!”. Little could keep this man down. According to his son, Dick’s philosophy was that “a setback is a setup for a comeback”. And, without doubt, he lived that way.

But this was, in part, because Dick was also a man of deep, deep faith. Irish and Catholic to his very core, he attended schools like Ascension and DeLaSalle. He planned on becoming a MaryKnoll priest, but left the seminary when he realized that his calling lay within the Church, but outside the priestly vocation. He went to daily Mass and was known to haunt innumerable funerals. When his lovely daughter Anne asked about what Eucharistic Adoration meant to him, she expected a deep and theological response. She received one.

“I just sit there and stare at God. And God stares back at me.”

He attended forty-four years of silent retreats at Demontreville (Jesuit) Retreat House and coordinated them for over two decades during Holy Week. He was a big proponent of my coming to a retreat, leaving wonderful, persuasive messages for my wife on my home phone. While I never made it to a retreat, we spent a day together with a tour, lunch and deep conversation with the incredible Father Stockl (sp?), a local legend in the priestly community. He and Dick knew each other well – exchanging good-natured barbs and smiles, all while I sat dazzled by the history and depth of the men before me. Dick loved the exuberance of life which he perceived as an unmatched gift from God. He read and quoted Chesterton and was known to recite Longfellow’s Psalm of Life,

TELL me not, in mournful numbers, 
        Life is but an empty dream ! — 
    For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
        And things are not what they seem.

    Life is real !   Life is earnest! 
        And the grave is not its goal ; 
    Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
        Was not spoken of the soul.

But time…and illness…would catch up with Dick. His gait became more unsteady so he needed a walker. His strength waned so he needed assistance standing up. His vision failed so he needed his wife and kids to read to him. I can say that I rarely, if ever, saw him without a smile. But more and more, I saw him wince. Dick was tiring.

And so one last illness would hobble Dick. As the hospitalization was ending, he transitioned to a local hospice instead of home. Surrounded by family and friends reading, singing, praying and simply being near, Dick would slip into God’s arms on February 28th. At his funeral today, his life was richly celebrated. Gorgeous music from a talented family, a wonderful homily peppered with friendly gibes, and warm family eulogies reminded us that this was a day of birth, not of death. Dick was now in the arms of God. And he is smiling that puckish smile. It is we who suffer his loss.

I will miss Dick. Dearly. Over the years I knew him, we talked about his health, but we also talked about life. And what life is all about. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about certainty of outcome. It’s about living your faith deeply every day in every circumstance. It’s about loving your family and friends unashamedly. It’s about smiling and ribbing and laughing. It isn’t always easy. But, honestly, there isn’t any other way. Dick showed me that. And for that I am deeply grateful. Deeply.

Pax tecum, my patient, my friend. Pax tecum. Peace be with you. Until we meet again.

Author’s Note: Express permission was granted to discuss some elements of Dick’s medical care from Sharon Barrett, Dick’s wife

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