As a young emergency room physician in a small hospital a few miles north of Boston, I had just failed to resuscitate a wiry gentleman in his late 80s, an Irish immigrant and a beloved hospital employee. Call him Tim. Tim was freshly dead, and I felt an odd impulse to kiss him. That evening when he clutched his chest and collapsed in the parking lot, we ran out with a stretcher and retrieved him. Twice over the previous year, we had brought Tim back from death, but this time his old Irish heart and lungs had truly and finally given up.

The priest came in and anointed Tim’s forehead. His daughters in Chicago and Detroit had been notified. His body, cooling down to room temperature, lay waiting for the funeral director to come and cart him away.

I leaned over him and scouted out a spot on his wrinkled forehead to kiss, not far from where the priest’s thumb had drawn the oil cross. But I hesitated; a nurse and the janitor were still in the room. They no doubt wondered why I stood there in a trance, mutely lingering over Tim’s body, while other patients waited for me.

For historical context, it was 1981, the first year of Reagan’s presidency. A few months before in Northern Ireland, the famous protester Bobby Sands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army had dominated international headlines. Sands and nine other fellow hunger strikers had died in Maze prison, near Belfast. The world had watched the vigil in dread, and the defiant Maze prison hunger strikers were now famous martyrs for the cause of independence.

The Irish troubles were on many people’s minds then, especially in Boston where sympathy waxed strong for the rebels. We heard rumors of locals running American guns to Ireland, and the bomb that blasted Lord Mountbatten’s fishing boat two summers before was still in the public’s mind. Boston’s Irish loyalists seemed reluctant to condemn the assassination of that distinguished and despised Windsor.

What put me in a trance that evening, as the nurse and janitor eyed me curiously, was the irony of Tim’s death.

To most hospital employees, Tim had been a lovable, often cranky curmudgeon. Short, lean, pink-faced and with a slow, arthritic gait, he whistled and muttered to himself in his thick Irish brogue, as he puttered about the hospital as the resident handyman. He kept his cube-shaped head at an angle, and he winced often in pain when he moved his neck. His flattened nose, the apparent victim of early facial trauma, angled westward.

For over four decades, Tim had fixed leaky pipes, mended floor waxing machines, puzzled over electrical short circuits, maintained the boiler and the air conditioning units, mowed the lawn, and served as the ingenious troubleshooter for all the little hospital’s technical problems.

In the summer and fall, Tim also supplied an abundant variety of vegetables to the hospital cafeteria from his own garden, whose bell peppers and tomatoes, he boasted, were the finest anywhere outside of Ireland.

Since his American wife had passed away 10 years before, Tim had taken most of his meals in the hospital cafeteria, where I enjoyed chatting with him. I never forgot to compliment him on his vegetables, a gesture he appreciated. Though he spoke reluctantly of his life before he came to America, he once confided a poignant personal story.

What the nurse and janitor looking curiously at me that evening did not know was that Tim, too, had once made headlines as an Irish hunger striker. During the bloody Rebellion of the 1920s, he had battled the Black and Tan in the streets and landed in prison. The sign posted over his jail cell announced in large letters: “Freedom or the Grave,” a dire phrase he repeated to me more than once in his gravely voice.

The ordeal in Dublin lasted many weeks. Tim was down to skin and bones. Starved and feeble, he was only days from perishing as a patriotic martyr. But here I was, 60 years later, looking down at the remains of a feisty and remarkable fellow, who had survived quite vigorously and cantankerously to a very ripe age.

How did it happen that Tim was spared martyrdom in Dublin?

“You see, while I was lying in the cell, a lovely young woman from Boston came in and interviewed me for her newspaper. She said she had seen my headlines and wanted to tell my story.”

“That’s how you met your wife?”

“She said if I stopped my strike, she’d take me back to Boston and marry me.”

“Right on the spot?”

“Well, it took a few interviews. But she was persistent. The third time she came back, I realized I was falling in love.”

“And she helped get you out of Ireland?”

“The authorities figured if they kicked me out of the country, I’d stop being a pain in the rear end for them.”

“So they let you out?”

“You’re talkin’ to me, Doctor, aren’t you? Or am I just an illusion?”

“Did you ever have any second thoughts?”

“Doc, if you had ever met my wife, you’d understand why I’m the luckiest man alive. I loved that woman more than I hated the Black and Tans. Call me selfish, but it’s true.”

Tim’s front teeth were crooked, and so was his smile. But when he said those words, his blue eyes bored straight into me.

Love had conquered hate, a simple and beautiful story.

There was a knock on the door. The funeral director and his assistant had arrived to remove Tim. I watched as they read the death certificate and then transferred him over to their stretcher. As they pulled the sheet over Tim’s face, I realized I had missed my chance. It was time for me to go and see the other patients.

Now, 40 years later, I regret I did not give Tim a goodbye kiss on the forehead. But at other times in my practice since then, when all I had to offer a dying patient was a kiss, I have not hesitated. Thanks, Tim.

Dr. Gerald Yukevich is a partially retired physician living in Vineyard Haven.