Saturday, February 08, 2014

Remembering Kevin

Last Sunday, January 2nd, Ken's brother, Kevin passed away.  He was 54.

Kevin lived with us for almost five years.  The last few months, mainly because Ken has been so ill, Kevin has lived in a group home. We all knew that it was not likely he would live a long life, but the end came shockingly quick. 

When I think of my brother-in-law, Kevin, it is as one of three quite destinct persons. The first is the child.  My earliest clear memory of him was after going to 4th of July fireworks with Ken, his mother, and his two little brothers, Kevin and Keith.  Ken and I were just teenagers. We were all eating ice cream at the counter of a Howard Johnson's restaurant somewhere in California's San Fernando Valley.  Kevin (about  five years old) said, "Mom, is Ken going to marry Dorcas?"  I can still see him--dark brown eyes full of childlike innocence, and that mop of thick wiry hair.  Ken and I laughed self-consciously. 

I soon learned that the George household was not a happy one.  I saw and heard things that shocked me. I was young and I was horrified, and I did not know what to do about what I observed.

Both my mother and father in law have died.  I loved them, and I miss them.  They each had some wonderful qualities.  Mom and Dad were not bad people, but they were very bad parents.  They had no idea how to raise children. I think they loved their kids but were afraid that to show tenderness or affection would make their children weak.   It was impossible to know what would set one, or both, of them into a rage.  A Mormon family, the nice fa├žade was on when needed, but it was quickly discarded at home.

Kevin was an average child with three very intelligent siblings.  The eldest, Karal, was the only girl and had left home by the time I met Ken. All of them endured physical and verbal abuse.  They were  demeaned constantly.  They were hit, sworn at and repeatedly told that they were stupid, dumb, or worthless  Kevin took it to heart the most perhaps. I sometimes wondered, "If the Georges act like that with me around, what must they do when they don't have company?"

Kevin was a good-looking little boy, a  tall, gangly, rather hapless kid. I can see his face when Ken graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. He smiled and smiled--so proud of his big brother. It was a rare good day with the family.  The child Kevin had a sweet smile and an innocent and kind heart. He made me sad.  I knew he was a child who needed affirmation and encouragement but rarely got it. 

Kevin tried to kill himself at age twelve. He was in a coma for a few days, and he was never quite the same afterwards.  A few years ago he told me that he started using drugs at 14. "The stoners," he said, "accepted me."

The second Kevin became an angry, selfish, rebellious teenager who landed in juvenile hall more than once. Mom and dad couldn't handle him, so he was sent to live with big sister, Karal--a  disaster that lasted only a few months and ended very badly.  Next stop to land was with us.  While longer than the stint with Karal (about a year and a half), it did not go well.  We tried, but we were young and Kevin was broken.  There were sometimes glimpses of the person he should have been, but they were rare.  He was too angry, too sullen, too bitter and hate-filled for anyone to deal with.  When I picture him during that time, his face is dark--and not just from his olive skin.  He was quite handsome, but he was always scowling.  He was a thief and an almost pathological liar. 

He did go to church with us, and there was a time when we saw a change which lasted a couple of months. Then he was worse than ever.  He ran away, missing finishing high school by a mere three credits.  After a few encounters here and there, one for his father's funeral and one for his sister's funeral, we did not see him again.   Years passed. Rarely, we heard a little about him.  He was a carnival worker down south somewhere. He was in the Army. He was tossed out of the Army. He was married and back in California.  He was divorced.  He was homeless. He was living with a cousin. 

All attempts to talk to him, including a phone call when his mother died, were refused.  We prayed for him, off and on, and we thought about him sometimes--less as two decades went by.  Sometimes we wondered if he was still alive.

And then one day the phone rang.  It was Kevin.  He was clearly strung out.  He couldn't stop talking.  The voice was unrecognizable.  But it was Kevin.  So I talked, or rather listened, for a while, tears running down my face and then passed the phone to Ken.  Afterwards, we hugged each other and cried.  There were no words to say.

I don't want to write much of what we learned about Kevin. The details of his life are gruesome and sordid.  He had endured eight amputations.  A diabetic who never took care of himself, he developed gangrene in his foot. His foot was amputated, and then, as the infection advanced, more of his leg.  But he said to Ken, "They told me they couldn't take off any more and if it didn't work this time I would die.  I left my anger on the operating room floor with my leg.  I love you and Dorcas.  I don't remember why I hated you so much.  I asked God to forgive me."  He sent us a picture--a scrawny shadow of his former self, with no teeth.  I threw it away. 

A few years passed with occasional phone calls, and two brief visits.  I wrote about one HERE.  He wanted to move here, I think because he thought living with us would help him stop the drugs.  We had no room for him, because my elderly mother lived with us.

Once he called after an extended hospital stay.  He had suffered a third heart attack and he realized that meth, which he had been shooting up for years, was going to kill him at last.  He told us, "I had been trying to talk to God ever since I forgave you when the last of my leg came off.  I just couldn't stop the drugs, and I knew I was going to die.  I never forgot what I heard when I lived with you guys.  I was desperate and I cried out to God to deliver me.  And God did!  I mean, I haven't used meth since.  It has been a month.  I haven't even wanted any.  It has to be the Lord."

Eventually, after my mother died, Kevin moved here with his dogs, Soo Lin the pug and Juanita the Chihuahua--the Most Annoying Dogs Ever--but enough about them.  That brings me to the third Kevin I think of.

Having Kevin at our house was not easy.  He had clearly done a lot of damage to his body and mind.  He had some annoying quirks, like talking loudly to the television.  His hygiene was sporadic.  He was often ill.  He had lived on little besides Ramen noodles for a long time.  Better nutrition and regular doctor visits helped.  There was no more smoking pot, and with the help of Chantrix he even quit smoking cigarettes.

Kevin was almost painfully polite and rather articulate.  Many people did not realize that this middle-aged man was vulnerable and childlike in numerious ways. He continued to make foolish decisions, such as refusing to drink water or really anything but highly creamed and sweetened coffee or diet soda.  It took more than one visit to the Emergency Room with dehydration to eventually convince him that he had to drink water.

He thanked us many times for bringing him to Wisconsin, saying he loved it here. It was so safe.  The first fall, with our beautiful trees, amazed Kevin, as did the first major snowfall.  He took pleasure in simple things.

He attended church at Jubilee AG for a while, even though I was no longer the pastor. In warm weather he could motor there in his electric wheelchair. He became a greeter--a very good one I am told.    Eventually he started coming to church with us, and he loved to sing.  He was baptized and became a church member, something of which he was very proud.    He loved it when Kris, our daughter, and her family moved not far away.  Trinity, his grandniece, often spent Friday night at our house, and many Saturday mornings found the two of them propped up on his bed, laughing together at cartoons.  When Noah, our son Josh's little boy, was born two years ago, Kevin rejoiced at another child in the family.  He often forgot Noah's name, so he usually called both Noah and Trinity, "Baby."  Having children around caused him to think of his long-ago family.  He expressed much sadness and regret about his failed marriage, telling me not long ago, "I will always love Michelle.  And I will always love Kenny and Kelly, my step kids. I did a lot of bad things.  I was not a good dad.  I hope they forgive me." 

He talked to anyone who would listen--the mail carriers, the garbage men, the neighbors, the grocery clerks.  He wasn't shy about sharing his past and telling people that God was the reason he was still alive.  Once he was invited to speak to a local youth group.  With help, he shared his story, telling the kids, "I am a wreck because of bad choices.  I did this to myself, and I am an example of what not to do."  I was later told, "It was probably the best meeting we ever had.  The kids hung on every word, and asked lots of questions.  Even the 'difficult' kids who sit in back were quiet and listened intently."

In the end, the Kevin I will choose to remember is the third one.  He was the affectionate child Kevin returned in a broken adult body.  Emotionally he seemed about 14.  But he was drug and alcohol free for five years, and he gradually laid down most of his bitterness and anger.  He once again became the sweet person he always was underneath.  He loved to hug us and was always glad to see any family or friends who visited.  We had a wonderful time Thanksgiving of 2012, meeting up with  youngest brother, Keith, and other family, our first time together in many years. 

Keith came to our house at Christmas along with Josh, Stephanie and Noah. Our house is small.  Ken, me, Kris, Daryl, Trinity, Josh, Stephanie, Noah, Kevin and Keith in our living room is about six people too many for comfort, but we had a good time.  Yes, Ken remains very sick.  Still, we laughed and smiled and opened presents, and ate too much and watched the two cousins play. There were jokes and hugs and remembering.  There was joy.  Kevin was loved.  All of us were.

Last week he got pneumonia and his kidneys failed and his heart soon gave out.  As the ICU doctor said, "The damage to his body has been great.  It is just too much to undo."

Kevin failed at many things. In the end, he succeeded at the most important things of all.  He gave his live to the keeping of God, he forgave, he loved, he accepted responsibility for his wrongs, he spent several years clean and sober.  He touched many people with his smile, his conversation, his honesty. 

As we talked to him in the ICU, the only part of his body that could move was his foot. He moved his foot at specific times.  We held his hand and told him we love him. We shared a few stories. Trinity was a little scared, but at the end she went back to say, "Good bye, Uncle Kevin.  I love you." 

We said good bye for others who couldn't be there.  We told him that Juanita would be cared for (not by us!) and we told him how glad we were that we reconnected and that he came to Wisconsin.    We told him we were proud of him.  We told him we will see him again.  We remember Kevin.