The woman who fixed me up with the Big Guy introduced him as Ken. I learned later that he was Kenny to his co-workers and childhood friends, but that nickname never felt right to me. He was always just Ken, in the same way that my sisters will always be Sue and Barbie to me despite the fact that they are Susan and Barbara to the rest of the world.
I’m not going to talk about my sisters’ name for me. Nope. Suffice it to say that calling them Sue and Barbie definitely makes me the nice sister when it comes to nicknames.
I admit, however, that I sometimes called my husband Kenneth, although that was only under very specific circumstances and usually as part of the phrase Damn it, Kenneth.
For the most part, Damn it, Kenneth was reserved for those moments when he was gleefully jumping on my last nerve or when he had just committed some random act of life-endangering idiocy that was guaranteed to take ten years off my life. To be fair, Damn it, Kenneth was usually preceded by a frustrated growl on my part, but usually ended with a chuckle because the man could so damn funny and aggravating and ridiculous all at the same time.
I came home one day and found him standing on the top rung of a ladder, using a plunger to change the bulb in the yard light. While I had to give him a few bonus points for creative use of a toilet plunger, I pretty much came unglued about his use of the ladder.
Well, not the ladder itself. I took issue with the way he chose to position the ladder.
It was balanced on top of a wet picnic table.
The picnic table was suspended a few feet in the air, one end perched on a rotted tree stump and the other resting on the open tailgate of his truck.
Which was parked on a hill.
An icy hill.
“Easy, Wheezie,” he said soothingly while I screeched at him. “I’ve survived this far, haven’t I?”
“Damn it, Kenneth! Get down!”
“In a minute.” He took his time finishing up and clambered down safely, grinning the whole time. “Jeez, anyone would think I’d never done that before. You worry too much.”
“….damn it, Kenneth.”
He learned to tell me about some of his riskier ideas after the fact, probably to keep me from killing him. When he and his brother had to transport their bull, T-Bone, to a new home, they discovered that the latch on the door of their livestock trailer was broken.
“So you rode on the outside of the trailer?” I demanded.
“Well, somebody had to hold the door shut.”
“So you rode on the outside of the trailer.”
“While it was moving.”
“You could have been killed!”
“But I wasn’t.” And there it was, the cheeky grin and shrug that said Hey, it was no big deal.
“…. damn it, Kenneth.”
At times, it seemed as thought the man had zero sense of self-preservation. He drove demolition derby and raced a souped-up 1973 Chevy Impala at the local racetrack for fun. Sure, he made sure his cars and gear met all safety requirements, but that didn’t make it easier for me to accept his risk-taking. I’d sit in the stands and cheer for him, but I nearly hyperventilated every time the announcer shouted something about the number twelve land yacht spinning out or breaking down or pulling out to pass another car.
His brother was his entire pit crew. Before every race, Little Brother would give him three pieces of advice.
“Keep it clean,” he’d say.
“Stay outta the wall.”
“Don’t do anything that might scare Amy into labor.”
“Damn it, Kenneth!” I’d shout.
He always called me “Wheezie” when I yelled at him for doing stupid things. “Quit your wheezing,” he’d chuckle. “I’ve survived everything I’ve tried so far. Stop worrying.”
Knowing his penchant for taking stupid risks, my panic levels went through the roof when I learned his fire department was planning a day of ice rescue training. I knew that the training would involve putting one of their firefighters in a special protective suit and dropping him into the freezing water to be rescued by his co-workers. I also knew that my Big Guy was going to step up and volunteer to put on the suit.
I had two problems with this idea. First, he was a really big guy. He was over six feet tall and broad shouldered, bulky without quite being fat, and I knew he was perhaps the largest man on the department. I didn’t have a lot of faith that the others would be strong enough to drag him out of the water.
The second problem was, to put it simply, that the Big Guy couldn’t swim. He thought he could, but he couldn’t. He could stay afloat, but that’s not the same thing as swimming, really. He and his father had once survived capsizing their canoe in a frigid Canadian lake, and he was thoroughly convinced that his ability to avoid drowning meant his swimming skills rivaled those of Michael Phelps.
I believed him when he promised he wouldn’t put on the suit. I trusted him to stay out of the water. Even when he came home that night shivering and blue-lipped, I believed he was just cold from standing on the dock for hours, rescuing other firefighters. I even felt sorry for him and poured a liberal shot of whiskey into his hot cocoa.
Then I saw the pictures posted on the department’s Facebook page. There he was, bobbing around in the water, being dragged out on his belly, being helped out of the dripping wet rescue suit.
“DAMN IT, KENNETH!”
“Heh,” he chuckled. “Saw the pictures, huh?”
Even after we separated, there were many Damn it, Kenneth moments, like when a tornado touched down a mile from the house and he sent me text messages assuring me that he was safely in the basement. He was not, in fact, anywhere near the basement. He was happily watching the funnel cloud from the living room window. I saw that as progress since he wasn’t actually outside watching it touch down.
I think we all began to see him as being somewhat invincible. Or at least very, very lucky. It seemed as though he could survive anything.
Until he didn’t.
Can you take me to Urgent Care? He texted me one afternoon.
The Big Guy didn’t do doctors. He just didn’t. He never really saw medical care as a necessity except in the most dire of circumstances. So if he was asking for help going to see a doctor, I knew something was seriously wrong.
He was embarrassed when the doctor said it was just a cold and prescribed an inhaler. “Go to a different doctor,” I said. “Get a second opinion.”
“Nah, I’m feeling better already,” the Big Guy said, giving me a ghost of his usual grin.
A few days later, he texted again to let me know that he was being admitted to the hospital. Influenza A, he told me. No biggie. Stupid doctors.
The official cause of death was “Complications of Influenza A.” He hung on for almost a week after his heart stopped the first time, and our hearts shattered when he didn’t wake up, leaving his loved ones to make the hardest decision anyone should have to face.
We never thought we’d lose him so young; we certainly never thought we’d lose him to something as ridiculous as the flu. He should have gone out doing something utterly idiotic and dangerous, grinning while I stood there shouting Damn it, Kenneth!
… damn it, Kenneth.