A tribute to Philip Burke

Philip Burke

The moment I knew Philip Burke was special came during his wedding rehearsal.

Before then, he was to me just a tall, gangly guy I met a few hours earlier. He possessed a horizon-wide smile and the keys to Jennifer Lee Sheets’s heart — the latter of which was obvious by the way my cousin looked at him.

But midway through the rehearsal, Philip launched into a hymn intended as a sing-along for the church’s congregants, who instead just stood there mesmerized. In a few notes, this aspiring opera singer left no doubt that while all of us are touched by God in some way, only a few walk around with his hand on their shoulders.

He interrupted himself to urge our participation, but there seemed an unspoken accord that doing so amounted to decorating a masterpiece with mud. The audience realized that it merely aspired to meet the hymn’s requirements. Philip clearly surpassed them.

Over the next 19 years, other surpassing talents unfolded. He became a teacher, a counselor at a youth prison, and the father of three wonderful children who each in their own way sparkle with the grace conveyed by their parents. Music of course was important in the Burke household, but so too was hard work, perseverance, and the belief that true character derives from facing responsibility instead of dodging it.

For instance, though he aspired to sing for a career, Philip realized that the Carusos, Domingos and Pavarottis of our age had made difficult — if not a little harrowing — any entry into that pantheon for a soon-to-be family man. So, the practical Philip changed course, studied psychology, became a professor, then a private practitioner.

He did not in that time give up on singing but instead took his talent to church, guiding others and contributing there, in effect returning the divine gift left on loan to him.

But something insidious unfolded as well: primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC, a rare, incurable and somewhat manageable disease that inflames the bile ducts and over time damages the liver beyond usefulness. Philip discovered he had PSC after he and Jennifer donated during a blood drive at their university. They were not yet married but knew better than most new couples what lie ahead for them: a liver transplant for Philip, probably within 10 years.

In the meantime, Philip lived a way most healthy people lack the nerve to attempt. Besides starting a family and a career and giving back the full measure of his blessings to God, Philip immersed himself into PSC culture, even helping others learn about and cope with their prognoses.

He did indeed require placement on a transplant list within 10 years, yet rebounded and gained back some degree of lost health. The PSC-specific treatment forestalled the inevitable, which came in 2011 and forced Philip from work. Nonetheless, he threw himself into heavy lifting for the hopes of others, lending support to outreach and receiving national recognition for his volunteer efforts with PSC Partners Seeking a Cure.

Some days, he lacked the energy to raise his arms but always had the energy to raise others’ spirits. So, when word came this summer that a new liver was ready for him, Philip answered, flush with optimism.

“Good news!” he wrote in his final post on CaringBridge. “Back at (Indiana University Hospital). Likely transplant. Liver harvested and looks very good.”

In his last photos on Facebook, Philip’s face is thin, the skin yellowed and stretched tight over his bones, but he is smiling. The family members who posted subsequently said that smile remained almost to the last.

When that moment came late on Sept. 21, Philip was 40 and had been fighting for half his life.

“I have been amazingly fortunate in my life and obstacles insignificant,” he wrote as part of his instructions on final arrangements. “If I live for another 60 years I will be no more or less satisfied with my good fortune than if I die suddenly a day after I write these words. … Life is not meant to be fair. If it were, and we each had the life we deserved, many of us would be quite miserable. I am deeply thankful for the blessings I live each day.”

Throughout his social media, responses to his passing reflect Philip’s philosophy. The hundreds of people who expressed their sadness and condolences stretch across the country, across generations, across faiths. For his gift was not just a beautiful voice, but also a beautiful personality that inspired and enlightened others.

The result is that in his short life, Philip Burke left a legacy of love and hope that will last much longer.