June 13th, 2011 was the 20th anniversary of the death of a close friend of mine, Ken Bovey. Ken died at the age of 32 from scleroderma, a rare auto-immune disease that leaves the sufferer with thick, leathery skin. Eventually, it leads to death. We had been classmates at the University of Western Ontario in the 1980′s. This is the first part of the story of the last 10 months of Ken’s life.
On a hot and humid August evening in 1990, I turned from the sidewalk and walked up the steps of my apartment building in London, Ontario. As I reached for the door, I thought, “That’s Ken Bovey.” I realized the man I had seen walking towards me moments before was my university buddy, Ken Bovey.
“Patrick me boy,” he sang out in his usual ‘well what do you know?’ attitude. It had been 2 years since we’d seen each other, yet right away I knew something was wrong. The skin on Ken’s face, neck, and hands looked thick. I hid my alarm and invited him in for a visit. In my small one-bedroom apartment, Ken took a seat at my kitchen table, while I made him a pot of tea. Ken made idle chit chat, which only increased the sense of anxiety I felt.
Turning his hands over, inspecting the leathery skin that covered them, he told me that he had a disease called “scleroderma.” He said he’d developed it after 14 years on anti-rejection drugs for a kidney transplant he’d had when he was 17. He spoke of experimental light treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, but I found it hard to believe what he was saying. In my mind I knew Ken was very sick. In my heart I knew he was dying.
We spent the rest of our time catching up. Ken was working at Western establishing their first recycling program and was chasing a woman named Michelle. I had returned to London the year before from Canmore, Alberta, and was supply teaching for the Catholic School Board. Ken said it was time to go, but that he’d call me after he returned from a natural health retreat in Massachusetts. I saw him out the door. In the silence of my apartment, a foreboding sense of death swept over me; I knew I would walk through it with him.