I was skinny and a short little boy at age eleven. My friends would make fun of me, calling me skinny Kenny. The youngest of five siblings, I was also the smallest. My daddy was my hero and most ardent cheerleader, standing up for me gently and quietly. I was a lot like my daddy, both in personality and in slim build. My daddy had smoked his entire life and had emphysema. I was his caregiver, often emptying the store brand green bean tin can that he would urinate in because he did not have the strength to walk the twenty steps to the bathroom in our eight hundred square foot home. I slept with daddy because momma had moved out of the bedroom. I did not know why; I just knew I got to be close to daddy, which was fine with me. We would laugh together as daddy told corny jokes in bed at night before we fell asleep. But, sometimes, daddy would start coughing and could not catch his breath. I would shake in fear as I watched him grip the shirt on his chest, desperately gasping for air. I watched helplessly, not knowing if it were the last breath, I would see him take. I did not understand why I felt embarrassed when my dad would fight for air in front of one of my friends. I worried more about what my friend thought than my dad’s inability to breathe.
My mom worked hard for just a few dollars an hour at a fish camp as the store clerk. She usually came home tired and never seemed to be happy. She seemed oblivious to anything that went on in the home. For some reason, she was always angry at my dad. One day as my family, minus mom, was in the living room laughing and having fun. My mom emerged from her bedroom, self-imposed exile. The silent treatment was her way of punishing our whole family for not measuring up to her standards. She looked directly at my dad and asked: “Are you satisfied now?” She abruptly picked up an ashtray and threw it across the room, narrowly missing my dad, who ducked just in time. Everyone scrambled out of the house like the cockroaches we would see when we turned on the lights at night. It seemed like hours before I slipped around to the back of the house and peaked in the back door window. My mom was sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of prescription medicine in front of her. I watched in horror as she tipped the medicine bottle up like a shot of whiskey and emptied the entire contents of the bottle into her mouth, swallowing a glass of water to wash them down. Running to the neighbor’s house, I frantically knocked on the door where Mr. Harrington, a deputy sheriff, lived, all the while screaming for help. I watched momma, strapped to a rolling gurney, as she was taken from our home kicking and screaming using language even up till then I had never heard and placed her in an ambulance, lights flashing, being taken to the hospital. Neighbors gawked, watching the scene like an audience at a train wreck.
Laura was my oldest sister, getting married at the age of 18 as soon as she was out of high school, probably to get away from the chaos I thought was normal. She was the closest thing to a caregiver I ever had. When she left, I no longer had anyone to care for me and began to take on responsibilities no eleven-year-old should ever have had to endure.
Joseph was my oldest brother, who had been run over by a dump truck when he was young and had a gaping grotesque hole in his back and a colostomy bag that hung on his stomach. He smelled of feces most of the time because he would not bathe and clean himself properly. Because of his dump truck accident, he missed school for months and was very immature socially. I was embarrassed to be around him yet often forced to rely on him for transportation. Also, I wouldn’t say I liked Joseph for reasons no one ever knew. Before I began to sleep with daddy, I had to sleep with Joseph, who started to molest me. I didn’t know what to do or who to tell, so I just didn’t.Frank was my other brother who made it a point to show everyone he was bigger and meaner than anyone else. He weighed at least 250 lbs. and once fell on me so hard that I was sure I would never catch my breath. Frank just laughed and left me to recover on my own.
Annie was my sister and closest in age. We were like twins and spent much time together. Annie was the family’s black sheep and would run away from home only to be brought back by the police a few days later. Once, my mom refused to go to the police station to get her, leaving her to spend the night in jail so she could “learn her lesson.”One day, my dad had a restless night of sleep and woke up struggling to breathe. My anxiety level was high watching another morning of his suffering. He asked me to stay home from school with him because he didn’t want to be alone. I had been scolded too many times by momma for missing school for daddy, so I reluctantly said no. So, I went off to school, feeling awful that I was letting him down. Later that day, my teacher told me to go to the office for a message. When I finished eating my government-provided free lunch, I went to the office. The principal told me my mother needed me at home and released me to walk the three blocks home. When I got home, there was an extra car in the driveway. I walked into the house to find all my brothers and sisters frantically cleaning the house. Annie was the first to see me and, with tears in her eyes, said: “daddy died.” I didn’t know what to think or do. I went into the bedroom where momma lay in the bed, feeling the effects of a sedative the doctor prescribed for her. She didn’t even hug me; she just said: “Daddy said to tell you goodbye.”
Dr. Ken Taylor, LPCS, CSAT is the Director of Bright Side Counseling Center in West Columbia, SC.
He is the father of three beautiful children and the husband of 37 years.