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Exit Laughing

Leo Murillo, Once a Hospice Volunteer Who, as a Clown, Eased Other's Final Journeys, Faces His Own Terminal Illness With a Smile

October 08, 1998|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Leo Murillo dies, he's taking Crash with him.

He's thought this through. See, until just recently, Murillo, 73, was a hospice volunteer, someone who helps terminally ill patients die with dignity. Now he's a hospice patient with terminal cancer--doctors say he has only weeks to live. He's also Crash, a much beloved clown at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, whose sole purpose--along with the hospital's 10 other clowns--has been to elicit smiles.

Now, in a bittersweet reversal, the hospice volunteers support him, and his clown family, including his girlfriend Marty Diem (alias 8 Ball the clown), brings him cheer.

"Unlike Leo, most people don't realize that when we die, we take all our personas with us," said the Rev. Brad DeFord, chaplain for the Torrance Memorial hospice who will conduct Murillo's funeral services when the time comes. The service won't be your everyday funeral. Murillo wants them to send in the clowns. All 10 of his cohorts will attend in costume.

"How else can we mourn the loss of Crash?" DeFord asks. Murillo, a retired factory worker, became interested in hospice volunteering and subsequently clowning in 1993 after his wife of 21 years suffered a terminal illness and, with hospice support, died at home. "The hospice service was so good to us I wanted to find a way to give back."

His plans were put on hold when he suffered a minor stroke the following year.

"I remember sitting in a wheelchair in the hall feeling particularly miserable, when I felt someone put an arm around me. I looked down and saw the pants and shoes of a clown. She was a mime, so she didn't speak, but she made me smile. She visited me again five days later. I realized that after all the misery I'd gone through, a clown made me smile."

Several months later, he joined Torrance Memorial Medical Center as a volunteer, filling in where needed, with the hospice as a special interest. Shortly thereafter, he met Diem, also a volunteer and sometime clown. Murillo expressed an interest in learning more about clowning, then discovered that he and Diem, 72, had lived in the same mobile home park for the last 13 years.

"Marty was a godsend for Leo," DeFord said. "Through her companionship, he got the chance to embody and express a part of himself that needed expression."

"She made a clown out of me," Murillo quips.

She took him to the next Clown Alley meeting of the World Clown Assn., and later they attended clown school together at the University of Wisconsin. At clown school, after he fell down a flight of stairs, he got the name Crash.

DeFord sees the moniker as symbolic, even redemptive: "Though he was named for his fall, Crash represents a part of Leo that allowed him to forgive himself for his failings through humor and come to peace with his life. We all fall and fail and make mistakes, but rather than be an object of ridicule, Crash became a subject of humor. He makes me ask, where's the Crash in me?"

Born in Mexico, Murillo moved to the South Bay when he was just a year old and has lived there since. His first marriage was troubled, and he's worked hard in recent years to reconcile with his five children.

"Hi! I'm Crash."

"And I'm 8-Ball. I've got this big pocket, and I'm collecting smiles. Oops! There's one now."

The tag team is sitting in the living room of Murillo's mobile home clowning around. Though still able to move around, he's in a hospital bed looking remarkably young for his age and impossibly spry considering his disease, and Diem is where she often is these days, at his bedside. They're acting out, by visitor request, part of the routine that, until Murillo's diagnosis in May, had for three years sent them around the hospital cheering the infirm.

"We never came in with needles, charts, pills or bad news. We only wanted smiles, and nine out of 10 times we got them," Murillo said.

Other days Murillo went about the more somber work of hospice care. Though clowns and hospice typically don't mix, on one occasion, which still brings Murillo to tears, they did. The widow of one of Murillo's hospice patients, who was Irish, asked Murillo to please come to her husband's wake--as a clown.

"I called a dozen friends to ask, 'How does a clown behave at an Irish wake?' "

"Actually, it was quite appropriate," says DeFord, noting that clowns date to the Middle Ages and evolved with the theater, where they were the white masks of death. "When we invite clowns in the present, we're inviting death in a way that makes death fun. Clowns help us accept that we die."

That's one reason Murillo insists that all the hospital clowns come to his funeral. The other reason is to pay Crash their respects. Afterward, Murillo will be cremated with Crash's green tramp suit, oversized necktie and brown derby.

"We're going together," he said. The marker at Torrance's Pacific Crest Cemetery will bear the name Crash alongside Murillo's.

The loss of his second wife and the experience of helping other people prepare for their own passing have helped Murrilo face the prospect of his death.

"I've made my peace with the Lord. I'm comfortable with my family's acceptance and am grateful for having known Marty. I want to be remembered by my children as a hard-working father, by my friends as someone able to accept my destiny without any noise, and by the clowns as a fellow clown who tried to help."

At the eulogy, DeFord will pay tribute to a man he says, "knew how to overcome, a man who no longer needs to wear a mask, because he is what he is. It's appropriate that the clown die with him."

And he'll leave those who knew both the clown and the man with something to think about: "Leo doesn't need Crash like he needed him before. We may still need him, but Leo doesn't."

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