Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s "Dying Well" looks at his wife's well-lived life and how she handled the end


Bill Kellerman and his book Dying Well

We are a society that doesn’t talk much about dying well -- heck, we don’t really like to talk about dying, period.

But Bill Wylie-Kellermann ponders both in a loving memoir about his wife, Dying Well: The Resurrected Life of Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, which he will discuss at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor on Thursday, January 24 at 7 pm.

The love story began when Bill met Jeanie in 1982. Both were arrested and charged with conspiracy charges after protest actions at Williams International in Walled Lake, Michigan.

“We were both nonviolent community activists,” says Bill. “And we both were held at the Oakland County jail after the arrests. We had to go back and forth to court pretty regularly. We always tried to make sure we were handcuffed side by side in the van that took us to circuit court.”

Those close quarters eventually led to love and marriage as the couple continued their work in Detroit, where Bill was born and where he attended Cooley High School. Jeanie served as a journalist, filmmaker, and writer. Bill grew into roles as a writer, teacher, United Methodist minister, and community activist. They had children, settled into a meaningful life together.

But then in 1998, something happened.

Jeanie, in the prime of her life, suffered a seizure. Two weeks later, a baseball-sized tumor was removed from her brain. Doctors diagnosed her with stage four glioblastoma. Less than 5% of patients live longer than five years with most living only a few months. Still, Bill says “she had a remarkable run, was called a walking miracle,” living for seven years before passing on New Year’s Eve in 2005.

Community and friends lent much support during the difficult times.

“We sent email updates to a circle of friends," Bill says. "First Jeanie wrote them, and then I picked it up when she couldn’t. After she crossed over, people would say to me that they saved our emails, our letters … and would ask if I was writing a book.” 

Bill realized that he had a day to day narrative of Jeanie’s journey that formed the core of Dying Well.

“The first part of the book is from a writers’ retreat and then I intertwined our history, our love story,” he says. The retreat focused on Christian practices such as hospitality, welcoming strangers, and the concept of “dying well.”

After getting a grant, Bill worked to incorporate family stories, poems, and letters into his reflection on his wife’s life and death. “It’s not just an uttering of her cancer,” he says. “There are stories contemplating everything from suicides to political massacres to medical choices. It’s a diverse telling of dying well.”

Recently retired from Detroit’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Bill continues to stand up for his community. Last summer, he and other activists from the Poor People’s Campaign protested the inequality that continues to plague the so-called “comeback city.” The protestors blocked the entrance to Quicken Loans and to the Q Line in downtown Detroit, resulting in 22 arrests. The protest was part of a larger effort involving over 5,000 activists in 42 states. The misdemeanor trials began this week in Detroit’s 36th District Court. 

“I’ve been writing about Detroit since 1979," Bill says. "The water shutoffs, emergency management, public education. My work is all related to the reduction of the footprint of Detroit both geographically and financially … and the concentration of resources and the active expulsion of people from certain neighborhoods.”

Bill’s teaching, writing, and activism all fit into his larger theological beliefs; the title of the book is no exception.

“We tend to think of dying well as being comfortable and in hospice care, which is part of it, but the Biblical and Christian sense of dying has to do with how one should have the freedom to die. I think there are a variety of ways that human beings die and from the biblical perspective, all of these can be seen as dying well.”

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann reads from his memoir at Nicola’s Books on Thursday, January 24 at 7 pm.