Kenneth Hansen, Jr. (Kenny to all those of us who knew him and loved him) was born with an extra 21st chromosome, but that is not the way that we defined him. We defined him by the things that were so uniquely him. The famous hugs, the kisses, the beckoning finger (drawing you in for what looked like a scolding but would turn out to be a hug), the finger wagging, the time (always the time! Two TWO! Four o’CLOCK!), the grumpy face, the silly grin, the big laugh, the hand-holding (his hands always nice and warm and soft in mine), the hugs! (I have to mention the hugs twice; he was so famous for them.)
Kenny was born October 17, 1944. His father (my grandfather) was told soon after the birth of his son that the best thing to do, in light of his condition, would be to have him committed to a state institution and tell his mother that he had died. This feels so gut-wrenchingly shocking to hear, in this day and age, but was not unusual for a time when the life expectancy (both in terms of prognosis and abilities) for individuals with Down Syndrome was poor. My grandparents did not have Kenny sent away. In fact, they went on to buy a home in the country, told by one doctor that would be good for Kenny. There, Kenny and all of his siblings to come (three brothers and three sisters) would spend their childhood.
The country living proved a good thing, as Kenny grew up healthy, happy, and strong, a good helper on the “farm.” Kenny lived with his parents until their deaths—his mother, Jean Hansen, in 1989, and his father, Kenneth Hansen, in 1994—at which time he moved into his own home and was cared for by a devoted staff of helpers, whom he loved dearly. Though he did, in true Kenny form, have his favorites! He enjoyed his times at Alpha Resource Center, or “school,” as he called it, and, later, at The Friendship Center, as well as regular visits to church with his sister Jean and his brother Walter.
We had a big celebration for Kenny’s 60th birthday in 2004. One could not help but feel, at that special party, that to know Kenny was to be a part of something beyond the ordinary. As so many came forward to give and receive hugs, to clap and cheer at his reaching of that milestone, to share their own stories of the way that Kenny had touched their lives, we marveled at the occasion—the celebration of a life that his parents were told he was not destined to live. He loved and was loved, and I do not think that any person can hope for more than that!
Kenny’s cancer diagnosis in 2008 was intensely emotional for me, as I was myself receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the same diagnosis that he received. We went through concurrent treatment at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara, enduring round after round of high-dose chemotherapy. I saw in Kenny, over those months, an aging that was difficult to face. When his cancer, in remission for a year, returned this summer, I wept, fearing (perhaps knowing?) that this was the beginning of his end.
I felt a little confused when people asked if it was hard for me, having a special person like him in my life. For me, Kenny was always just there, being the person that he was.
He taught me things about people who are different, how they are just people, too. He taught me about a most simplistic and beautiful kind of love, a love entirely heartfelt and pure. If I can ever find it in myself to achieve that kind of love for others, then I will feel that I have excelled in my life.
Kenny lived big—big emotions, big expressions; pleasure and displeasure showing without fail. Kenny loved big—to be on that favored list, to have that special nickname, was such a sweet pleasure. Kenny was a proud brother and uncle, happy to remark on and relish his connections to others, be they family, friend, or just recent acquaintance.
We loved Kenny and will miss him most acutely—his games and his faces and his smiles and, most of all, his hugs.