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.
Friday evening 8 June 1991
It was a warm evening and my girlfriend, Shelley, and I had decided to forgo an evening out, instead opting to spend a relaxing evening at my place. In truth, with all that was happening with Ken, I was emotionally exhausted. As we settled in for a quiet evening, the phone rang. God, it seems, had other plans for the evening.
“Ken’s heart stopped this afternoon, Pat” Michelle, Ken’s girlfriend blurted out. My mind reeled and my thoughts raced at the news. “They revived him after a couple of minutes. He’s on the 3rd floor in the cardiac care unit. He wants to see you. He’s pretty shook up.”
“I’ll be right there, Michelle.” I hung up the phone bewildered and we drove up to the hospital. As we stepped out of the elevator, it was like we walked into a cloud of antiseptic spray. It would be one of the defining sense memories I still keep from those days 20 years ago. We turned left down the hall and found the room Ken was in. The room was shaded and a fluorescent light above ken’s bed provided a cold atmosphere for the seriousness of the visit. Ken was lying, propped up in his hospital bed. Oxygen tubes were attached to his nostrils and I.V. drips were in his arms. Under his thin hospital gown, just above his heart, I could see an unnaturally round bump. A heart monitor kept a steady “beep, beep, beep” vigil by his bed. His eyes were wide and his skin was white. He looked, quite literally, as if he’d seen a ghost.
I sat on the edge of the bed, grabbed his hand and said, “You’ve had a rough day, eh?”
“They told me that I died today, Pat, and they revived me. They said my heart stopped and that I was gone for two minutes. It felt like two hours,” Ken confessed. I swallowed hard and was not sure if I should say what I was thinking. By this time, Ken could read me. “Just say it, Pat,” Ken demanded. He had no patience for my reticence.
I took a deep breath and said, “Ken, I know we’ve never really talked about death, before, but I think we can now. We both know you are going to die. I don’t know how I can say this, but, everything is going to be alright.” I squeezed his hand strongly and said, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be okay, Ken.” My words and my confidence betrayed my own sense of fear, but my friend was absolutely terrified and he needed encouragement. What else could I say but what I knew deep down to be true? I patted Ken on the hand and said a quick prayer over him. “I’m going to talk with the doctor, okay?”
I found the small office attached to the cardiac unit and introduced myself to the doctor, a tall blond haired woman of about 40 years. She had the air of a professional, of one who overlooks the care of gravely ill patients. “We all know Ken is going to die and I’d like to ask you how much time he has?” She protested that I wasn’t family and that she couldn’t tell talk to me about his condition. I responded, “Look, I’ve been here to visit my friend almost every day for 4 months. I need to know so I can help him be ready.”
Relenting, she let out a sigh saying, “We don’t know. He could last 2 hours, 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months. We just can’t say. We gave him a pacemaker to regulate his heart, but he’s very sick.” I shook my head in acknowledgment and thanked her for her confidence. We shook hands and I went back to see Ken.
I have no idea what we talked about for the rest of the evening. When you mix the girlfriends, me, and Ken, and the huge elephant in the room (death!), what are you supposed to talk about? I do remember, however, learning that Ken’s mother, Nancy, and his father, Chris, were on their way from Montreal and would be arriving the following day, Saturday. Ken’s father had early onset Alzheimer’s disease and he appeared to have difficulty understanding what was really happening to his son. Nancy’s arrival on the Saturday would bring Ken a real boost of comfort and consolation. I would be amazed, as the next few days passed, at how resilient and loving Nancy’s love for Ken could be. Despite her own grave fears of losing her son, she remained steadfast in her confident love for Ken. She knew her son needed her to be strong, so that he could bear the reality of what was coming and not fall into despair.
Between Saturday and Monday, Ken’s spirits lifted considerably. He lost any remaining fear of his terrifying loss of conscious contact with this life when his heart stopped. He came into a spirit of peace that would never leave him.