By Patrick Yost
Taylor Jeaux Kinchen died at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2008, in a hospital room in Atlanta flooded by a cold light cast by display monitors and technology trying to keep her alive.
Her mother, P.J., placed a loving hand on her heart and felt its final beat.
Her father was there, too. “On her last breath, she smiled,” says Pheral Kinchen.
She was five years old, loved to play soccer, was worried that she wasn’t going to be as popular in school as her older sisters, Shelby and Kourtney, loved going to church, had beautiful blond hair, and had been diagnosed with cancer nine months earlier.
It all started, says Pheral, with a note from Taylor’s teacher. “She falls asleep every afternoon,” the note said. Taylor was also having moments of nausea. “We couldn’t figure it out,” says Pheral. That spring, she came home from a spring break trip with a sore neck. On May 4, 2007, P.J. and Pheral took Taylor to Scottish Rite Hospital. They wouldn’t leave, not really, for the next two months. Not really, for the next nine months.
Taylor, the doctors said, had Medulloblastoma, a cancerous tumor that starts on the brain stem and spreads. Doctors scraped a tumor off Taylor’s brain stem. After that surgery she came around, “screamed and then nothing,” Pheral says. For weeks she lay in a semi-comatose state with a feeding tube.
When she did come to, she did so in her mother’s arms. “Her first word she spoke after surgery was ‘momma,’ P.J. says.
Then it was three rounds of chemotherapy. Then it was Pheral deciding he had to quit his job because, well, you know why. Then it was P.J. cutting back to every other day the hair salon. Then it was fights in the cold light of a hospital parking lot at 2 a.m. because neither mother nor father can figure out what to do, or why or how on earth they are going to keep going forward for one more day while their precious child lay in a hospital bed.
During one of the chemo treatments the chemical was so toxic it oozed from Taylor’s pores and had to be rinsed from her skin. The chemical literally tanned her skin.
And doctors found six more tumors that had latched themselves to the child’s spinal column. Taylor’s stem cells were harvested for more treatment and she was moved to Egleston.
Oh, and there were bills. Pheral says every day there were more and more medical bills in the family’s rural route mailbox. Cost of procedures ranged from $1,200 to $25,000 to more to less. At the end it would all add up to $1.2 million. It reached a point, he says, where the bills couldn’t fit in the mailbox. “They started putting a rubber band around them and leaving them on my front door step,” he says.
It would get better, P.J. says, and then it would get worse. Taylor, at times during this nine-month ordeal, would regain some of her original personality, her “spunky” self, Pheral says, but would never retain the ability to walk on her colt-like legs again. The brain surgery affected that.
So Pheral and P.J. prayed. Pheral prayed that his little girl would be free of cancer one day and, P.J. says at the end, she was. After Taylor died, P.J. demanded an autopsy. The brave little girl was cancer free, she and Pheral say. In her frail and weakened state, she died of pneumonia.
That news fell on the family with the weight of a anguished tear.
That was 2008.
P.J. and Pheral attended bereavement workshops later and Pheral raged at the world, raged at the hospital, raged at the doctors, raged at the good Lord above. He observed other couples in the workshops who had lost children and he continued to think about his beloved Taylor and still the anger burned.
Of course it did.
He noticed other people in the group. He remembered losing his mother, Luticia, to ovarian cancer when he was five years old and being told to never speak of it.
“They were not able to grieve,” he says. “I was thinking, this is not over for me. I was mad and hurt and I didn’t want to be like that anymore.”
During the worst of the family’s ordeal, the Morgan County community had quietly pitched in for the family. An account was established at United Bank to help the family with expenses. The St. James Catholic Church community began taking care of P.J. and Pheral’s daughters so the parents could stay with Taylor at the hospital. “We had a lot of people rally for us. We had a lot of people raise money for us,” Pheral says.
You have to meet P.J. Kinchen. She has a disarming smile and inquisitive eyes. Scratch the surface of her skin and you’ll strike steel. But despite the self-reliant streak, she also had an epiphany. “We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for this community,” she says.
Pheral, a former Marine who still wears a “high and tight” haircut and leads with a pronounced jaw, agrees. Without the community support, “we’d be divorced… or dead.”
In 2009, one year after Taylor Jeaux Kinchen died, The Kinchens used money left in the United Bank account to seed the Taylor Jeaux Kinchen Foundation. The same year they gave Guthrie Akins a $750 scholarship in Taylor’s name as a way to honor and keep her memory. She was the first of 51 scholarships the Taylor Jeaux Kinchen Foundation has funded in the last nine years. In that time, the foundation has raised and distributed $34,000 in scholarships ranging from $500 to $1,400 to deserving students. At Morgan County High School, 48 students have received a Taylor Jeaux Kinchen scholarship. This year there have been 31 requests for scholarships, the highest demand Pheral has seen since the Foundation began. He has been honored he says, to speak at the 2019 honors night ceremony.
The 2019 graduating class of Morgan County High School would have been Taylor’s class.
Much of the money raised to fund the foundation has come from a Taylor Jeaux Kinchen “It’s Good To Be Me” golf tournament the Kinchens and friends and family organize every year at The Creek at Hard Labor Golf Course. This year will be the last golf tournament, Pheral says. It will be held on Saturday, May 18. The cost is $75 per player and includes all the jambalaya you can eat.
The Kinchen’s are going to make another, memory too. On the same evening, there will be a graduation party and concert at Madison’s Town Park. The concert starts at 6 p.m., is open to the public and will feature Justin Huff and Velvet Willow and DJ Baby Bruh.
“I want to have the biggest graduation party the county’s ever seen,” says Pheral.
After this, they say, the fund will continue. In their Godfrey home, there are pictures of Taylor on every wall. She lives through them, the memory, P.J. says, will never go away.
“I think about her every day,” Pheral says.
If you want to help, contact United Bank, Madison branch to make a donation to the Taylor Jeaux Kinchen Foundation.