Epitaph

My brother Ken has been gone two months today. On Sunday, Daddy will have been gone a year.

Ken started the last year of his life taking care of Daddy, who had become too weak to get up without help. He walked Daddy through the process of dying with grace and a quiet confidence that I didn’t know he possessed. He lifted and carried and bathed and fed with infinite patience. When we knew there was no more time, he was the one who stayed calm while the rest of us fell apart. He told us then that he wanted to die quickly. He made me promise that if he ever found himself in straits similar to Daddy’s, I’d just give him the morphine already and let him go. At least he was spared that.

I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t have the opportunity to tell him that he was a hero. Not just to me, but to so many others who were touched by his courage and by his commitment to equality for everyone. He was one of those rare people who could see beyond his own oppression, who didn’t seek to lift himself by pushing others down, who truly believed in God’s abundance.

Ironically, he struggled with depression throughout his life. There were days when he could barely get out of bed. He had insomnia. The arthritis that started in his twenties hampered his landscaping work. He was painfully shy and hated crowds. While he loved me and my family, he generally liked us best in small doses.

But he changed the world when he stood on the steps of the state courthouse in 2002 and called out Roy Moore, refusing to stay silent when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court used his office to advocate violence against gay people. What had been a fragmented equality movement was galvanized, as others who’d been too frightened or too disheartened or too busy or too uninvolved followed his example and stepped forward to say, “Enough is enough.” I was one of them.

Today, Equality Alabama, the organization that Ken co-founded, is thriving and growing. Alabama has two openly gay elected officials. The state chapter of NOW has been revitalized. The Open Hearts and Minds Lectures in Montgomery are an ongoing success. One young man whose parents disowned him now has another family: his gay dads, his adopted aunt and uncle, and three girls who consider themselves his sisters. Immanuel Presbyterian Church has a beautiful memorial garden, and the man who designed it is now truly a part of it.

Ken never wanted acclaim for his accomplishments. Frankly, it embarrassed him. He was happy to be at home with his beloved partner and their dogs, working in the yard or searching eBay for Tallulah Bankhead memorabilia to add to his collection. But he was called to speak out against injustice, and he answered.

If he had to have an epitaph at 50, I’d say that’s a damn good one.

17 Responses to “Epitaph”

  1. [...] Birmingham Blues » Blog Archive » Epitaph Posted Alabama Politics on Friday, January 11th, 2008. [...]

  2. KathyF says:

    Beautiful post. Especially the last line.

  3. Dianne says:

    I didn’t realize your brother had passed away. He sounds like an amazing man. You did a wonderful job summing up his essence above.

  4. Kathy says:

    Thank you! I was surrounded with soggy Kleenex by the time I finished.

    Dianne, he died very suddenly of what we’re pretty sure was an aneurysm. Literally here one minute and gone the next.

  5. Nancy says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about you and Aunt Pat. I know you’ve both had more than your share for awhile. While I can’t say I understand your pain, I do know how much I love my parents and siblings. Your words are beautiful, Kathy. It is clear how very much you love him. Ken’s life certainly was not lived in vain. Imagine our world if there were more Ken’s out there. My prayers continue to be with you, your mom and Tony. <3

  6. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Nancy. I hope his life will continue to inspire those people who can continue his work.

  7. Helen says:

    Amen, Kathy. Reading your moving tribute, I learned more about Ken–had no idea he was an introvert and am in even greater awe of his accomplishments. Would that we all could leave such a legacy.

  8. bhmhomeboy says:

    Peace be with you and your family.

  9. Steve M. says:

    Beautiful post.

  10. Kathy says:

    Thanks, all. Helen, I agree. It’s a small miracle that the boy who rarely opened his mouth grew to be a man who found his voice.

  11. Songbird says:

    What a beautiful life he had. Bless you as you adjust to life without him.

  12. Your brother in law says:

    Kathy, this is so beautiful. I think of Ken so many times everyday but today I met our contractor and our plumber at the Equality Alabama office so they could install a water heater. These two men and their crews have been a great help to me, Ken and I consider them both friends. Anyway, as I stood in the office waiting for each one to complete their work, I looked at the pictures of the rallies and events that Ken either organized or participated in. I was always so proud of him. Little did anyone know what an impact any of this would have on our lives, especially Ken. He would just say something has to be done and he would start organizing and calling people. One of the men asked, “what do we do in this building?”. As I tried to put into words that there are meetings, potluck dinners, and movie nights held here, I finally felt Ken’s spirit with me and I said, ” We build community”.
    This is what Ken so humbly strived for, building community, making a difference. Ken felt everyone is important, has worth and must be treated fairly.
    Even though I love and miss him deeply, I am glad to see the difference he made and the people stepping forward to continue his efforts.

  13. Kathy says:

    BIL, that is so beautiful — and exactly right. “We build community.” That’s what Ken was about, and he has inspired so many others to do the same. And he couldn’t have done what he did without you. He loved you, and all of us here do too.

  14. Jennifer says:

    I am so glad you were able to put that into words. Writing heals your soul and we are the beneficiaries of it.

  15. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Jennifer.

  16. Kimaree Long says:

    Kathy-
    I met you today through a forwarded email to me of the blog entry above. Through subsequent emails with my uncle Larry Baker, it was revealed to me that you and Ken are my cousins, though perhaps a bit distant. I am so thrilled to have made your acquaintance, though deeply remorseful it is under such sorrowful circumstances. What an extraordinary man Ken was. I am so very sorry I didn’t know him or Tony or you. I am honored to share the family lines, and yet horrified at missing the chance to know you both. If there is anything I can do, please don’t hesitate to write. My prayers are with you and the family.
    Kimaree Long (New Orleans- Granddaughter of Jim Baker)

  17. Kathy says:

    Kimaree, it’s great to hear from you! We haven’t met (yet), but I remember a family visit to Mobile when your mother was expecting you. I kept up with you through our great-grandmother, who always had pictures. Thanks for your kind words.

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