The severe stomach pains began in the early fall of 2004. Ron felt bloated and was uncomfortable sitting or lying down. Walking helped some, but the pain was increasing. He was always tired and couldn't sleep. He roamed the halls of his latest nursing home at all hours of the night, trying to find relief from the pressure building around his stomach. Annette was two hours away and hadn't seen him in a month, though she had heard his complaints by phone. When she picked him up for a visit to the dentist, she was shocked at the size of his stomach. "He looked ten months pregnant," she said. They vetoed the dentist and went straight to a hospital emergency room in Seminole. From there, they were sent to a hospital in Tulsa, where, the following day, Ron was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Inoperable, untreatable, no chance of a transplant. It was another death sentence, and a painful one at that. An optimistic forecast gave him six months. He had lived fifty-one years, and at least fourteen of those had been behind bars with no opportunity to drink. Since his release five years earlier, he had certainly hit the bottle, but there had also been long periods of complete sobriety as he fought alcoholism.
Cirrhosis seemed a little premature. Annette asked the tough questions, and the answers were not easy. In addition to all the booze, there was a history of illicit drug use, though very little since his release. A likely contributing cause was the history of medications. For at least half of his life, Ron had consumed, at various times and in varying amounts, potent doses of very strong psychotropic drugs.
Perhaps he had a weak liver to begin with. It didn't matter now. Once again, Annette called Renee with news that was hard to believe. The doctors drained off several gallons of fluid, and the hospital asked Annette to find another place for him. She was turned down by seven facilities before finding a room at the Broken Arrow Nursing Home.
There, the nurses and staff welcomed Ronnie like an old member of the family.
It was soon apparent to Annette and Renee that six months was an unrealistic prediction. Ron faded quickly. With the exception of his grossly swollen midsection, the rest of his body withered and shrank. He had no appetite and finally stopped smoking and drinking. As his liver rapidly shut down, the pain became excruciating. He was never comfortable, and spent hours walking slowly around his room and up and down the hallways of the nursing home.
The family circled the wagons and spent as much time with him as possible. Annette was nearby, but Renee and Gary and their children were living near Dallas. They made the five-hour drive as often as possible.
Mark Barrett visited his client several times. He was a busy lawyer, but Ron had always taken priority. They talked about death and life after it, about God and the promise of salvation through Christ. Ron was facing death with almost perfect contentment. It was something he looked forward to, and had for many years. He had no fear of dying. He was not bitter. He regretted many of the things he'd done, the mistakes he'd made, the pain he'd caused, but he had sincerely asked God for forgiveness, and it had been granted. He carried no grudges, though Bill Peterson and Ricky Joe Simmons were strung along almost until the end. He eventually forgave them, too.
The next visit Mark brought up the subject of music, and Ron rambled for hours about his new career and how much fun he would have when he got out of the nursing home. The illness wasn't mentioned, nor was the part about dying.
Annette delivered his guitar, but he found it difficult to play. Instead, he asked her to sing their favorite hymns. Ron's last performance was at the nursing home, during a karaoke session. He somehow found the energy to sing. The nurses and many of the other patients by then knew his story and cheered him on. Afterward, with the recorded music playing in the background, he danced with both of his sisters.
Unlike most dying patients with time to think and plan, Ron did not clamor for a minister to hold his hand and hear his final confessions and prayers. He knew the Scriptures as well as any preacher. His foundation in the gospel was solid. Perhaps he'd strayed more than most, but he was sorry for that and it was forgotten.
He was ready.
There had been a few bright moments in his five years of freedom, but it had generally been unpleasant. He had moved seventeen times and had proven on several occasions that he could not live alone. What future did he have? He was a burden on Annette and Renee. He had been someone's burden for most of his life, and he was tired.
Since death row, he had told Annette many times that he wished he'd never been born and that he wanted desperately to just go ahead and die. He was ashamed of the misery he had caused, especially to their parents, and he wanted to go see them, to say he was sorry, to be with them forever. Soon after his release, she found him standing in her kitchen one day, trancelike, staring through a window. He grabbed her hand and said, "Pray with me, Annette. Pray that the Lord will just take me home, right now."
It was a prayer she couldn't complete.
When Greg Wilhoit arrived for the Thanksgiving holidays, he spent ten straight days with Ronnie. Though Ron was rapidly slipping away, and heavily sedated with morphine, they talked for hours about life on The Row, horrible as always but now the source of some belated humor.
By November 2004, Oklahoma was executing condemned men at a record pace, and many of their old neighbors had finally been laid to rest. Ron knew a few would be in heaven when he got there. Most would not.
He told Greg that he had seen the best of life, and the worst. There was nothing else he cared to see, and he was ready to go. "He was completely at peace with the Lord," Greg said. "He had no fear of death. He just wanted to get it over with."
When Greg said good-bye, Ron was barely conscious. The morphine was being used generously, and death was only days away.
Ron's quick demise caught many of his friends off guard. Dennis Fritz passed through Tulsa but couldn't find the nursing home. He planned to return soon for a visit but didn't make it in time. Bruce Leba was working out of state and had temporarily lost contact.
Almost at the last moment, Barry Scheck paid a visit, by phone. Dan Clark, an investigator who had worked on the civil case, rigged up a speakerphone, and Barry's voice filled the room. It was a one-way conversation; Ron was heavily medicated and almost dead. Barry promised to be there soon, to catch up on the gossip, and so on. He got a smile from Ron and a laugh from the others when he said, "And, Ronnie, if you don't make it, I promise you we'll eventually get Ricky Joe Simmons."
When the visiting was over, the family was called in.
Three years earlier, Taryn Simon, a noted photographer, traveled the country profiling exonerees for a book she planned to publish. She took pictures of Ron and Dennis and included a short summary of their case. Each was asked to write or say a few words to accompany his photograph.
I hope I go to neither heaven nor hell. I wish that at the time of my death that I could go to sleep and never wake up and never have a bad dream. Eternal rest, like you've seen on some tombstones, that's what I hope for. Because I don't want to go through the Judgment. I don't want anybody judging me again. I asked myself what was the reason for my birth when I was on death row, if I was going to have to go through all that, What was even the reason for my birth? I almost cursed my mother and dad-it was so bad- for putting me on this earth. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't be born.
- from The Innocents (Umbrage, 2003)
Faced with death, though, Ron retreated slightly. He very much wanted to spend eternity in heaven.
On December 4, Annette and Renee and their families gathered around his bed for the last time and said good-bye.
Three days later, a crowd assembled at the Hayhurst Funeral Home in Broken Arrow for the memorial service. Ron's pastor, the Reverend Ted Heaston, officiated the "celebration" of his life. Charles Story, Ron's chaplain from prison, spoke and recalled some warm anecdotes of their time together at McAlester. Mark Barrett delivered a moving eulogy about their special friendship. Cheryl Pilate read a letter sent in by Barry Scheck, who was occupied with not one but two exonerations elsewhere.
The casket was open, the pale, gray-haired old man was resting peacefully. His baseball jacket, glove, and bat were arranged on the casket, and beside it was his guitar.
The music included two gospel classics, "I'll Fly Away" and "He Set Me Free," hymns Ron learned as a child and sang his entire life, at revivals and church camps, at his mother's funeral with chains around his ankles, at death row during his darkest days, at Annette's the night he was set free. Toe-tapping music, the songs loosened up the crowd and made everyone smile.
The service was sad, obviously, but there was a strong sense of relief. A tragic life was over, and the one who'd lived it had now gone on to better things. This was what Ronnie had prayed for. He was finally free.
Later that afternoon his mourners reassembled in Ada for the burial. A heartwarming number of the family's friends from the town gathered to honor his passing. Out of respect to the Carter family, Annette chose a different cemetery from the one where Debbie was buried.
It was a cold and windy day. December 7, 2004, exactly twenty-two years since Debbie was last seen alive.
The coffin was hauled into place by the pallbearers, a group that included Bruce Leba and Dennis Fritz. After a few final words from a local minister, a prayer, and some more tears, the last farewell was given.
Permanently etched on his tombstone are the words:
RONALD KEITH WILLIAMSON
Born February 3, 1953 Died December 4, 2004