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Bil Turner's Page

Tuesday April 16, 1996

My friend Bil is dying. I dropped by his house today to see how he was. It's almost time.

Today there were two changes since my visit Saturday: The vacant look (though he recognized me, which was nice) and the raspy breathing. Both are things that I've seen before. He's close.

Five days ago I got a call. Bil wanted help dying. On at least two previous occasions -- once about a month ago and again about a month before that -- I'd asked Bil his thoughts on "clocking out" when things got bad. Both times he just said he'd had a good life; his time was coming; and that he'd just let it run its course.

But last week he was tired of the wait. He hadn't expected it to take this long. I don't think anybody did, at the rate his PML (Progressive Mulfifocal Leukoencephalopathy -- "brain rot" caused by brain lesions) was going. He'd noticed some changes for months, and mentioned them. But the doctors couldn't find anything. Finally -- when the lesions had grown to detectable sizes -- he got it diagnosed as PML. At that point, he started a rapid decline. One week he was able to walk, but was a little unsteady. The next week he needed a cane. The following week he was in a wheelchair. And then he couldn't really get out of bed.

When Bil finally got the PML diagnosis, he started putting last-minute affairs in order. He had most things everyone needs -- a will and such -- but there were other things to do. He asked Tom and I to go to the bank with him to witness him signing his Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care ("medical power of attorney"). That was important: It meant that his friend Louis would have the say over any medical treatments -- or lack thereof -- for Bil when Bil couldn't make the decisions himself. (It's a good way to avoid some messy family problems, particularly if the family doesn't like their son anymore, or even if it's just a case where the family can't let go and would have the doctor extend a dying life longer than is humane.)

About a week later, when he needed a cane and decided he shouldn't be driving anymore, Bil called and asked if I'd go with him to sell his truck. (One thing that I admire about Bil is that he would ask for help, something that's hard for many people to do.) So, off we went to a man who advertised on TV that he'd buy your car on the spot. Bil was upfront: I'm dying and need to sell my truck, but I know what it's worth and I'd appreciate a decent deal to get it over with. There was a bit of negotiating, but overall it was a pretty clean transaction.

A few days later Bil called again, but this time he asked for Tom. He needed help around the house. (Another wise trait: Spread requests around to minimize the strain on a particular caretaker, if possible.) So off Tom went. Then later in the week some others moved his bedroom stuff from upstairs down into the living room. That way Bil wouldn't have to negotiate the stairs.

And that's more or less when he just started staying inside, by necessity. He hasn't been alone, though -- thankfully. His mother, his friends Louis and Bill, and his ex Paul all take turns keeping an eye on him. There's always at least one of them around. And one of the guys will spend the night in the bed next to his. He knows he's loved. In all, he's having a pretty okay death: friends around, no visible pain, no awful drug treatments or financial worries. But mainly knowing he's loved.

So, five days ago I got the call that Bil wanted to die. I'd talked about "clocking out" early with friends before. Some wanted to avoid gruesome deaths, others had religious convictions that wouldn't allow them. Bil knew that I had no moral opposition to it. (I don't believe a loving God wants people to suffer.) But he didn't have the means to do it himself: Not expecting his death to be so prolonged, he hadn't made any preparations. And, now he was too weak to do so.

I really wasn't expecting the phone call. But I knew the implications: It's one thing (eg: legal) to be with someone when they die, even if it's suicide. It's quite another to assist. What should I do? It didn't take long to figure out. If Bil needed me, I would be there for him. So I went over, grabbing a burger on the way.

When I arrived, I first wanted to make absolutely sure I understood what he wanted. "You are ready to die and need help. That's why I'm here." Bil had gotten to the point where he could barely speak, but he clearly said "Yes." If he hadn't had the difficulty speaking, the rest of our conversation would have only taken five minutes. But as it was, it took an hour. Finally I had it all down: He did want to die. But not today. He didn't want anyone else around. "I don't want to have to explain myself to anybody."

But that seems to be what happened. Since I had to be sure of what he was saying, I would repeat what I thought he'd said until he agreed that I got it right. So, in the course of the hour, we went over the same thing many times. And, though no-one was right next to us, there were two other people in his place. I think we were overheard and he was talked out of it: The next day I got a call that Bil had changed his mind.

That was fine with me, if it was really what Bil wanted. But the only way to make sure was to go over myself. So, I did. I asked him if he'd changed his mind. He said yes. And that was that. Actually, it was quite a relief -- the logistics of trying to have all the regulars out of the house would have been awful. But I worried what Bil might go through in the coming days.

And that brings me to today. I went over and was surprised to see both Louis and Bill's cars there. I had expected Louis', since he doesn't work. But Bill works. When I went in, it was obvious why Bill was also there. Bil was near the end, so Bill had taken the day off -- and told his work he may be gone tomorrow as well. The death vigil had begun.

I was happy that Bil, despite the glazed stare and raspy breathing, was still with-it enough to recognize me and say something like "I'm glad you came." I held his arm. Then he dozed off again. I could tell he was going to be in and out. I stayed for a while and visited with Bill and Louis. I was glad they were there. If they hadn't been, I would have stayed. Whatever it takes to make the journey peaceful and less frightening.

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