Father Asbury used to play his guitar on Fridays during Religious Studies when I was in fourth grade. He’d strum with his fingers until they bled, while he led us singing “John Henry,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Church Bazaars in October always had Armenian folk music with driving Turkish and Arabic rhythms on oud, kanoun, doumbek, clarinet and guitar. Line dancing late into the night preceded the Sunday liturgy where I heard the choir sing arrangements of Komitas, the priest, musicologist and arranger of polyphonic melodies. Grace Cathedral in San Francisco was the sight of my grammar school. Its organ rocked my young soul. When the boys’ choir added their descant on the last verse of Christmas carols, I learned to believe in guardian angels.
When I was fifteen, my high school Latin teacher’s son died. He was six. Diagnosed with advanced stage neuroblastoma (a malignant spinal tumor) at 4 years old, chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant extended his life but could not save it. Our small class of Latin devotees attended his funeral in Berkeley, California. We heard our teacher say that his son was the best son that he could have ever had, that he would not trade one moment of his life for anything in the world. That he knew good would come out of it.
I felt like he had been speaking directly to me. “Go into medicine. Help children affected by serious illness and their families.” It was a voice that would recur after 9/11. “Move to New York. It is your destiny.” My concern had evolved into a calling to learn the cruel domino effect that happens when biology turns against us at an early age. New York City is the place where I completed my end-of-life care training and began my practice in pediatric hospice and palliative medicine.
The same voice speaks to me in the middle of the night after the Newtown Massacre. I try to alleviate hardship and suffering with my training, the person I have become and music. I remember in my pediatric residency meeting young boys with conduct disorder, anti-social behavior. Boys I worried would become young killers. For Newtown, our country and our world, I pray. Much like after 9/11, I pray that we not inflict more suffering on each other than this world already holds.