Ken Bovey: Part 5, the slow slide down

June 13th, 2011 was the 20th anniversary of the death of a friend of mine, Ken Bovey.   Ken died at the age of 32 from scleroderma, a rare auto-immune disease.  This is the story of the last 10 months of Ken’s life.  It is a story of how one man prepared for his own death.

It was gut-wrenching to watch Ken’s health decline.  By mid-May, his weight was down to 100lbs. and his skin looked even more calcified.  His hands stiffening, he had difficultygripping his knife and fork.   His face was yellowy, had lost its elasticity, and his smile was tightening.   His eyes would tear up forcing him to use a tissue constantly.  Once again the realization that he was dying came to me as sudden moments of shock.   No matter how many times I realized Ken was dying, I clung to a hope that, maybe – just maybe, Ken would come out of this alive.  Despite my awareness that everything would be alright, in my feeling heart, the truth was that it was fearsome thing to watch him die.

In April of  of 1991, I picked Ken up at the hospital and we drove east of London to visit a very special friend, Professor Bob Melvin.    “Bee-boppin Bob Melvin” as we called him was our Political Psychology professor at Western in 1983 – 1985.  It was in Bob’s class that Ken and I met.  Bob was the best teacher I ever had.  He was more interested in what we thought about politics, than what the great political philosophers thought.    That afternoon at Bob’s country home  we picked wild leeks and ate them in a delicious trout stew with potatoes.  Bob’s easy manner gave the three of us the chance to talk deeply about life, about our time together in his classes, and about how we would solve the problems of the world.   There was a depth of beauty to our day that gave us a sense of grace and peace as we made the trip back to the hospital. 

By mid-May, my visits with Ken got shorter and shorter.   He began to lose his physical strength.  In a series of crises, his internal organs began to fail and Ken found himself in the Intensive Care Unit.   For the first two days, he was not allowed to drink any liquids.  This drove him near mad with thirst.  I sat by his bed and he moaned incessantly for a sip of water – anything to slake his thirst.   The nurse relented by giving him some ice chips to chew.  It was agonizing to witness. 

Soon afterwards, his kidneys, which had been given to him in a transplant when he was 19, began to fail.  I came in one evening and Ken had received a shunt in his chest, through which he would receive dialysis every second day.  These treatments exhausted him.   Sometimes I would walk in his room, he’d look at me, shake his head, and say, “Not today, Pat.  I’m too tired.”  I would bless him, say a little prayer, and walk back out the door.

Despite Ken’s grave condition, his spirit never despaired.  He did get frustrated and he did get very angry from time to time, but he never lost his will to live.  Till the very end, he maintained a spirit of self possession.   Perhaps, he had a prescient awareness that he was going to survive this ordeal or that it was going to end in peace.  It is difficult to know these mysterious things of death, but suffice it to say, Ken never really lost hope.  His internal fortitude was amazing. 

Ken and I never discussed death, at least not until a few days before he died.  Thinking I was doing him a favour, I tried once to open a conversation about it, but it went badly.  He turned red with anger and a spirit of outrage rose intensly in the few words he said in reply.     It was not yet time for such a discussion and I decided to wait until the right moment.   That moment came quickly.


  1. by Wendy Blain

    On August 3, 2011

    My heart goes out to him as I read this. I’m waiting to read what happened next. You’re a good writer, and I will wait patiently for the next blog.

  2. by TAMMY

    On August 7, 2011

    There is no greater testament of a good friend than to have him stand by you in your darkest days. I know that you’re not writing this blog in order to receive personal accolades about your character. But, as a reader, and someone who didn’t know you or this special man, I am touched by the gentle, kind, and enduring commitment you demonstrated. You gave Ken honest, emotional, spiritual support that told him you loved him. Love between friends can sometimes be conditional, unfortunately. Between you and Ken, this was not the case. You stood by him with your words of comfort, words of encouragement, and words of divine reassurance despite your discomfort and sadness. It must have been very difficult for you to sustain your strength as you watched your best friend live out his last days in a hospital bed. I can feel your emotion as I continue to read about this most amazing journey you took with Ken. What you gave to him was a gift of solace and a message of grace sent from God through you, Ken’s most faithful and loving friend.

  3. by Patrick O'Connor

    On August 8, 2011

    Thank you for your comment, Tammy. I do not believe one can stand by such suffering if it is self-serving. The reality of oncoming death is too dire to withstand – unless one is pathalogical. There comes a time when one has to stand in grace, stand in the reality of the spirit of love, in order to withstand the onslaught of doubt, fear, and, dare I say, disgust, at the reality of death. I think there are many professionals in the helping professions who know what I’m talking about. I suppose I had a choice to help Ken or to abandon him, but the truth is that, in the day to day circumstances, I did what I felt I had to do.

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