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Ben died November 18, 2013 surrounded by loved ones.
Saying Goodbye With a Song (From the Montana Quarterly)
BY MARYANNE VOLLERS PHOTOGRAPHY BY WILLIAM CAMPBELL
As pancreatic cancer takes him away, Ben Bullington marks the time with a guitar, family, and good friends
You could pretty much write the story of Livingston, Montana, from a barstool at the Elks Club. The big room in the back is where folks hold their land-mark events: wakes and receptions, reunions and fund-raisers. So it’s no surprise that, on a warm August night, twinkly lights and chiffon swags left over from a wedding adorn the stage—a festive counterpoint to the ghostly herd of mounted elk heads gazing down from the walls. Ben Bullington, long and lean and craggy-handsome, settles into a chair with his vintage Gibson guitar and grins at the crowd. A couple hundred faces smile back, family and friends, mostly, and a lively contingent of nurses from the hospital in White Sulphur Springs, where Ben practiced family medicine for 12 years. Ben’s second song, “Two Headlights,” is about a man who’s learned he has cancer. In plain, matter-of-fact verse, the song takes him through the medical procedures the doctor knows so well: “First the x-ray, large lymph node, biopsy, then what it showed …” Then the songwriter takes over, describing a lonesome drive back home, his headlights cutting a path to midnight, the man taking inventory of his life:
I stopped the car
Cut the engine
Stepped out in the night air sensin’
Things I didn’t sense the day before.
It’s all I want from life
And nothing more.
Ben finishes the last refrain and leans on his guitar. “That song, I actually wrote three years ago,” he says, in a scratchy voice that’s never lost the lilt of his native Virginia. “It’s funny, I’ve got these premonition songs, or something.” He chuckles, shaking his head. “Well, it’s funny to me. Not in an entirely mirthful way, I guess. But some part of me knew what was happening …”What was happening, and what every member of this audience knows, is that 10 months earlier, at the age of 57, Ben was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It’s always fatal, and most patients don’t live more than a year.
Ben Bullington has been one of my closest friends for the better part of a decade. My husband Bill Campbell and I have spent many an evening with Ben—and other fine musicians—trading songs and stories in the living room. I’ve seen a lot of him since his diag-nosis, and watched in awe as he’s navigated the tricky terrain of saying goodbye to the people he loves and the life he’s known. When he’s in pain, he tries not to show it. When the conversation turns to cancer treatments, he changes the subject. Like the man in the song, he wants to drink in every moment of what remains, and to spend as much time as he can with his friends, his family, and most of all his three grown sons, Samuel, Joseph, and Ben. That, and making as much music as he can for as long as he can.
(Please go to THEMONTANAQUARTERLY.COM for the rest of this amazing story)