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Dr. Sullivan remembered for his many gifts

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Dr. Roger Sullivan, an internist and resident of Massena, since 1989, died at home Aug. 25, 2013, following a three-year battle with cancer. He was 61.

The courage Roger demonstrated over the last three years surprised none of the many friends who gathered at the Village Inn Restaurant in Massenarecently to pay tribute to him.

The following is one of those tributes, from the perspective of his older sister, Carla Sullivan Reilly of Green River, Wyoming.

——

Gifts

The last time I was here, I packed three days’ worth of sandwiches for the trip.

“Packed” might be the wrong word. I stuffed three days’ worth of sandwiches into a plastic grocery bag, and drove. “Two days to two months” was the refrain in all of our heads then.

When I went home, I carried my sandwiches in a refrigerated red and gray carryall. I didn’t buy it, and I didn’t ask for it. Roger just saw what I needed, and he did something about it.

I think it was for my 11th birthday that he bought me something similar. I liked to draw when I was a little girl, and he bought me a wooden pencil set, with a number of sharpened pencils and a rubber eraser inside.

It looked, in every way, like the carryall, though of course much smaller, and like Roger himself: serious, thoughtful, and very, very careful, in the most literal sense of that word, and at the time it made me sad, maybe because our growing up years were not all that orderly, there being not that much money in our home, and so many of us – five – and all of us so close in age.

On that birthday, my brother Gordon bought me a bag of See’s candy, the best candy in the world, which didn’t make me sad at all. I think he and I are more alike in our approach to life than Roger and I were; Gordon used to arrive from the California town where he was living then to our mom’s apartment in San Francisco carrying his change, his keys, his shaving cream, and his razor in a large wooden salad bowl.

My sister, Val, probably bought me my favorite present that year, though I no longer remember what it was, because she and I have almost always been good at getting just the right something for each other.

But it was Roger’s gift that somehow spoke to my heart, which I guess even then was an Irish heart, though not as Irish then as it is on this occasion, the occasion of his passing.

I’m remembering the cat we had then, a tiny female we called Kit Kit. She gifted us once with six kittens; in fact she gifted us in person since, being so young, and this being her first litter, she rejected the box my mom had fixed up for her, and insisted on having her kittens on an upholstered footstool in the living room, with all of us, and our parents, looking on.

Roger chose for his own the black kitten, since, of course, we were all always choosing something for our own, even television channels. He called his kitten Inky. I still think that is the best name for a black kitten I have ever heard.

But about those television channels. I chose Channel 4, because I also liked horses then, and this was the channel my favorite TV show was on. My favorite TV show was called “Fury,” about a beautiful black horse, and I could not tell you today how the producers managed to fill half an hour every Saturday morning with this horse’s adventures.

What I do remember, however, is that “Fury” ran directly opposite another show called “Mighty Mouse.” I think on Channel 7, which would have made Channel 7 Roger’s channel, since “Mighty Mouse” was his favorite TV show, along with, on Friday nights, “Man and the Challenge.”

The long and the short of all this is that, with respect to Saturday morning TV, our dad was very fair, and made me take turns with Roger, so every other weekend I was forced to endure Mighty Mouse’s exploits. He was a flying mouse, a mouse with a cape, somewhat along the lines of Super Man, and today I am thinking that this ridiculous premise probably gave rise to more interesting plots than poor old pretty Fury did.

But I don’t know. I remember better the movie Call Me Bwana, with Bob Hope, that Roger and I saw together one afternoon. Somehow Roger had come into a dollar or so, and we walked down to the Grand Theater, in Oakland, Calif.a, across the bay from San Francisco, and six or seven blocks from where we lived, and watched it, Roger howling with laughter, then walked home again.

Then there was the day we went Christmas shopping together, or tried to. Getting down to Grand Avenue, three blocks from our home in Piedmont, at 221 Palm Drive – a street lined with palm trees – involved passing the home of a very mean white Chow Chow named Snowball. I was always nervous when I passed this house, though nothing bad had ever happened to me there before.

This was about to change.

I remember I was carrying my money in an old cold cream box of my mother’s. I don’t remember how Roger was carrying his, though by that time he may have acquired a wallet. What I do remember is that Snowball came bursting out of his front yard and rushed toward us, growling, barking, the hair on his back on end. I don’t know how far he followed us, because I was entirely focused on getting my legs to move faster than they ever had before, and entirely silent in this endeavor; I am pretty sure I dropped the cold cream box, or at least most of the quarters in it, along the way.

But Roger always had energy to burn. He not only managed to keep pace with me, he also managed to shriek, non stop, at the top of his lungs, and pausing only long enough between shouts to draw his next breath, as we passed Robbie’s house, the Conover house, the Cullum house, Ivan’s house, the Harris house, the Barton house, my best friend Eva’s house, shattering everybody else’s Currier and Ives, twelve days of Christmas morning, until we finally made it home.

Maybe the shrieking stopped by the time we reached the Conover’s house, since by that time Snowball would have lost interest. Or maybe the shrieking never happened at all: this is another thing I forgot to ask Rog about, these last two and a half years. But I remember it that way – Roger was never shy about his feelings – and what I remember still makes me laugh.

He could be very insistent. I also liked to read when I was a little girl and, along with drawing, favored this activity over any other. Roger is the reason I also know what it is like to play Red Rover with all the kids on the block until the sky is darkening and your mom is starting to call for you to come in, because when it came to whether I would keep reading my book after dinner, or go outside to play, he was having none of it, jeering at me mercilessly – “Queen Bee! Queen Bee!” – until I finally agreed to come outside.

Roger is the reason for a lot of the things in my life, or anyway a sort of beacon for the kind of person I wanted to become. This is also true of my other brothers, Gordon and David, my sister Valerie, and, of course, my mother and father, but somehow the characteristics I knew Roger to possess have spoken very deeply to me.

When I was at the Public Defender’s Office in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and faced with challenges that were very frightening to me, since I happen at heart not to like combat at all and since I also happen to prefer winning to losing, he would remind me, “You are fighting the good fight.

I have my own law practice now, and in the last lucid exchange I had with him, several weeks ago, I told him I had just gotten three new clients. I remember him replying thoughtfully, and with deepening satisfaction, “Good...good.” In a very different context, I remember him telling me once, “I’m in your corner.” And he almost always was, even when my corner was a pretty long-winded and tiresome place to be.

Three things happened to me in my early 20s. I ran across the Bill of Rights, I ran across a movie called “A Man for All Seasons,” and I ran across the obedience to authority paradigm, an experiment by a social psychologist named Stanley Milgram that attempted to measure our human ability to say no to what is evil or inhumane.

The Bill of Rights you already know about. “A Man for All Seasons” was a movie about Sir Thomas More, who went to the guillotine for refusing to bless Henry the Eighth’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and if you haven’t seen it, you should, because along with “Glory” – one of Roger’s favorites, and one of mine, too – this is as perfect an on-screen depiction of moral courage as you are ever likely to see.

Stanley Milgram’s experiment went as follows. He set up two rooms. In one room sat another scientist, Milgram’s confederate, hooked up to an electro-shock generator, a generator with the apparent ability to deliver shocks of up to 450 volts.

In the other room sat Milgram’s subjects, each of them in turn, along with another scientist and Milgram confederate. Each subject was told that he or she was participating in a learning experiment. By delivering steadily stronger shocks to the “learner” on the other side of the wall, each subject would assist the scientist who was in the room with them to measure how quickly people learned in response to negative reinforcement, i.e., in response to stronger and stronger shocks.

In reality the electro-shock generator was not delivering any shocks at all, and the banging on the wall each subject heard when what they believed to be the voltage level got up to 300 volts was a prerecorded audio tape. What Milgram was actually measuring was what people would do if put in a situation where they were told by an authority figure to perform acts that conflicted with their own understanding of right and wrong, or with their innate desire not to hurt another human being.

And what Milgram learned was that, in response to verbal prods from the scientist, i.e., authority figure who was in the room with them, prods like “Please continue,” “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and “You have no other choice, you must continue,” 65 percent of subjects took the voltage of the shocks they believed themselves to be administering to the highest level, 450 volts, even though somewhere along the way, the supposed banging on the wall ceased, and even though, when this happened, almost all of the subjects wanted to check on the well-being of the person on the other side of the wall, while also displaying considerable distress themselves, sweating, trembling, stuttering, picking at their clothes, laughing nervously, and biting their lips.

Roger and I talked about this experiment once, and like many scientists he was of the opinion that it was unethical, abusive, and very possibly damaging to “inflict insight” on others in this manner, i.e, on these subjects, who ultimately understood what they had chosen, or not chosen, to do. He may have been right.

But, in my early 20s, that was not the effect reading about this experiment had on me. The effect reading about this experiment had on me was to cause me to wonder if I would be one of much smaller number of individuals – the 35 percent – who refused to obey an immoral order.

And my next thought was, “Roger would be. Roger would be.”

Roger almost always understood what mattered and what did not. He laughed about this, referencing Occam’s Razor, i.e., proceed to simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power; but it was really much more than that.

Back in California, when I first started to practice law, I was called upon to defend a client in a mediation/settlement conference. The mediator was from Marin County, a wealthy enclave north of San Francisco, and he was looking to gain another notch in his belt by achieving a settlement. I was the only woman in a room of nine men, all of whom, unlike me, enjoyed allegiance with at least one of the other lawyers present.

So, of course, I became this mediator’s target, and toward the end of the session, he said something to me, I don’t remember what, that hit below the belt – and I don’t use this term casually – and that separated me from everyone else in the room.

In a way, I wasn’t all that alone, because one of my adversaries had also become something of a friend, and I remember sensing him, to my left, leaning forward quickly when the mediator got cute with me. As it turned out, however, I didn’t need his help, because in that instant, as sometimes happens to me, I channeled my very tough dad, and hit back with something I also no longer recall, although I know it was also below the belt, and that it got the job done. No settlement resulted from that meeting.

Only later, that evening, I felt so sad, and I did not know why. I went home, I ate my dinner, I went to bed, and I woke up again at 2 a.m., still sad, and by then, confused, too; and I guess it was about 5:30 a.m., his time, when I called Roger, and told him everything that had happened at the settlement conference, and how strange and sad I felt.

And what he didn’t say to me was, “Carla, don’t you think you should go back to teaching?” and what he certainly didn’t say to me was, “Carla, that was really a very inappropriate thing to say.”

He paused, and then what he said to me was this: “That’s the same way I felt, the first time I hit a guy in the face.” He told me he was 11 or 12 years old when this happened.

I don’t suppose I am ever going to experience what it’s like to hit a guy in the face. But for most of my life it has been important to me to experience the world as it really is, not from a gilded cage. When we were much younger, Roger did not hold much truck with this goal, telling me, with some disgust, “Carla, it’s not that great.”

But when the moment was right, my brother welcomed me to the world that, by nature, he himself already inhabited, while also advising me of the costs of what I had chosen. He calmed me, he validated me, and – I do remember this – he laughed at whatever it was I had said to that guy, which, since I was channeling my dad, I feel sure was completely inappropriate and also exactly right.

Roger took to sending me $50 every Christmas once he was on the road to greater prosperity himself, until I told him that I was actually kind of envious of the Harrington ham he sent to Val and her family every year.

I told him that getting a ham would make me feel more prosperous, too, and since then I have eaten a lot of the best ham in the world, a lot of white bean and ham bone soup, which both of us loved, and last Christmas, a smoked duck, which I was curious about. Knowing this, Roger sent me one, along with the ham.

Maybe the happiest I have ever seen him was on Christmas Day, 1987. He was in Camden, N.Y., then, two years before he settled in Massena.

I had just divorced my husband and had called Roger to ask him if I could come out for the holidays. He agreed, although I think he was surprised, since we were all still a little competitive then, or anyway I was. I think he thought he would have been the last of my siblings with whom I would have chosen to spend those painful days

On Christmas Day, he was working in an emergency room, and in the late afternoon I went up to visit him there. I remember he was talking intently to a nurse. He looked up, his eyes cleared, and he grinned at me.

He looked happy to see me and he looked happy in his work, bemused, and utterly absorbed. A scoop of mashed potatoes, gravy, and turkey sat on a table near him, untouched. It had been there for two hours, he told me later; but Roger’s mind was elsewhere.

He sent me home with a tape that had three tunes on it, although the only one I still remember is the British Airways song, “Flower Duet.” And maybe this is how it should be, because the way that song sounds is the way I feel about who Roger was.

I do not think that Roger feared death. He was a courageous person, a quality that, in him, somehow coexisted with an incomparable sweetness of heart. Inky. And baby chicks, which when he was little he also loved.

If there is a heaven, I know my brother is in it. And if there are angels, I know he is in my corner still. I want to thank every member of this community for how long and how dearly you have loved my brother.

Peace be with Roger and with all of us. Or better, for Roger, and for all of us, energy ongoing, and time upon time.

——

Dr. Roger Sullivan, an internist and a resident of Massena ince 1989, died at home August 25, 2013, following a three year battle with cancer. He was 61.

The courage Roger demonstrated over the last three years surprised none of the many friends he leaves behind, or the family members who remember a five or six year old boy who once took apart a wristwatch and put it back together again, because a watch that didn’t run made no sense to Roger.

The watch ran, and Roger continued to shape the world around him, defending, 20 later, the $600 Rolex he had acquired through construction work with a calculated risk. By then a medical student, and cornered on a dark St. Louis street by a gun-wielding stranger, Roger noticed his assailant’s hand was shaking. He waited, successfully, for the right moment to spring forward, and knocked the stranger over. The Rolex was still on his wrist 30 years later.

That was Roger, possessed of the ability to keep a cool head, to act on his own assessments, and to exhibit, as he did so, toughness, humor, and, for those who knew him best, an all surpassing sweetness of heart.

Roger Sullivan was born on October 28, 1951, 55 minutes after his twin brother, Gordon. He attended grade school at Wildwood Elementary School, in Piedmont, California, across the bay from San Francisco. Science was his favorite subject; “Mighty Mouse” and “Man and the Challenge” his favorite television shows. He was a fast runner, and a child of such abundant energy and excitement that, one Christmas Eve, his mother ended up dosing him with aspirin to ensure he got at least a few hours of sleep.

This remedy lasted until 3 a.m., whereupon both parents finally conceded that it was time for their five children to open their Christmas presents, and dive into the ribbon candy.

As for Roger, he never slowed down, graduating from North High School, in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1970, following three years in the Washington D.C. area, and one year overseas, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Roger attended two years of college at York University, in Toronto, Canada, where he studied Anthropology, served for one year as a VISTA Volunteer on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, and graduated from North Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology, by which time he had determined that he wanted to become a doctor.

Over this period of time, too, Roger acquired a yogurt maker, because the commercial varieties were not to his liking and, since he was similarly ill-disposed to polyester, disciplined himself to hang his blue cotton work shirts and smooth and fold his blue jeans and chinos the instant they emerged from the dryer.

Roger attended two years of medical school at the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, transferred to Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, Missouri, and completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Waterbury Hospital, a Yale affiliate, in 1987, the same year he became board-certified in Internal Medicine.

He worked as a clinic physician for two years in Camden, then moved to Massena, where he established his own practice in 1989, and also acquired the nickname “Sully,” a nickname he shared with his paternal grandfather.

Despite having achieved his own American dream, Roger never lost his belief, born of his father’s working class roots, that one man is as good as another until he proves himself otherwise. Roger put this conviction to work in his medical practice, where his patients, regardless of their ability to pay, were the beneficiaries of what his brother Gordon once described as “a trained mind,, coupled with a far less common ability to think for himself, and to make the diagnoses other able physicians missed.

This ability brought Roger region-wide notice and recognition, and it is a matter of comfort to those closest to him that, in his last days, Roger was still posing such problems to himself, and still reasoning through alternative solutions, to reach that one right fit.

He chose work he loved, he excelled at it, and he himself faced death with equanimity and grace, because he regarded his passing as an opportunity to relieve those closest to him of some measure of the grief and sadness to come.

He was a protective and loyal brother, and a generous friend, who liked to host parties and to cook, no-nonsense style, for upwards to a dozen and a half people at a time, turning out perfect Eggs Benedict with the timing and precision of...well, a fine watch; attending scrupulously to the cheesecakes he contributed to the many gatherings to which he himself was invited; and, on one visit back to the San Francisco Bay Area, hand-shucking dozens of oysters for family and friends.

It was always Roger’s way to throw himself full throttle into the tasks he chose, or the tasks that chose him.

But reading may have been Roger’s deepest pleasure, starting with Dr. Dolittle, and ending with the volumes and volumes of history and politics that line the walls of the home he helped design, then built, in 1998. Roger was not a man prone to hero-worship, but he counted among the greats Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and delighted in the re-election, within his lifetime, of this nation’s first black president.

Roger is survived by his beloved rose (Dr. Rosemarie Heisse, of Chase Mills, New York); his twin brother Gordon Sullivan, of Moscow, Russia; his sister Valerie Sullivan, of Martinez, California, his sister Carla Sullivan Reilly, of Green River, Wyoming, his niece, Katharine Anne Bluhm, also of Martinez, California, and his nephew, David Christopher Bluhm, currently enrolled on a full scholarship at the Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

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