In 1992, my office was in a small, “vintage” building in downtown Boise. We had a new office neighbor moving in. We had been worried, since the rumor mill had said the new tenant might be a nail salon and we knew the ductwork between our offices was shared. Happily, like many rumors, it turned out to be false. Ken was moving in.
We watched this very tall man carry impossibly large things up the stairs to his new office space. Quietly and gracefully, all the pieces of his new and first acupuncture clinic were assembled. A few days later, his sign was on the door and he was open for business. We met him on the stairs outside of his office, introduced ourselves, and found a gentle giant of sorts — an amused but serious man, with a passion for healing. We became fast friends.
Over the next several years, Gary and I spent many hours on his acupuncture table, enjoying the many benefits of Ken’s skill with the needles. I always learned something from him. He reminded me of a monk, as he would lean over the table and work his magic. He knew exactly what to do. On many levels, he was absolutely brilliant.
Ken hadn’t planned on becoming a doctor of Chinese medicine. After enduring unspeakable horrors as a sniper in Vietnam, Ken had escaped to Ketchum, Idaho, where he spent much of his adult life alternating between being a carpenter and a ski instructor. These were the glory days of fantastically-pure illegal drugs and pre-AIDS sex. He had a great time. Never married; probably broke a lot of hearts. He has blue eyes that rival Paul Newman’s.
Driving too many nails and screws over the years finally took its toll, and he wound up with a right elbow injury that just wouldn’t heal. His livelihood was in jeopardy. In desperation, he turned to acupuncture and found permanent relief. It was time for a change in profession. He moved to Santa Fe, studied Traditional Chinese Medicine, and decided to set up his first practice in Boise, where he had gone to college before Vietnam.
In 1993, on the weekends, Ken helped us build a big deck at the home we used to own in the mountains, outside of Boise.
(Ken (left) and Gary)
We’d work long days on the deck and end the evenings with a small glass of single-malt scotch, watching the sunsets. We paid him what he asked for, knowing it was a great deal. He could cut boards like nobody’s business. He put his old tool belt on and drove screws into the deck with grace and power. It’s always a thing of beauty to watch someone do what they do best.
A few months later, my dear friend, Karen, came for a visit. She had divorced an idiot several years earlier, and was raising her young daughter alone. On the way to the airport, we dropped by my office to show it to Karen. We met up with Ken on the stairs, again. We introduced the two of them and something happened. The cosmos was working overtime. The attraction was palpable.
A year later during another visit, Karen, Ken, Gary, and I spent a day hiking up the residual snowbanks on the north side of our local ski slope.
The guys skied down while Karen and I watched and laughed. It was a great weekend. Ken told us time and time again how important old friends are, as he watched Karen, Gary, and I laugh the way old friends do.
And that was that.
In 1995, near Karen’s house in Phoenix, they were married in a simple ceremony. Unfortunately, Gary and I couldn’t attend because we were living in New Zealand for a few months. But at the exact time of their wedding, I found a heart-shaped rock by the stream we were fishing at. The next day, I sent it to them with the silliest wedding vows you’ve ever read.
The next ten years were everything for Karen and Ken: Great, difficult, fun, interesting, hilarious, adventurous, challenging, and confusing. Ken had brought plenty of baggage to the marriage, it turned out.
A few years later, Ken took Karen and her daughter, Tara, back to Ketchum to show them where he had enjoyed so much of his life. He proudly introduced them to many of his oldest and dearest friends (none of whom could believe that he had actually, finally, gotten married).
(Tara, Karen, and Ken)
As time went on, Ken’s PTSD became more and more evident and it took over most of his waking and sleeping hours. With much trepidation and help from the VA, he opened that can of worms and everyone in the household suffered the consequences in their own way.
A few years later, at his acupuncture clinic in Arizona, Ken put needles in a patient, left the room for a moment to answer a phone call, and then left for lunch. He came back an hour later and was horrified to find a very confused patient still on his acupuncture table. Something was very, very wrong. He filed for Social Security disability soon thereafter.
I remember the night, several years later, when he told me about the worst day of all in Vietnam. The day when color changed, forever. The day his brain was scrambled, forever. Ken would never be the same again, ever.
A while later, he came to Boise to visit us and pick up a Harley Davidson motorcycle. We all knew this was a bad idea, but he insisted on pursuing the fantasy. We were in the middle of a major remodeling project and were befuddled by a particularly difficult ceiling line and hallway that we were trying to construct. How fortuitous it was that Ken should be coming for a visit!
Ken and Gary pondered the problem and ran out to buy lumber. Ken took measurements and cut the boards wrong. Then he cut the boards wrong again.
Ken loaded his motorcycle into the back of his pickup truck and drove back home to Arizona. We ripped out his boards and dashed back to Home Depot for more wood.
The VA did what it could for Ken, but about five years ago, the verdict was clear: What everyone had assumed was severe PTSD was actually Alzheimer’s. His life gradually narrowed to spending his days sitting on the couch, watching TV, pretending to read books, and eating cookies. His driving skills deteriorated and his attempts at simple home improvement projects were laughable if they hadn’t been so sad and crooked.
On one visit to their home, Ken had a few remarkably clear moments, so I told him how much Karen loved him and only wanted the best for him. He said he knew that was true and that he was sorry. He just wanted to live with dignity.
For the next few years, Karen found herself in more and more of a caretaking role and tried to find humor where she could. Her watch disappeared one day and she found it a month later at the bottom of the cookie jar. Strange credit card purchases, like dozens of BPA-free water bottles, made no sense. The lies stacked up, one on top of each other, as Ken used his remaining brilliance to try to cover his tracks. Occasional moments of clarity would bring hope where there wasn’t any.
You’ve heard all of this before, I’m sure. The water was left on. Ken fell down the steep staircase more than once. Doors were left unlocked. He would just take off walking and be found wandering next to the freeway. Something had to be done.
After wrestling with all of the guilt, grief, and fear, Karen moved Ken to a skilled nursing facility about an hour away. He was 65 years old at the time; on the way there, he couldn’t figure out how to buckle his seat belt.
He had just enough awareness left to basically understand what was happening and why, but he sure didn’t like it. He’d always say this was just a big mistake and that one of these days, he was going to make a run for it. I’d send him cookies for holidays and call occasionally. Our conversations were brief and disjointed. Just a few months later, calling him became pointless since the technology of a simple flip phone was now too much for him to handle.
When I visited Karen, we went to see Ken and, for about the first ten minutes, the Ken we knew and loved would make an appearance. He was funny, charming, and almost normal. But after those first ten minutes, the repetition would start and never end. His eyes would fill with tears at times, and so would mine. He and Karen said goodbye and then he wandered back inside, to his shared room, to the twin bed that was way too short for his 6”4” frame.
Karen and I hugged in the parking lot and cried. I knew this would be the last time I’d see him. We drove back to Karen’s house and made martinis. What the hell.
It got worse, of course. Ken would get mad, which would scare the other inmates and the ill-equipped staff. They would overmedicate him. He would fall again. He needed to live where the staff knew how to handle Alzheimer’s patients. The best solution turned out to be the VA Hospital in Phoenix, where he still exists today. He is 67 years old.
I haven’t seen Ken since he was moved to the VA. His brother, shown with Ken and Karen below in a 2013 photo, can no longer handle the visits. He said he wrote Ken off a long time ago. Sometimes it’s better to be an only child.
(Ken, Paul and Karen)
One of Ken’s oldest friends just visited last month and Ken still remembered him; some of his long-term memory from high school is still there. Ken still knows he was a Marine. But he didn’t recognize Karen’s daughter, Tara, last fall.
Karen and her brother went down to visit Ken last week. For once, Ken wasn’t prompted by one of the staff saying , “Ken, look, your wife is here!” They walked into his room and he seemed to have no awareness that they were in the room. Karen asked Ken if he knew who her brother was. Ken looked at him with vague, blue eyes and said, “No. I hate it when people ask me that.”
They tried to talk with him further; instead, Ken talked in circles while Karen and her brother listened.
Eventually, Karen asked her husband if he knew who she was. Ken looked at her said, flatly, “No.” She said, “I’m your wife.” He just looked at her. As Karen put it, if she had told him that she was Santa Claus, his reaction probably would have been the same.
Ken later remarked that he wasn’t sure how much longer he could live this way.
Karen and her brother grabbed her iPhone and started shooting photos. Ken had no idea where to look.
One of these days, Karen is going to call me and tell me that Ken has died. And I am going to run to the airport and get on the first plane I can. But, truth be told, Ken died a long time ago. This vibrant, funny, handsome, talented, brilliant man with the brightest blue eyes died a long time ago.
As I write this, what makes me sad is that I really, really miss him. I can’t tell him how much knowing him has meant to me and how honored I am that he called me one of his good friends. And I can’t tell him that I love him and wish him well in his journey. And that I hope our paths will cross again, somehow.
I hope you will do what I no longer can with my dear friend, Ken: If you love someone, tell them…a lot. You never know when you won’t be able to.
Happy 20th Anniversary to my old friends, Ken and Karen.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.