'Til death do us join

Wednesday May 1, 2013

He had no idea that when he decided to throw in the towel and stop taking his daily pile of pills and his insulin injections that he would end up taking the trip of a lifetime and that he would come to embrace and treasure life.

On March 10, 79-year-old Robert Pillsbury, a Burlington native and father of local political figure Daryl Pillsbury, decided he had had enough of living. He was miserable and he was sick and tired. He was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and, sick and tired of making trips to the doctor's office and the emergency room, sick and tired of having to take so many pills every day and having to give himself insulin shots every day.

So he settled into his bed at the assisted living facility in Burlington, Pillsbury Manor which is owned by his nephew, and his family began the death watch. Hospice nurses told the family it would probably be three to four days before their father would slip away.

They sat vigil. Robert did start to slip away and there were times when they thought they witnessed his last breath. But, he would gasp and start breathing again. He told them he was welcoming death and that he was ready to die. They were getting use to the idea of no longer having their father.

Robert was not taking any of his pills and he had stopped the insulin. He was receiving morphine for comfort. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were able to say goodbye. Then, something unexpected happened during the death of Robert Pillsbury.

He started to rally. After having a few moments when it looked like the end had come, he woke up and he became animated and engaged in conversations with his family in a way he had never done. He still was not taking any medications other than morphine.

It was becoming clearer to everyone that Robert was not going to be dying anytime soon. As these strange events began to unfold he became confused and angry because he really did want to die. No one could figure out what was really going on. Then on March 27 a new course was set.

He was still in the dying mode, hoping things would get worse. There was yet another turn for the worse. He said he saw the bright light that many people report seeing as they have near death experiences. As he entered the light his wife of 55 years Darla, who died in 2010, spoke to him and said, "They're not ready for you now. They'll get you when the time comes."

He opened his eyes and told the family gathered at his bedside what had just happened. The Pillsbury family death vigil had now taken a turn for the better. Robert said that he now wanted to live. His appetite returned and, within a short time, was eating steak dinners.

His strength also started to return and he spent time playing on the floor of his room with his great grandson. Amazingly, as he began this new life, he continued not to take any of the medication he had taken prior to deciding to die, including insulin.

The family's emotional rollercoaster ride was ending, but a new chapter in all of their lives was beginning. They still could not believe that a person could begin to actively die and end up wanting to live as much as he wanted to die but, that is exactly what happened to Robert Pillsbury.

Daryl has learned a few lessons from this ordeal and his relationship with his father has deepened. Daryl noted that his father was not one to tell anyone that he loved them but now, every time they talk on the phone, Robert says, "I love you," just before they end their talk.

Robert also told Daryl to stay out of politics and spend more time with his wife. Daryl seems to have taken that advice to heart but, given the turn of events that his father has experienced on his death journey, who knows where Daryl Pillsbury will end up in a few years.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net.


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