Remembering Bill Schelly

I met Bill back in the 1990s.  We’d met under kind of random circumstances, and I’d mentioned offhandedly during our first meeting that I drew comics (which I was doing in those days).  Two days later, he called me out of the blue saying that he needed a cover for a book he was publishing about comics fandom. He’d commissioned a cover from another artist which had turned out to not be usable. The book meant a lot to him, and was going to press in 48 hours.  He called in a panic, though he was trying not to panic –– the book needed a cover, and needed it in now.

I’d just come down with the flu, and felt like I had to make a decision: either keep having the flu, or snap out of it and get a cover done for him. I’m not sure how, but I dove into doing the book cover and snapped out of being sick. I wish that always worked! It did that time. I drew this kind of crazy cover for the book (“The Golden Age of Comic Fandom”) –– I had a kind of crazy idea for the design, ran it by him, and he said to go ahead and do it the way I was picturing it.  He must have been praying it would come out okay.  Luckily it did.

We met the deadline, he sent the cover off, and he took me out to dinner in thanks.  His treat. My choice of restaurants. I picked Thai food. We had a great talk about books and comics and artwork and teaching and publishing, about movies, about our lives, and he became a lifelong friend.

Over the years, we worked (separately) on a lot of projects, and together on a few. He was an amazingly supportive and open person.  When we talked, he would tune in with his full attention, always interested, always thoughtful about what he’d say in reply.

I’d write a screenplay or stage play, and he would read it and make thoughtful and incisive comments about it. He’d sign a contract to do a new book, and we’d go out to dinner and brainstorm about possible titles for the book, and directions the narrative might take.  I’d rattle off crazy ideas and he’d write them down on his napkin. The fun part was when (on occasion) he’d use one of the titles I came up with. He’d know what he wanted to write about, but be looking for a direction; I’d suggest a possible angle for the narrative, and if it was a good one, his eyes would light up, and –– on occasion –– he’d use it.  It was fun seeing some of the titles I suggested on his books a few months later.

We had mutual interest, in particular, in comics, science fiction, creativity, and cinema. He had a high def flat screen TV, which was unusual in those days… impressive… and I’d go over to his house to watch movies once or twice a month. Then I got a home theater and he started coming over to watch them at my place.

When I did things like start a school (I started two of them during the time I knew him), buy a house, or start thinking about making a new movie, he was there to help me brainstorm with me about it and to encourage me and cheer me on. 

He came over in a few months ago for one of our usual visits, to see a movie in my home theater and catch up on things. We still sometimes went out do dinner, but this time we sat and talked.

We had one of our long, great talks, talking for a couple of hours after the movie ended about the movie and our lives and projects and deadlines and what we might be working on next. He’d just finished several projects, and was feeling good about where he was at in his life. He wasn’t sure what would be coming next. He’d completed all of the things that were on his list of important things he had wanted to do in his life.

He mentioned he was feeling a little tired these days, but otherwise seemed in good health. His back was hurting.  He had plans to see another good friend,  John, soon, but was thinking it might be good instead to get some rest.

A couple of weeks later, he called me to ask for help. That was unusual for him.  His life was always well organized; he planned things in advance, rarely had any crises he wasn’t ready for, and took care of himself.

This time was different.  He needed a ride to the doctor on very short notice. He had a terrible pain now in his ribs, which had broken… just broken with no explanation… when he had reached to pick something up.

The doctor had said at first that one rib had broken, and sent him home with a prescription for opiates. They tried reducing his dosage, but his pain was intense. They scanned again and found that it was two ribs that had broken, not one.  A mystery, but not alarming yet. They drew blood to run some more tests, and grudgingly increased his opiates because the pain was so intense.

It turned out that the reason the ribs had broken was because he had cancer, which was eating away at his bones.  It was hidden; he hadn’t known, till the sudden break, that anything serious was wrong.

He had multiple myeloma, the doctor said. (She was almost sure.) The prognosis was not good. At most, he might have two to four years more of life. But they’d caught the cancer late, as sometimes happens.

He started calling me more frequently for help.  Luckily I was on a break from teaching and could give him rides most of the time.  John and others were also helping out. I’d call him when I didn’t hear from him, and ask if he needed a trip to the doctor, or help buying groceries, or help cleaning his house up because he couldn’t clean it anymore. 

The cancer diagnosis was tentative at first,  then rapidly confirmed. Things started happening suddenly.  I went over to see him, and do some shopping for things he needed; he had gone rapidly from looking good, just a little weak, to looking like something was definitely, seriously wrong.  I came by again a few days later, planning to take him grocery shopping, but he wasn’t there –– it turned out he had been rushed into the hospital to start chemotherapy.  He knew his odds weren’t good but he was determined to try.  He did not sound alarmed exactly, but he was concerned, and knew there was a chance his life would be ending soon.

He started ending our conversations with “I love you” because there might not be many conversations left. I’d tell him I loved him too.  He would remind me it might be our last talk.  I’d encourage him to remember that there was a possibility that the doctors might be able to help. He promised to hold on to that thought.

I went in to visit him on a Wednesday in September. (John had gone in to visit him, and had IMd me with some urgency as he was leaving the hospital, saying that if I wanted to see Bill again, I had to do so immediately.) Fortunately I was on campus a couple of blocks from the hospital, getting ready for a class. I closed my laptop, locked the room up and literally ran over to find his hospital room. I started crying on the way over –– went in a back entrance and got lost in the hospital, then found his room.

He looked bad, and could just say a few words.  He was having trouble breathing. Again we traded “I love you’s.”  Another good friend of his was there; she had stepped in when the cancer diagnosis kicked in. It seemed that she had never left his side. I sat with her for an hour or so. Both of us were crying; there wasn’t much we could say. The medical interventions, including chemotherapy, had not been successful. Bill was on palliative care, and knew his life was ending.  The nurses came in to give him medications to try to ease his pain. I said goodbye to him and left to teach my class.  I planned to go visit him again the next day. I told myself that there was a chance that he could somehow still pull through. “It’s not over till it’s over.” “He’s alive now. Let’s stay focused on that.”

He died in the middle of the night. He’d been in pain, having difficulty breathing, but not for too long. The doctors had done their best, but the cancer was too far along by the time they found it for there to be much they could do. Trying to treat it made some other health issues more apparent. 

There’s no real conclusion to this account, except that, I’m glad he didn’t suffer for long. He was a good friend and his friendship made a difference in my life.