Dying man used online presence to say goodbye

He loved having an audience. Wilson Kerby taught Spanish and German in Sacramento’s public and private schools for four decades; when he retired in 2006, his family knew that he missed having classes listen to him and laugh at his jokes – and it was no surprise to them two years later that he joined Facebook, posting wry observations and photos on his page, sometimes several times a day.

In mid-August came a gap of five days in his postings, followed by a status update that managed to sound both elated and deadly serious: “OUT OF ICU!!!! Thanks for all the prayers. 3 or 4 very close calls,” he wrote.

It was the beginning of the end, and Kerby and his family knew it.

“As he was dying, Facebook became a vital link with the outside world for Wilson,” said his widow, Bonnie Banks. “He couldn’t go out any more. He was very weak.

“Facebook was an opportunity to stay in touch with what was going on around him.”

Wilson Kerby – teacher, photographer, wordsmith, world traveler, father of two, grandfather of one and, perhaps most of all, devoted husband for 44 years to the woman he referred to online as “The Lovely One” – died Dec. 18 at age 75 after a four-month bout with lung cancer.

He documented his diagnosis and demise with posts on Facebook and on the blog he started in August, which he called “Kerby and the Kayaks” – “Kayak” being the pseudonym he used for the poetry he wrote. And now Banks and their two children, Logan and Christina Kerby, treasure the words he’s left behind, the legacy of a grateful man who loved them and loved life.

Day after day, he sat in his comfy leather chair in the book-lined den of the family’s Land Park home, surrounded by computer equipment, cameras and bowls of candy to sate his sweet tooth, a side effect of his medications. He read, he pored over what friends and family members were saying in their posts, and he wrote.

I’ve chosen not to play the stoic or silent, courageous type. I don’t want my obit to talk about a ‘courageous’ battle with cancer. You will all see that will not apply to me. I’m going to let it all hang out – within my own bounds.

From his blog, Aug. 25.

Before social media brought the moment-to-moment trivia of other people’s lives to our computer screens and smartphones, the idea of sharing the daily details of illness and death with anyone – much less the world at large – seemed ill-mannered, even a little gruesome, to generations raised on a more stringent notion of privacy. But over time, the boundaries have changed, and comfort levels have adjusted to a new, chatty normal.

Last year, National Public Radio host Scott Simon live-Tweeted with great eloquence from his mother’s deathbed. The numbers of his Twitter followers grew exponentially, from one emotional Tweet to the next, and the nation did not cringe at his sharing.

For Wilson Kerby’s family, growing comfortable with his online ramblings has been a different journey, partly because his widow has never signed up for Facebook herself.

“I used to think Wilson was being too open when he’d post stuff on Facebook,” said Banks, 69. “Anybody has access. I used to think my friends would think I had a weird husband.

“I’d take offense when he referred to me on Facebook. I saw it as an invasion of privacy when he posted pictures I didn’t like or said things about me. I made him take things off sometimes that didn’t represent me well.”

Banks sat at the dining room table in the home where she and her late husband raised their two children, his photos in front of her. It was a few weeks after Kerby’s death. Christmas had passed, the first in a series of milestones that will come and go without his presence. What remains of him are decades of memories – and his words, which resonated across cyberspace with people far and wide.

“I had friends who looked up his blog and started following him when he was sick,” Banks said. “Here for years, I thought I’d be embarrassed.

“I only found in his death and dying that what we felt was oversharing really touched a lot of people.”

When a man jumps in front of a train to save a puppy, that’s courage. When a man is nailed to the ties, that’s just waiting.

Aug. 29, Facebook

Wilson Kerby was the son and grandson of Free Methodist pastors, raised on the importance of learning and the power of fire-and-brimstone preaching. In Kerby, his family said, that background fostered a love of words and language – every day, even now, a new word of the day pops up on his computer – and a need to nurture instead of chastise.

And he loved showing off: On a trip to Macau a few years ago, he traipsed the entire outside rim of the Macau Tower observation deck tethered in a harness, with Banks and a group of tourists raptly watching him from inside.

“He got a standing ovation when he came inside,” Banks said. “Women pushed their teenaged daughters to have their pictures taken with him. He was a performer.”

“But he probably needed a nap right afterward,” said their son, Logan, 32, a graphic designer who lives in Portland.

For the most part, Kerby’s Facebook pages are a chronicle of his happily retired life, complete with witticisms and a whole lot of photos: of his 4-year-old grandson, James; of flowers and birds; of travel destinations; of food.

“There were so many mornings, when I checked email and Facebook, I’d burst into uncontrollable laughter,” said his longtime friend, Maggie Jimenez, a Sacramento artist and retired teacher. “And it was always something Wilson had said.”

All that changed on Aug. 15. He’d awoken well before dawn, coughing up blood. By early that afternoon, he was in the hospital. Scans showed dozens of tumors clogging his lungs and brain. He was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, despite having quit smoking more than 40 years ago. Within hours, he was on life support in the intensive-care unit, his condition so severe that his doctor didn’t think he’d make it through the night.

Logan rushed down from Portland. Christina – a Bay Area communications executive who at the time was on vacation in San Diego with her husband, Anthony Martin-Vegue, and their son – flew up, as well. Their father clung to life, but the prognosis was dire.

“He could get chemo, but at best it might add 10 weeks to his life,” said Banks. “Wilson chose quality of life over being miserable.”

Hey, honey, I’m home! Hospice has provided a lot of good stuff. I am happy. First radiation treatment went beautifully. Nine more coming. Over Labor Day weekend; then finished with that. With radiation, doctor says I have one month to one year; better prognosis than before, believe it or not.

Aug. 23, Facebook

The family opted for outpatient radiation to slow the growth of his tumors. He still loved to eat and spend time with people, but quickly grew exhausted. On Aug. 23, Kerby came home to hospice care.

“We wheeled him in in a wheelchair,” Banks said. “He went to his chair in the den. He had a lot less energy. He walked around with a walking stick because he felt wobbly.”

These were, in retrospect, good days – some of the best days Kerby would have in what remained of his life. He called the hospital bed set up in the cozy living room his “DB,” for death bed. His sense of humor was back; so were the photos of food and family. But friends were growing concerned.

“I heard about Wilson’s diagnosis on Facebook,” said Jimenez. “He’d written a garbled paragraph that alarmed me. I emailed him back and said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ The next day I got a huge email from Bonnie.

“I saw him at his house a few days after he got home from the hospital. He was already on oxygen.”

Doctors warned the family that Kerby’s hair would fall out because of the radiation treatments. He’d become more lethargic as the cancer spread.

By late September, he began posting photos that showed his gradual descent into illness and age.

“It was shocking to see,” said his son. “We took photos, and each time, he looked a decade older.”

Nothing happens without side benefits. I now know how I look and feel at age ninety. It’s interesting.

Sept. 22, Facebook

In a real way, the last few months of Wilson Kerby’s life – online and otherwise – were a lesson in how to let go. The family urged him to figure out his bucket list, experiences he wanted to have before he died. As they cared for him, they worried about what was to come: Would he suffer? In the end, would he even know them?

“It was hard for us to come to terms with his dying,” Banks said. “I felt myself wanting to live out my dreams for his last days, not his. He didn’t have a lot of expectations.”

“We knew every meal could be his last,” Logan said. “But it can’t be steak every night. There’s a weird guilt. What if you microwave the meal, and his last meal is turkey tetrazzini?”

But Kerby seemed content, perhaps more at peace than Banks and their children. A devout Catholic, he took strength in his faith. And as his body wore out, he took comfort in simple pleasures: a visit from Christina and James, a repaired laptop, good jazz.

“He was always introspective, always figuring out what made him tick,” said Christina, 35. “It was very touching to read and to see that he was handling this with such strength.

“I don’t feel I could be so public, but it was his character. He was always teaching and always learning.”

One of the lessons, perhaps, is that dying has its own timetable. Into the early weeks of autumn, there were good days. There were moments of hope: “Feeling good. Long term enough view of things, thinking of buying a new iPad,” he posted on Oct. 22.

At the same time, Kerby also felt guilty for causing his family concern. He wanted to spare them his pain, including the pain of worrying about him and caring for him.

“He felt guilty for getting sick,” said Logan.

“He apologized to us all the time for what he put us through,” said Banks.

And he apologized online, as well. Again and again, he wrote about how grateful he was and how his pain was minor compared with the suffering experienced around the globe – in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, for example.

“So I have a couple of tumors spread across my aging body, which saps my strength,” he wrote on his blog on Nov. 11. “I still can read German ... I still enjoy music, Scrabble, leaving the house, excellent food ... Last night, thousands of Philippine children lost their parents. The news is hard to watch. At my worst, I am blessed. I’m hanging in there with thankfulness.”

The Kerby family rallied to make Thanksgiving a warm, lovely occasion. But it was a little melancholy anyway: He was the one who usually handled the meal, and now he didn’t have the energy to cook or even to stand for long. The family gathered in the kitchen to prepare the dishes, while he stayed quietly in the den.

“We didn’t want to think about it being his last Thanksgiving,” said Logan.

But Kerby thought the day was great: “Thanksgiving for me was unimaginably perfect. Did nothing, received everything. Rare in many years of cooking myself,” he wrote. “Is it a little weird to call myself lucky? I feel that way.”

Less than two weeks later, he plunged into delusions and searing pain. It took three people to get him into bed. Hospice began administering morphine for the first time. And then, miraculously, his pain lifted. He came back to clarity.

“We were prepared for the worst, and then he snapped out of it,” said Logan.

This has been a week from the wretched side of things. Didn’t get out of bed for two days, don’t remember the others. Head not working. Having to depend on hospice people with three extended, and grueling, visits today. Hatten the batches! I am alert enough to know that tomorrow is a Friday the Thirteenth and that more personal misery may coincide.

Dec. 12, Facebook

It was his final status update. He slipped back into unconsciousness for several days, and his wife and children kept watch at his bedside. Hospice provided nurses around the clock. And then he awoke one last time.

“We needed to reposition him,” said Banks. “He couldn’t talk. He stared at us. We said our goodbyes and prayed and held his hand and talked to him.”

With his family at his side, Wilson Kerby died at home on Dec. 18.

His daughter broke the news later that day on his Facebook page: “Friends, family and Kayak fans: Wilson Kerby died peacefully in his home this morning, surrounded by his family, after learning four months ago that he had cancer. He was witty and cantankerous right up to the end and was buoyed by the humor and well wishes from his Facebook friends and family...”

Services in his memory were Jan 4. The family has no plans to erase his online presence.

“There is a whole community of friends, family, former colleagues and students who still visit Facebook as a way to remember my dad,” said Christina. “The page doesn’t just belong to him. It belongs to everyone he shared it with.

“Besides, once something is on the Internet, doesn’t it live there forever?”