December 21, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Deep thanks to the pillar of West End

By Bill Nemitz

Never in his 11-plus years as the voice of Portland's West End did Ed King expect to make a lot of friends.

click image to enlarge

Besides publishing the West End News, Ed King also distributed free copies of the Munjoy Hill Observer. In this Nov. 2 photo, King ceremoniously hands over the distribution of the Munjoy Hill Observer to his son, William King. Ed King moved to Russian on Nov. 5, but has returned to Portland to battle serious health issues.

Photo by Liz McMahon

But it happened anyway.

"Try not to make it look like I'm living in the lap of luxury," King requested wryly from the couch in the borrowed condo atop Munjoy Hill that he and his wife, Liz McMahon, will call home through the holidays. "We've been incredibly lucky."

Then again, they haven't.

Six months ago, theirs was a dream fast coming true.

Lucid Stage, the nonprofit arts center on Baxter Boulevard that McMahon directed for the past three years, was closing for lack of operating funds.

The West End News, a rough-around-the edges, not-always-for-profit tabloid that King launched on St. Patrick's Day in 2001, wasn't exactly a cash cow either.

And so the couple, together for the past eight years, took a deep breath and decided to do something different. Something very different.

McMahon landed a job teaching English in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), Russia. The package included a healthy salary, a place to live, health insurance and travel expenses from the United States.

"It seemed like a great opportunity," said McMahon. "We both had decided that we wanted to travel, but we didn't have the money. This was a way around that."

It would be a clean break: King and McMahon threw themselves a going-away party in October -- every guest who attended was required to take something home with them.

"All of our priceless possessions," deadpanned King. "All gone."

Finally, on Nov. 5, off King and McMahon flew, along with their dog, Ruby, to their new life.

King, 62, hadn't been feeling 100 percent before the move. He attributed his discomfort -- lack of appetite, indigestion – to old age and kept it at bay with aspirin and the occasional Alka-Seltzer.

But in late November, when King returned from a brief trip to London to have his temporary visa renewed, McMahon knew something was wrong as he slowly got off the plane in Volgograd.

"He'd lost more weight," she said. "And all the way back from the airport, he didn't say a word. He couldn't even talk."

An ambulance came to their apartment and took King to the hospital. A few days later, speaking through interpreters from the school where McMahon worked, doctors delivered the bad news: It was cancer -- and it had metastasized throughout his colon, pancreas and who knows where else.

So now what?

The hospital, McMahon recalled, resembled "an abandoned mental asylum from the last century. It was really scary ... really scary."

Equally daunting was the language barrier.

"The nurse would say, 'Lift up your right hand and give me your finger,'" said King. But unless an interpreter happened to be nearby, "I had no idea what she was saying."

They knew they had no choice. They had to come home.

From the Portland International Jetport, an ambulance took King directly to Maine Medical Center on Dec. 6. As doctors there put him through a battery of scans and other diagnostic tests, King told them that the doctors in Russia had been "overly dramatic" and he didn't think he was all that sick.

"Then, 20 minutes later, (the Maine Medical Center doctors) came back with almost the same thing," King said.

Pausing, he added, "It wasn't that I didn't believe them. It was more like, 'This can't be right. They must be talking about someone else.'"

It will take a biopsy and more tests to determine just how grim the prognosis is. But the more the doctors spoke about blood counts and tumors, the more King heard their unspoken message: Don't tell anyone we're giving you any hope. Because we're not.

(Continued on page 2)

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