I had played the five-string banjo in just about every spare moment of my pre-medical education at U.C. Berkeley. Pete Seeger’s records were my main teacher. Deciphering the techniques in his How to Play the Five-String Banjo would always lead me to his home address inside the back cover. After many years of waffling, I wrote to him in 1994. My letter described the friends I had made playing the banjo. I included the cassettes I had recorded of mostly knock-offs of his songs with a few of my own, and I described playing and singing with children and families, a dream come true for me. To my surprise I received a postcard from Pete about one month later. It read: Dear John, Thank YOU! Pete. The card was marked with a stick figure of Pete picking the banjo and skid-daddling ahead of a cavalry of clock faced horsemen.
I next wrote to Pete in 2000 when I was applying for pediatric palliative care fellowship. I had interviewed at Memorial Sloan Kettering and was about to return to the east coast for an interview at Boston Children’s. In the letter I told him of my dream to care for children and families at their most vulnerable and wondered if he would talk on the phone with me. My mom called me a couple of weeks later and said ,”Pete Seeger left you a message on our answering machine!” His warm and deep voice stayed there for years: “This is Pete Seeger calling for John. I’d be happy to talk to you. My phone number is…” During our conversation, I told Pete about a discouraging exchange that occurred during my interview for the palliative care fellowship at Memorial. The Vice-Chair in the Department of Pediatrics said to me, “Why would a bright young man like you want to go into pediatric palliative care? Do you know how depressing this work is? Do you know how much it wears on me? Don’t you think you are going to burn out?” There was a long pause after I finished speaking. Pete said, “Back when I was in the service, we had a baby boy. He was born without a gall bladder. He died at six months of age. My father, Charles, wrote to me after he died. He said ‘Pete, when something good comes into this world, it doesn’t matter how long it lasts, how big or small it is. If it’s good, it leaves the world a better place.'” I had read just about everything about Pete Seeger over the previous ten years. I never knew that he was a bereaved parent. And he was right there with me, a stranger, sharing the most personal and painful of times in his life.
I shared the story with hardly anyone. But it came to mind in the presence of a new mom during a pediatric palliative care consultation years later. She aspired to be a writer and grappled with what her life would hold after her infant son died. She asked me, “How will I live after my baby dies? How will I ever write again? How will I have more babies? How will I be able to go on?” I told her the story Pete had shared with me. She said, “Pete Seeger told you that?” Yes. “And that’s what happened to him?” Yes. “And he became Pete Seeger?” And I said, yes he became Pete Seeger. “And look what he has done for the world.” And I said, Yes, look what he has done for the world.