Last week, on the first day of summer known as the summer solstice, thoughts and memories of my youngest son, Kenneth were close at hand. Friends and family members know this day as the anniversary of Kenneth’s death from complications of AIDS at age 31. They send texts and emails and one friend called to arrange a lunch; all generous ways of companioning me on this day when I experience, after 24 years, what I call “sweet sorrow.”

A former student and writer friend of mine used to refer to me as “my Sheila,” (meaning hers) and I would respond by referred to her as “my Anne.” This delightful practice was for us, a recognition that when we know someone personally, the combination of our personalities and the context in which we know one another brings out various aspects in each of us. These aspects may not be known to anyone else. 

Although it’s over 20 years ago, I still remember the two 50s something men who knew our father from his work life and showed up at his funeral. My siblings and I didn’t know them and had never heard Dad speak of them. They told many stories about how important he was in their having achieved successful work lives. “We worked for him after high school a couple of summers, moving instillation around in an unairconditioned warehouse in Louisville Ky. With his encouragement and that discomfort as motivation, we determined we needed to go to college, and we did.”  

When Kenneth died, my best friend Jyoti King was on vacation in the northwest, unable to get a flight home to Texas in time for Ken’s service. She wrote and emailed a poem, “Ode To Kenneth” which we read as his service, and which, on many summer solstices since, I’ve read and shared with others who did not know Kenneth. This practice always ignites and expands my connection to “my Kenneth,” the one I knew and still love. 

People often explain their discomfort in comforting a grieving person, “I don’t know what to say.” My suggestion is that, if you knew the loved one that the person is grieving, tell them a story about your experience of them. Jyoti did just that in her poem, adding her experience of us, his family. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, even years after she herself has gone from our sight. 

To Kenneth 

I once knew a boy,

a sweet, enchanted boy. 

Or, so the song goes. 

And, there was something about Kenneth

That did seem enchanted and fey; 

an innocence and wonder

with a shy grin that said…

“I’m open to Life and all its fickle offerings.”

“I want to live,” Said Kenneth

when he feared he wouldn’t,

and his life had said the same. 

I want to live on my own terms, in my own time,

in my own way. And he did. 

Sometimes to the consternation of 

those who loved him but feared for him.

Oh, we wanted him to be safe, and sure, 

and sound, and full of self-knowledge. 

Kenneth just wanted to be Kenneth. 

A person who had pleasure in helping to solve

other people’s problems,

and did so with uncommon grace. 

I watched him once, one sunny, fine day…

Taking such obvious pleasure 

in arranging a vase of flowers in such a way as to be

a work of art. 

And it was just for a lunch, a normal lunch, 

but Kenneth liked grace in his life, 

and grace he would have. 

When he became ill, 

with as ungraceful an illness as has ever been 

loosed on the earth, 

he still sought a graceful existence. 

He still sought for all things beautiful 

and he knew love.

He loved his family as fiercely as they loved him;

sometimes it was a “study in fierceness;”

but he was game and steadfast to who he was 

and kept his balance

even in the scariest of times in the ordeal 

of illness and darkness…

“I want to live!”

And he fought the good fight with all

the fierceness he could muster,

and with the uncommon grace of

the enchanted boy 

who loved beauty.  

We shall miss your grace, 

dear Kenneth, 

and your deep lessons 

of loving beauty. 

Jyoti King 

June 1997