THE GOODBYE TRIP: A terminally ill man and his wife fulfill a dream

The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
June 12, 2003, Thursday

THE GOODBYE TRIP: A terminally ill man and his wife fulfill a dream

MARK PETIX; THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE

LIVING; Pg. E01

By the time he could no longer ignore the pain, the cancer they found on Stan Kemp’s left lung had spread.

Time was short, the doctor said. Six months, maybe a year.

For almost five months, Stan and his wife, Kathy, fought his cancer with radiation and chemotherapy.

In April, hospice came to call.

At 53, Stan Kemp had one more important decision to make: how to spend the time he had left.

Stan and Kathy chose to make one last, long journey together, a driving trip to South Dakota and the small town where the longtime Riverside couple had planned to retire.

“We decided to get on the road,” Kathy said. “If that’s where it’s going to happen, that’s OK,’ cause that’s where he’s happy. Even if it’s in the middle of the Mojave desert.”

Some friends were supportive, Kathy said.

“Others looked at us and said, ‘How could you?’ ” she said.

Stan shook his head.

“I can’t fathom that — why anyone thinks it’s out of the ordinary,” he said. “It’s the most logical thing, to me.”

A long trip is a rare choice for someone in their final days, said David Yoshimizu, bereavement manager for Vitas Healthcare
Corp. in San Bernardino.

Rare, but understandable, he said by phone. Even remarkable.

“It’s so amazing what goes on when you know your time is very limited, Yoshimizu said. “To have a real neat wish come true, to not have regrets, to do the things they wanted to do but didn’t is very, very healthy. It’s great they were able to go on living.”

HIGHS AND LOWS

Stan’s wish was to see the land where his dream home waited one more time.

“Belle Fourche,” he said.

“Beautiful fork” in French. A 19th century cow town on the edge of the Black Hills, where the waters of the Redwater River, Hay Creek and Belle Fourche River meet.

Stan and Kathy fell in love with South Dakota at a niece’s wedding three years ago.

“There’s just peace,” Kathy said. “It’s where you want to jump off the rat race. That’s what we wanted to do in a couple of years.”

They would live in a 107-year-old farmhouse-style home with high ceilings, wood floors and plenty of potential.

Stan was an electrician with the Rancho California Water District. He’s good with his hands, and was looking forward to making the house their own.

They bought the house last September. It was during the trip that Stan first felt the pain in his lower back.

“We were traveling through Barstow,” he said. “I just assumed it was my back and I kept putting it off.”

When the pain grew worse, he had it X-rayed.

On Oct. 25, escrow closed on the house. It was Stan and Kathy’s 33rd anniversary.

It was the day they called to tell Stan he had cancer.

“It was,” Stan said, “a day of highs and lows.”

When it was clear treatment wasn’t working, Stan and Kathy decided it was time to go. They bought a motor home from a neighbor who was losing his sight and sat down with their adult son and daughter for some frank talk.

“We told them it could happen,” Kathy said. “He could die on this trip. They were 100 percent behind us.”

‘We can always turn around’

On a morning in late April, Stan and Kathy climbed into the cab of their 1985 Holiday Rambler and headed east.

Stan could no longer drive, so Kathy was behind the wheel. It was her first time driving a motorhome any significant distance.

She was a quick study, and that first day they made it to Utah, where Stan’s pain pump quit.

“The pain snuck up on me so fast it was incredible,” he said.

It took a few anxious hours to replace the defective pump, and Stan was worn out.

“I said we can always turn around,” Kathy said. “He said, ‘No, we’re heading north.’ ”

The drive was cold and it rained four days straight. There was a blizzard in Casper, Wyo., where a chunk of ice fell off a truck and cracked the motorhome’s manifold.

It was a weekend, but they found a mechanic who told them to park the motor home in his driveway while he patched things up. His wife served Stan and Kathy coffee.

“They were strangers, but they let us stay in their home,” Kathy said. “It was pretty amazing.”

They spent a busy week in Belle Fourche. They had the roof, plumbing and electrical system replaced.

“A lot of puttering around,” Stan said.

They rented the house to a couple they really liked. Then they headed back.

“I remember looking at our home, thinking, ‘This is the last time I’ll see it,’ ” Stan said. “It helps finalize things. I know this is a fact: I won’t see this again.”

Stan and Kathy shared two weeks of stolen time. They traveled seven states and 3,009 miles together, talking, laughing, remembering.

“We met at 17 at (Lakewood) Mayfair High,” Kathy said. “I thought we would be old together. We always have been together.”

The trip was a way of saying goodbye to their life together.

“It was the best thing we could do,” Kathy said, “for both of us.”

Neighbor Pam Scott is proud of her friends.

“I think the courage they’ve shown in this amazing situation is really commendable,” Scott said.

Stan figures he should have died three times in Vietnam, so no regrets.

He made his trip, he said. He’s made his peace.

“I feel lucky knowing,” he said. “I would have liked 10 more years, more time to fish, but this is my hand. I know where I’m going. I have everything taken care of.

“That’s not to say that I’m not scared. I haven’t laid on that bed yet. But I’m really convinced. It’s not going to be a problem.”

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