Grace in adversity
My Memories of Keith Alan Labrot
First and always, my gratitude to the Mountain View Baptist Church Community for their hospitality and love for Keith, Grayson Manor and its staff for providing a wholesome environment, Amanda Moore for her loving home health care, Dr. Mary Emma Beres for supervising his medical care, Baptist Hospital for providing life saving and enhancing interventions, and the entire Independence Virginia community that granted him the space and peace to live out his life.
Second, I ask for your indulgence. This 70th anniversary of the Bombing of Nagasaki is a “dark night of my soul” for which I can neither find, nor offer consolation. This is not a happy story and it does not end well. It is a story of Grace.
I am going to reveal facts about Keith I never would have done while he was alive. I do so recognizing the tragedy that invades everybody's lives. I do so remembering Jesus' command to love one another and the need to deal with each other's imperfections and the vicissitudes of life.
I met Keith 50 years ago dating his sister (the love of my life and wife). He was talented, bright and handsome and he knew it. His father was killed in Luxembourg when he was four or five. His stepfather provided a home environment for Keith and his sisters, but was strict and lacked the tenderness Keith was to crave all his life. He suffered scarlet fever and attended special camps during the summer.
His pastor, Reverend Sheldon, recognized his talent in church and encouraged him to undertake a live radio program on WFHR – Wisconsin Rapids performing hymns and classics (I also worked there as a transmitter engineer). The piano and the Bible were the two most redeeming features of his life. I remember him playing the Wurlitzer spinet in his parents home but a grtand piano, especially in a church that made him come alive.
His rebellion led to being caught in flagrante delicto with a young male, an act that would gain indifference, or at most scorn today. In those days it lead to imprisonment. That removed much of his cockiness but left him with an uncompromising urge to be “free”.
He worked as a shoe salesman for “Irv the Working Mans Friend” on the near South side of Milwaukee for a few years. Milwaukee was prominent in the tanning industry and Wisconsin in shoe production. Keith studied the chain from the slaughterhouse to people's feet with great zeal.
After a stint in the Navy, he worked as a shoe salesman in the Macy's department store in downtown Los Angeles where he met and married Linda, a single mom with a 6 year old son. She still remembers him fondly and he was loved by her son and parents. They bought a house in Lancaster, a new city of about 37,000 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, under the GI Bill. Keith struggled financially and under the pressure fled to Las Vegas. We lost track of Keith until his mother's death in 1991. So much for “happily ever after”.
After his mother's death, we found Keith in St. Louis. He had a room and by all reports a caring (female) landlord, but Keith often slept outside on the streets and under bridges to avoid the sense of confinement. A reminder that schizophrenia is sometimes a rational means of dealing with life.
With the help of friends and relatives in Missouri, Keith moved to our homestead in Grayson County bringing with him a stack of Bibles and little else. I still have one of those – a Holman Large Print edition of the KJV.
Keith was a classic Protestant, one who read the Bible in his native tongue and chose his own interpretation in preference to anyone else's. He was a Dissenter and reminded me of Roger Williams and his battles with the Puritans. Keith was rarely excited but you could get him into a raging dialog on the “Sabbath” and “Catholicism” - “call no man father”. I suspect the latter was a rejection of hierarchy and authority.
He was not an Orthodox Christian in today's sense. Doctrine and creeds were little more that targets of intellectual derision. He was perhaps a Nazarene in the first century sense – a follower of Jesus. So much so, he spent much of his life in study and wrote a book called “The Nazarene”. This boy (me), first a Lutheran – Missouri Synod, later an Episcopalian (I was invited to the Seating of Katherine Jefferts Schori), followed Keith and spent two years at the kitchen table – A King James Bible and Asimov's Guide to the Bible) at hand and attended three classes taught by Tom Whartenby.
Keith spent several years as part of our extended family. He cared for the animals with almost Franciscan devotion. He was particularly fond of Josie, our Jersey. He would bring her up to the back patio everyday and we would groom, feed and milk her when she was fresh. That would require the services of our neighbor's bull and Keith maintained social relations of all our close neighbors especially Gene Ward who we met when Gene gimped down the road shouting about “the evil empire”. Keith responded “a soft voice turneth away wrath” to which Gene replied “Proverbs 15.1”. Keith would walk often visiting all our neighbors with in a mile or so. I enjoyed watching Keith and his step-dad walk together, two men at peace with each other.
I was doing a lot of international work at the time and sometimes my associates would come to our homestead for a few days. Keith would get out the bicycles and head off with a few Bolivians or Peruvians to explore the countryside. They had trouble pronouncing “Keith” and he became El Cid (Castillian for the lord – the “d” aspirated with a dental “th”). When the Nigerians came, we picked up the carcasses of four goats and Keith and one of them (an Evangelical) entertained with Gospel songs while the “cook” (Ochobe - secular) among them cooked goat. After two days, there were two front legs left and everyone stroking their bellies in satisfaction. It was Ramadan and the Muslim among them made up for the daytime fast by ravenous consumption after dark. Even the gay Catholic, Frank joined the reverie. The melding of religion, ethnicity, language and culture reminded me of Pentecost and images of flames shooting out of heads and people speaking in tongues.
Sharing meals with family, friends and guests was a sacrament even when it verged on the gluttonous. He looked forward to the occasional trip to Ray's Starlight or Shatley Springs where he piled huge quantities of food on his plate to the amazement, if not amusement of everyone. In later years, we were reduced to Shoney's and our last meal out at Paul's seemed a disappointment but they both brought a twinkle to his eye.
One day he collapsed and was transported to Twin County Hospital. He had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and they took numerous x-rays and brain scans. Walking behind him in the halls at Twin County, I noticed an abnormal gait and suggested a hip x-ray. One of the imaging technicians positioned him on the x-ray table, laid a hand on his hip and discovered his femur was displaced by two inches up the side of his hip bone. Barbara remembers him limping in High School and doctors conjectured the displacement had taken place much earlier. Keith had suffered excruciating pain most, if not all of his life. He had been prescribed special shoes to compensate for the difference in length of his legs. We all missed the clue.
Eventually, Baptist agreed to do the surgery. But there was still the matter of MS. I became custodian of the slides for the four days until his transport to Baptist. I reconstructed a light box and spent those days studying his brain looking for and not finding the scleroses - a fact that lead to years of misdirected medical treatment). I did notice an occluded left maxillary sinus.
The doctors at Baptist noticed the red scaly skin on his nose. A biopsy was performed and the diagnosis was squamous cell carcinoma. The condition had gone undiagnosed far too long and the cancer had eaten deep into his nose and sinus. This type of cancer is often the result of excessive sun exposure and in Keith's case may have resulted from far too much time outside. I had skin cancer on my neck and they were able to remove it with the Mohs' procedure where they plane off layers of skin until the last layer is cancer cell free. In Keith's case they removed his nose. They later fashioned a nose out of skin from his forehead. Better than nothing but perhaps not better than a prosthesis, his face was now disfigured for life. Keith underwent 8 weeks of radiation therapy which didn't do his brain any good either.
Finally, Keith got his new hip. The doctors cut a 10” long incision, routed out the socket and installed a new one and then cut off the end of his femur and attached a new ball. My mother had the same surgery twice. It is not a walk in the park. Then they stretched his leg muscles and popped the ball into the socket. I would have done the same but they distended his quadriceps which responded by pulling his leg up in the air. He never walked again without the aid of a device.
Yes, it was a sad life but the acts of kindness and generosity and the smiles he brought to people's faces towered over the pain he endured. Perhaps his religion was “kindness”.
Some of us have been blessed to hear Keith playing the Piano. In his youth, his skill rivaled that of another Roger Williams. I have been blessed to hear him playing “Born Free” in my mind for almost 50 years. Wherever Keith is now I hope he, like Elsa the Lioness, is running free and shouting “Free at last”.