He Did It His Way

Wm. M. Smith, or Papa Bill as he was known to us, passed away peacefully yesterday afternoon at about 2:00, with me and my mother-in-law, his daughter Becki, at his side.

Bill passed from this world in exactly same way that he lived in it: under his own terms.  After he suffered a massive stroke and medical tests revealed that there would be no recovery, the doctors said it would likely be a very short time before Bill left his earthly body.  He was made comfortable on the sixth floor of St. Luke’s hospital, and family near and far started the grieving process.

It was apparent after just a couple of days that Bill was in no hurry.  Though he never opened his eyes, he did recognize that we were there with him, and responded to questions with a nod or a squeeze of the hand, even an occasional spoken yes or no.  The nurses were amazed.

Day after day, the decline of his body became more evident, until a few days ago when he no longer responded to questions or showed evidence that he was aware we were in the room with him. 

I know he knew, though.

The day before yesterday, on the eighth day of our vigil, a new young doctor was on duty for rounds.  He had the perfect blend of irreverence and unambiguous respect for the situation, and I think he recognized in me a similar plainspoken sense of humor.  The young doctor stayed quite a while in the room, and we talked about how strong Papa Bill was, and how surprised everyone around the hospital was that he was still hanging on. 

The doctor said that he believed people didn’t leave their bodies until they were good and ready; it was a personal moment in life in much the same way as childbirth was.  I liked his analogy and appreciated that he was so open and relaxed in speaking about the process that we were going through.

Right before he left, the doctor told me that he had recently had a conversation with several other doctor friends, and they had talked about the longest that they had personally had a patient hang on in a circumstance such as Papa Bill’s.  His longest patient had gone seven days, he said.  The longest of any doctor in the room had been nine.

I didn’t tell the doctor this, but I knew right then that Papa Bill would be with us for at least one more day.  He was an extremely competitive man, and I knew he’d at least want to tie the record.

I was right.  Papa Bill waited not only until the next day to leave us, he waited until the same doctor was making rounds, and drew his last breath just seconds before the young man stepped into the room. 

The young doctor was silent for moment, gazing respectfully at the three of us.  He said, “I’m going to give him a minute here.  He has fooled us all week long, and I don’t want to rush him now.”  Then he said “Besides that, I’ve had patients before that I thought were gone, and just as I bent down to give a listen to their chests they took another big breath and I about pooped my pants.   I could totally see Bill doing that to me!” 

Becki and I both laughed through our tears.  It was exactly the kind of statement that Papa Bill would have really appreciated.  When the doctor pronounced officially that Bill had moved on to the next world, I told him of my thoughts the day before about the nine-day challenge he had unwittingly issued. 

The doctor laughed, and said that from all he had heard about Papa Bill he thought that was probably accurate.  And he said “Well, this is a new record for one of my patients, that’s for sure.” 

I think Papa Bill would have liked that.


Papa Bill at the age of four.  What a handsome young man!


Papa Bill in 2011; the photo I took at his apartment to include with his life story books.

Papa Bill 006

Categories: Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “He Did It His Way

  1. Bless you Uncle Bill…your special warmth and kindness will be missed by your family and friends.
    THANKS for sharing Paula!

  2. Becki Elliott

    Walking out of the hospital yesterday and sitting in my car to gather my thoughts about what had just happened and I turned on the Elvis channel on Sirius radio. The first song just starting was “My Way” so I lost it again. Sat in the car until I could drive.

  3. Bob Dahl

    Our hearts and prayers are with you and your family. Papa Bill must have been a fantastic person.
    Bob and Pat Dahl

  4. Deb Smith

    Paula, we in the Washington Smith family continue to think of Uncle Bill. It would mean a great deal to us if we could obtain a copy of his family history that you worked on with him. Would that be possible?

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