Epilogue to the fight
by DeeDee Correll
The Daily Times-Call
LONGMONT - The day Bill likes to think of is not the last day he saw his son Instead, he thinks of the best day — the day his son was himself again.
David Bunn, left, swings with help from his dad, Carey Bunn, while Carey's dad, Ben Bunn, and Ben's dad, Bill, look on. The family members were taking a walk along a canal near Ben's home when they came across a rope swing. Everybody, including Ben and Bill, took a turn on the swing. Ben died Sept. 1 of prostate cancer. Times-Call/Jeff Haller
It was July 13, and for the first time in years, his family was together. From California, one daughter had come. From Washington, D.C., another had arrived.
And from Florida, 92-year-old Bill Bunn had made the difficult trip to see his son, Ben, for what they both knew would be the last time.
Here in Colorado, he found his son failing terribly, finally losing his decade-long fight with prostate cancer.
Ben's voice was thick and slow, and it was difficult for him to keep his head up. In the middle of sentences, he would fall asleep, his face tilting to his chest. He wasn't able to read or understand words, and when he looked at his Boston terrier, Missy, he saw double.
Weeks earlier, Ben had thought he was reaching his end - thought he was, as he put it, "swirling down the drain."
So his family came. By the time his father arrived from Florida, he could see that, too.
"We were going out to a baseball game - one of the kids was playing. We got two or three blocks from home, and he told whoever was driving, 'I better go back and stay home.' He just wasn't going to be able to make it," Bill Bunn said.
But on one particular day, July 13, he recognized his son again.
"He took an interest in what was going on. He did love his grandchildren, and you could see it that day," Bill said. "He was himself that day."
Ben was lively and alert, so they decided to try something ambitious: a short walk along the irrigation canal that ran near Ben's home.
It took a long time to travel the short distance, with Ben shuffling along, his grandchildren slowing their pace to his, others holding his arms to keep him steady on the dirt path.
Under a large tree where a wooden board hung by a rope over the water, they stopped. Ben's grandson, David, went first, clambering onto the swing and shoving off into the air. Next went his sister, Cherise.
Then their grandfather, 61 years old and dying, decided it was his turn.
"Why not?" Ben asked and lowered himself onto the narrow plank.
Holding tight to the rope, his son Carey at his back, he swung over the water, smiling.
In March, Ben Bunn went into the hospital for the second-to-last time.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992, he had grown sicker and weaker over the last year. Now, an infection had invaded his left leg, turning it lobster-red and bloating it to nearly twice its normal size.
For days, he stayed at Longmont United Hospital while doctors fed him antibiotics and tried to coax the infection away.
"It's just one thing on top of another on top of another," Ben sighed. "It would be nice to be someplace else."
When his fever abated and his leg improved, he went home. Although he was slightly better, he had begun his final decline.
He started taking spills, his weakened leg not holding him up and his balance compromised.
Once, he fell as he was trying to get from his porch back into his house, splitting his scalp on the door frame.
He was restless, walking around and around at night, jittery and agitated about something he couldn't define.
With a regimen of narcotics to control his pain, he wasn't thinking or seeing clearly, and he was exhausted.
The painkillers were to blame, he thought.
"It's from the painkillers. Lots of the time, I'm not thinking clearly. My brain doesn't work. And I'm shivering, and I don't know why," he said.
The things that had always worked for him in the past - meditating and visualizing himself as healthy - weren't working anymore.
"Whenever I try, the eyes close and I go to sleep," he said.
By summer, he was moving toward the place he feared most.
"You know how Morrie says that what he's most afraid of is the day when someone else has to wipe his ass?" he said one day, referring to Morrie Schwartz, whose slow death from Lou Gehrig's disease was chronicled in "Tuesdays With Morrie."
"That's how I feel," Ben said.
Months earlier, Ben had decided that he could be - would be - OK with dying.
"This is what happens. This is life. Only you don't come back. You keep going," he said.
"But it's a decision that doesn't want to stay made," Ben said. "Ever tried to make a big decision, and you flip a coin and see if it's heads or tails? Then you see the result and decide maybe I'll go for two out of three."
Through the spring, he vacillated.
"I'm still on that threshold between deciding if I'm still a warrior or a traveler," he said.
Meanwhile, with his body making other decisions for him, he needed help and turned to Hospice of Boulder County.
Twice a week, his case manager, Mary Minor, visited to help change the dressings on his leg and consult on his medications.
He understood Hospice's goal - to make people comfortable as they prepare to die. But he still couldn't put himself in that category, he said.
One day, he worried aloud to Minor that he might become addicted to his painkillers.
"I was listening to this medical talk show, and someone said this was habit-forming," he told her.
"That's not an issue here, Ben," Minor quietly said.
He paused, then replied, "When you're not going to live, it doesn't matter if it's habit-forming. I know."
Still, he couldn't stop trying.
"I know I need to decide whether I belong in Hospice getting ready to die or whether I'll be shooting for one more rainbow," he said. "But as long as there's a viable therapy, I'll have to go for it. That's built into me."
And there was something he thought might be a viable option - a clinical trial in Indiana that involved using a genetically modified virus that altered the bone so that it would no longer support the cancer.
But even if he was accepted into the trial, he knew he might not be strong enough.
"I don't know if I qualify. I may have too much cancer," he said. "But if I take a shot at the rainbow, I need to do it soon."
That was one hope; another was that his oncologist might know of something - anything - else to try.
In August, both hopes fell flat.
In a meeting with Ben and his family, his doctor said it was unlikely he would get better.
"He said once it reaches the bone, it's incurable," Ben said afterward.
And the cancer had long since reached his bones.
Within days of that news, he got the other piece of bad news - that the scientists in Indiana weren't ready to start the trial yet.
"They won't be running it until 2001," he said. "I may not be here then."
It was hard for Ben to accept that, his father said.
"He was not satisfied yet with that decision, the conclusion of the doctor that there was no cure for cancer in the bones," Bill said. "He fought it for 10 years, and he never would turn loose. He was still fighting it until the end. A few days before he died, he told me he still had hope."
When Ben was a teen-ager, he and his buddies cruised around town on Saturday nights.
He didn't have a car, but occasionally he got to drive a second car of his father's - an old English sedan.
"We were out riding one night, and I had the inevitable accident from driving too fast," he said.
He was driving down a hill, down a road that curved to the left.
"I was going faster than good judgment would indicate," he said.
And toward him, in the middle of the road, came another car.
The car skidded onto the gravel, sliding sideways, out of control.
"I can see it as clearly now as when it was happening," he said.
And now, like then, he was careening out of control.
That was very difficult for a man like Ben, who wanted very much to control his illness, his family and friends said.
"Ben was a passionate advocate of informing people of their choices," said his friend, Michelle Bowman. "I admired his pursuit of information. He always was looking for more information. I don't think he ever gave up hope."
This was perhaps both good and bad, she said.
In one of their last conversations, he said, "Michelle, I'm not sure if God is trying to heal me or if God is trying to take me home."
She replied, "Are you still trying to control your illness?"
"Yes, I am," he said.
"I told him, 'Turn it over to God.' And I asked him, 'What do you think your lesson is here, Ben?' He said, 'To learn not to control it. To let happen what needs to happen.'"
There were days for Ben when it was OK.
On those days, Ben said, he pictured the place he might go when he died: a place without pain.
"I won't be constrained anymore. And it will be a far richer state of existence," he said. "I don't think it's the end. It's a transition to a much better state than here and now."
Maybe, he said, he didn't need to be afraid.
"Maybe dying isn't such a big deal. But we don't cross that border very easily. We hold it in awesome fear. We probably just ought to be considering it one of life's passages."
On the afternoon of Sept. 1, Ben Bunn made his passage.
In his last days at home, he had grown so agitated and restless that his family suspected there was a problem with his medications and decided to admit him to the hospital.
There, settled into a bed at Boulder Community Hospital, he declined very quickly.
Taken there Aug. 29, he was unresponsive two days later.
By then, a CAT scan had revealed what was wrong - the cancer was in his brain.
"In one sense, I think it took us all by surprise. It happened so quickly," Minor said. "It did go quickly for him, and that was a blessing for Ben. I thought, 'Good for you, Ben. I'm glad you were able to get out of here.'"
At the memorial service Friday, one man stood and, wiping tears from his eyes, walked to the podium.
His name was Brent Kuhn, he told the congregation, and he had met Bunn because they both had prostate cancer.
"He was very open. He wanted to share his story, to let men know that they have to take care of themselves. Men don't talk about it, but he was willing to put himself in the open. He fought so hard with his cancer, but it didn't work for him," Kuhn said. "But this is not the end here. Death is just the beginning."