Kenneth Wayne Batts, RIP, 8 Sep 2017
It’s eerie, the hindsight premonition that often follows a death, even a very sudden one. When I heard our friend’s ex-father-in-law Warren’s voice message around 9:30 last Friday night, I immediately thought something was wrong with Kenny. Then I checked my cell phone and saw that Kenny had called just a little while earlier. Kenny’s call was not unusual. For the last several months – until last week – Kenny had been renovating a house for us, and I often went over there to drop off stuff, check on things, and help where I could. That house is the last large project Kenny completed, and it is the reason Kenny and my family have become so close.
I met Kenny in 2008, when a tree limb fell on our first rental property (the house that he just finished renovating) shortly after we bought it. Our ‘tree guy’ and new friend Warren Peters told us that his son-in-law (once a father-in-law, always a father-in-law where they’re concerned) could come out and repair the damaged roof that day. After Kenny had fixed the wood and replaced the broken shingles, I drove over to pay him.
“How much do I owe you,” I asked as we walked to his truck.
He thought for a few seconds. “Eighty dollars,” he said.
I was flabbergasted, particularly since it was a Saturday, and he’d come out within hours of being contacted. I gave him a hundred. “Here’s a little extra, so you can get a few beers after a hard day’s work.”
“I don’t drink beer,” Kenny had said in his strong, Southern accent.
Kenny has done a lot more work for us over the years. In 2010, while we were in Australia for 2 weeks, Kenny put the cork floor in the kitchen of our first house and installed the beautiful Australian hardwood that my husband Mike had so lovingly chosen, and with which we could only afford to floor the family room.
Kenny took some of the extra wood and made an intricate and beautiful wooden island for our kitchen. This meant that some of the work we needed done had not been completed as planned, which frustrated me immensely at first (I never told Kenny). But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate the thoughtfulness, love, and craftsmanship in Kenny’s gift.
After we moved, during which our old house was being renovated by an interim owner, Kenny turned the island into a beautiful coffee table for us and installed a matching countertop with what was left of the hardwoods that were pulled from our old house. He used the cork from our old kitchen to floor the laundry room, and the pieces he couldn’t use, he turned into coasters and trivets. That man certainly knew how to recycle wood and building materials into practical works of art.
Kenny did our first renovation/remodel in 2011, turning a smelly old house with a lot of rotted wood into a beautiful property with a big bay window (which Kenny suggested and installed for a steal).
He also constructed a new stairwell to the half-basement and the room upstairs (the first stairwell was in the master bedroom!).
And he installed new floors throughout the upstairs and basement, laundry facilities, and additional electrical outlets wherever he needed them. (Seems like whenever Kenny did a sizable project for us, we got an additional outlet or two for free.) That is the house in Northgate Park with the big sun painted on the front. Kenny was one of the few who appreciated my sun.
I helped get the house ready by painting, tiling and doing other relatively small jobs. I will never forget when I was painting the upstairs paneling, and Kenny came up and just sat on the old couch up there and ate his lunch. “You don’t mind if I just sit here and watch, do you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman work before.” And so began a number of heartfelt conversations that have benefited both of us over the years.
Once Kenny realized I wasn’t afraid of hard manual labor, during our most recent renovation, the two of us moved a cast-iron bathtub into the house. Once we got it into the tiny bathroom, I didn’t have the strength to help lift it anymore. Kenny picked up the whole darned thing and, red-faced and sweating, placed the tub exactly where he wanted it.
Five minutes later, chugging a bottle of water, Kenny said, “Man, I don’t know why I’m sweating so much.”
“Because you’re 50 years old and just picked up a cast-iron bathtub by yourself,” I chided, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Over the last few months, I have talked with Kenny about his ex-wife, his ensuing divorce, his desire to own a house, his finances, his Romeo tendencies, his relationship with his son, everything it seems. And he has talked with me about so many memories and frustrations in my life. As Mike and I delved into this whole Air B&B renovation (the most recent house that Kenny did for us) and Mike’s workload and stress increased, Kenny made it his personal mission to help reduce the non-Pharma-related stress in Mike’s life. Kenny and I designed the bathroom together, picked out tile together, determined which colors would go on which walls, all the while with Kenny saying, “I don’t want to tell you what to do,” or “I hope you don’t mind that I took the liberty…”
I didn’t realize it, but Kenny had become my ‘work-husband’ as well as my friend, filling in as a confidante and a source of feedback and doing the manual labor while Mike fulfilled his white-collar obligations. He reduced a lot of stress on Mike and alleviated a lot of stress in me. He made me feel special and appreciated and safe to be myself; and I loved him for it. Mike’s gonna have it a lot harder now that Kenny isn’t here; and, then, Mike had his own close friendship with Kenny.
I so looked forward to helping Kenny obtain his ‘own’ house and to partnering with him to renovate or build more for us. And I looked forward to being there when Kenny found his next true soul-mate, someone who attracted him physically but who was a real partner in his work and finances, someone like his first wife Julie but who, having met Kenny later in life, had a better chance at a successful marriage.
Which brings me back to hindsight premonition.
When I saw that Kenny had called last Friday night, rather than thinking “Phew, at least I know he’s alright,” I immediately knew he was not alright. When I listened to the voice message and heard Julie’s voice, I immediately thought he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident. When I called Kenny’s number back, Julie confirmed my fears.
Mike had gone to bed early and was already asleep, so I decided not to tell him until morning. My kids were home and still awake, but I didn’t want to put this on them so late in the evening. So I sat on the couch, feeling sadly special in my awareness that Kenny was no longer in our world.
I thought about the last time I saw Kenny, just two nights before. He had stopped by the house on his motorcycle with B.J., his new love. He’d been talking a lot about B.J. lately, and I was both happy and wary for him, given his past record of jumping in head-first with women (his divorce to his 3rd wife was not yet final). When I opened the door and saw them standing there, I was surprised and somewhat bothered, because Mike and I had been in a huge argument that day and neither of us was in a good place. As had become custom, I immediately unloaded on Kenny about my frustrations. Then I apologized to B.J. and told her that she can see why Kenny has so many women friends.
“I’ll go get Mike,” I said before they left. “He’ll want to meet B.J.”
“No. Don’t disturb him,” Kenny had said. “I don’t want to interrupt him working.”
“Oh, he’s just pissed at me. He’s fine with anybody else,” I’d said.
“No, it’s good,” Kenny insisted. “I texted him and thanked him for all he’s done for me. The house looks great. I am so happy for you guys.” (Our first Air B&B customers were checking in the next day.)
“And he texted me back,” Kenny said excitedly as he was leaving. “He texted me back.”
Kenny was a big man. He could have been John Henry in a past life. My biggest (and probably most selfish) regret is that I didn’t get one last big bear hug from him before he left; I only put my hand on his arm when I thanked him, in return, for all he’d done for us.
Kenny was glowing with happiness when he and B.J. left our house that evening. He loved riding his bike; he loved his involvement with the Concerned Biker Association; he loved his friends; he loved being back in the tree business (because several who had previously worked with him got in touch just as he was finishing our renovation); and apparently he loved B.J. I was glad that he’d finally caught a good wave in his life.
It also occurred to me that Kenny’s goodbye seemed to have more closure than usual. I figured he was about to disappear on us again, but I fully expected him to resurface.
As all his loved-ones know, it takes a lot to kill Kenny. This is the guy who broke his leg by kicking a wall when he was asleep. This is the man who worked – manual labor – two days after he literally broke his back on the job, repeatedly assuring his co-workers that he felt ‘alright.’ This is the man, who, two days before he died, told me that he was hurting from a tree limb that fell on him the day before, then assured me he was okay and insisted the two of us replace a broken dryer with an even older and heavier one before our first guests checked in the next day.
I never expected Kenny’s goodbye last week to be our last. But I am grateful that Kenny was truly happy the last time I saw him and that I see the real purpose he served in my life and the lives of so many others. Kenny was nothing if not honest and heartfelt. This meant that he was sometimes quick to become frustrated and angry and to succumb to self-doubt. He had been thinking deeply about this in recent months, and it seemed he was finally reaching contentment. What’s more, B.J. and I talked until 2 AM after the funeral, and she may be one of the most intelligent, deep-thinking and heartfelt people I’ve ever met. It seems that Kenny may have found his life-long partner after all.
I’m told by those who were riding with Kenny when he slid off the road last Friday that no-one thought the wreck would result in a cast, much less a casket. Apparently, Kenny had no idea either, because he held out his arms as his motorcycle slid under the bushes, as if resigned to the fact that his bike was going to be damaged. No one was aware of the hidden ditch and the big tree that waited for Kenny’s impact on the other side. They fully expected him to crawl out of the bushes; after all, this is Kenny we’re talking about. But when they went to him, he was already dead.
Maybe Kenny died immediately and didn’t even realize the extent of what was happening. But I can’t stop thinking that, just before he and his motorcycle hit that tree, Kenny thought, “So this is how I’m going to die? Well, alright then.” Kenny was certainly most happy when he was on his motorcycle. At least I can find solace in the knowledge that he left this world riding a good wave.