MEANS — As Tommy Whitaker watches from his wheelchair, his aunt Demetrius "Betty" Philyaw lifts a sheet so that it billows and softly falls onto the bed.
The sheet, which Whitaker picked out, is as yellow as the scrambled eggs that Philyaw sometimes fixes for his breakfast.
"He doesn't like them runny, do you, son?" she asks. "No," he says.
Next comes the red-and-white quilt with a strawberry motif; it's the same quilt Philyaw acquired from a seamstress for a flat-top guitar.
She spreads the quilt and tucks it under the mattress, then turns around.
"What do you think about your bed?" Philyaw asks. "That's pretty, ain't it?" Whitaker says.
For 54 years, Philyaw has been the caregiver for Whitaker. Even though she didn't give birth to him, she refers to her nephew as "son" or "the little boy."
She is 72 and a cancer survivor. He is 62 and has cerebral palsy. "It's been an adventure," Philyaw said. "Some sad times as well as some good times."
One of the better times will happen soon when the two move from a cramped, leaking trailer in Frenchburg, the county seat of Menifee County, to a new house in Means. The house, built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers, is where Philyaw made the bed this week.
The house not only has more space, but it will allow for easier care for Whitaker, who uses a wheelchair. A wraparound wood porch is wide enough for the chair. A partially covered carport will protect Philyaw and Whitaker when she transfers him from a Chevy Astro van to the ground via a wheelchair lift.
Inside, there's a kitchen, living room, big closets, poplar floors, two bedrooms and a big bathroom. Soon to come is a Hoyer patient lift, an apparatus on wheels with a sling that will help Philyaw lift Whitaker out of bed and into his wheelchair. A slipped disc prevents Philyaw from lifting her 162-pound nephew.
"It means the world," Philyaw said of the new house.
So Thanksgiving takes on a special significance this year. But then, Philyaw says, "every day is Thanksgiving" for her and Whitaker.
Philyaw took in Whitaker as her own in 1960. Whitaker's mother had four other children at the time, and for a while Whitaker was in the care of his grandmother, Dollie Philyaw. But when Dollie Philyaw had a nervous breakdown and was unable to tend to Tommy, her daughter Betty, then 18, decided she would take care of her 8-year-old nephew rather than see him go into an institution.
"He was in terrible need, and it looked like no one else was going to do it," Betty Philyaw said. "I myself don't feel like I have done anything except the right thing that was to have been done."
Whitaker had little contact with his mother, who died last month in Campbellsville at age 82.
In the intervening years, Philyaw worked part-time, taking on whatever jobs she could find, from painting houses and mowing yards to washing windows and driving patients to doctor's appointments.
"I just worked to do what it took to keep our electric bills paid," she said.
Friends say Philyaw is a fierce advocate for Whitaker.
"She has no tolerance for stupidity," said Mary Jo Carty of Jeffersonville in neighboring Montgomery County. "When it comes to something pertaining to Tommy and his condition or his livelihood, she has no patience."
That struggle for her nephew has come into play in recent years as the state has made cutbacks and changes to a program that provides services and support to elderly people or children and adults with disabilities to help them remain in their homes. Philyaw speaks of numerous calls to Frankfort and elsewhere to seek help.
"It's a constant battle and fight to hold up for his rights," Philyaw said.
For his part, Whitaker is quiet but cheerful. He is dependent upon Philyaw to feed him, dress him, take him to the bathroom and bathe him. His left hand appears normal but his right hand is gnarled into a fist. Philyaw watches his face for signs of discomfort or pain.
At home, he watches reruns of The Rifleman and Bill Gaither's "homecoming" music specials. The walls around his bed are covered with photos of him, Philyaw, Dollie and friends. His shirts and slacks are suspended on hangers on walls around the bed. Whitaker revels in trips to "Wally World," Philyaw's nickname for Wal-Mart in Mount Sterling, or to a pond where he fishes for bluegill and catfish. On special occasions, they've gone to see the circus in Lexington or the Christmas lights at the Kentucky Horse Park.
"Any time I think about feeling sorry for myself, all I have to do is think about what Tommy has gone through in his life," said Debbie Easterling of Frenchburg, another friend who helps Philyaw. "As a child, I ran and played like most children. Tommy never has. I climbed trees, fell out of them. Rode horses, fell off them. Tommy never got to do those things."
Whitaker speaks in short spurts. Before a blood clot in one lung made his breathing more labored, he and his aunt would often sing in church. Philyaw coaxes him into an impromptu duet of a Southern gospel song:
Somebody loves me, answers my prayers,
I love somebody, I know he cares;
Somebody tells me not to repine,
That somebody is Jesus, and I know he's mine.
The song reflects how Philyaw and Whitaker approach life.
"The Lord is first in our lives, and it just seems like all the rest of it just falls together because you have joy in your heart," Philyaw said. "You're not disappointed in anything in your life. Your life is complete.
"I've never been married. I never had a desire to be married. I was engaged at one time when I was younger, and I came to my senses. I just realized that marriage wasn't for me.
"My destiny and my thoughts ... were turned toward" Whitaker, she said. "I saw his needs, and no one else was going to do it. The direction of my life was that this man doesn't have a choice, and I do."
Philyaw and Whitaker have been through rough patches. She suffered a heart attack eight years ago, and in 1984, she had two surgeries and took radiation therapy for treatment of thyroid cancer.
Then there was the time Philyaw had a reaction to medicine she was taking, so Carty drove her to the emergency room. A mutual friend stayed with Whitaker, who was concerned not for himself but his caregiver.
"He just wanted her back," Carty said.
So what happens when Philyaw is no longer there to care for her nephew?
"That's a good question," she said. "Me and Tommy live for today. We know not what tomorrow will bring. We believe the Lord will take care of it somehow.
"I know if I go first, there's going to be a need here. But I trust he is in the Lord's hands and the Lord will see fit to take care of him.
"The only thing now that I wish was different ... is that I was just a little younger and he was also, so we would have many more years in that house than what we will have now."