TUPELO – When people die, they hang around in the hearts and minds of the people who loved them.
From closets full of clothes to pictures in photo albums, the world’s filled with reminders.
Willie Patterson, 58, of Tupelo, lost her son, Kenny, in early 2008. Because of injuries at birth, he lived with profound mental and physical disabilities.
For 26 years, he was unable to talk and spent most of his life in bed. Kenny’s father left soon after Patterson made it clear her son wasn’t going to spend his life in an institution.
She became the primary caregiver, blending his food to make it edible, patiently rubbing Vaseline onto his skin to keep it supple and healthy.
“Every two or three hours, I had to get out of bed and turn him and give him fluids,” Patterson said. “I had to make sure he was dry. He never had bedsores in his life.”
Though he couldn’t play with them, Kenny’s room overflowed with stuffed animals. He had Pooh bears, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, giant puppy dogs, dragons, ducks, cats, frogs, horses and kangaroos.
In addition, a menagerie of ceramic angels, clowns and animals surrounded him throughout his life.
“Everything that was out there that he couldn’t see,” Patterson said, pointing toward a window, “I made sure he had it inside – all the clowns, all the animals, all of it.”
Her son couldn’t speak, but Patterson knows in her heart the two of them communicated.
“We could. We could communicate eye-wise, and sounds, different sounds,” she said. “I knew what it sounded like when he was hungry. I knew the sound when he was wet.
“I knew the look in his eyes when he was hurting. I knew when he wanted to be loved.”
Kenny’s nickname was “Weedy.” Patterson gave it to him because it sounded powerful, like someone who wouldn’t give up.
He seldom went to the hospital, but when he did, Patterson looked into Weedy’s eyes and saw life there.
“I saw him saying, ‘I’m fighting for you, Mama,'” she said.
In the winter of 2008, he caught pneumonia and was taken to the fourth floor of North Mississippi Medical Center, where nurses and doctors took a personal interest.
“You knew Weedy had touched their hearts,” Patterson said. “They would stay after work, and when they got home, they would call back to check on him.”
At first, Patterson had the same faith that had served her well in the past. She had seen her boy sick before, and she believed he would come through again.
“What made me give up and realize this is it is when I looked in my baby’s eyes. All the other times, I could see Weedy,” she said. “When I looked into his eyes that day, he told me, he said, ‘Mama, I’m tired, but I’m still fighting.’
“I could see it in his eyes. I told him, I said, ‘Mama understands, baby.’ I said, ‘The gates of heaven have opened for you.’
“He took three breaths in my arms. The fourth breath, he was gone.”
She thought of Weedy as an earth-bound angel. He’d never sinned, she reasoned, so he had to be an angel. It’d been her privilege to care for him.
And when he was gone, Patterson wasn’t sure how to move on after 26 years of constant vigilance.
“I never let him go,” she said. “For the past two years, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with his things.”
Everywhere she looked, Patterson saw toys that Weedy hadn’t been able to play with when he was alive. She’d kept all of the stuffed animals, all of the ceramic figures, all of the little things that had once brought the outside world inside for her son to see.
Nearly two weeks ago, Patterson made a big decision. She packed up the toys and delivered them to the Tupelo Children’s Mansion.
The donation unleashed a flood of happiness for kids who often arrive at the Mansion with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Chris Forrester, 17, picked out one of Weedy’s giant dogs, and 13-year-old Chelsea Whittington chose one of two oversized ducks. Kaylee Heberling, 9, selected the kangaroo with a little joey in its pouch that Patterson had bought for her son’s last trip to the hospital.
Dozens of kids got stuffed animals, and more were left for the children who will arrive someday with a powerful need for something soft to hug at night.
Weedy’s still around, living in the hearts and minds of the people who loved him, and those who now have fluffy little connections to his life story.
“I have a giant duck. I keep it on my bed. I call it ‘Duck,'” Chelsea said. “After I heard about her son, I looked at it and I said a little prayer for him. It’s a reminder of how God can help us.”
Patterson didn’t stay to see all of the kids select their toys, but some helped her unload the large haul. She’s done a lot of crying lately, but that’s not always a bad thing.
“I saw the final chapter in the book,” she said. “I got to see their eyes light up.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal