Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. – W. Somerset MaughamDeath is always around the corner, but often our society gives it inordinate help. – Carter BurwellDeath is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see. – Helen Keller
At my baptism a couple of years ago, my dear friend, Judy Prather, got up to give a prayer. In part, she said, “We thank you that you have been with him—though sometimes unseen and often unacknowledged—every step of the journey.” She got the “unacknowledged” part right. Actually, she got the “unseen” part right, too, though not as frequently as I might have claimed over the years.
April 14, 1979. It was a pretty typical Saturday evening for me. I arrived home from the bars, drunk as usual. Where one drink might seem like a good idea, I preferred six. I was living alone at the time and hadn’t added a phone in my apartment yet. Cell phones in general usage were quite still a while in the future. I had an out-of-town visitor with me and we discovered a note on the door of my apartment when we arrived. The note was from a friend who shared a house with his sister. When he’d gotten home, he found a message from his sister. My mother had called and asked if they could get in touch with me.
The message said that my brother, Michael, had been shot, that both sets of parents were headed to Houston from their respective homes, and that I should find my sister. Oh, my, I thought. What’s he gotten himself into now? Nothing serious, I was sure. Michael always seemed to be in trouble, though nothing terribly serious. He loved to push people’s buttons. My father was one of his favorite sparring partners – and not in a particularly good way. Michael had been Editor-in-Chief (1973-74) of the Daily Texan at The University of Texas. His style was outrageous, often intimidating. He had certainly been a memorable editor.
The first thing I did was head with my friend, John, to the hair cutting shop where I worked. I had a key and there was a phone there. All I knew was that my brother was at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston. These were the days before tight regulations protecting healthcare privacy. I found the number for the hospital and called. I explained who I was and that I’d received word my brother was there with a gunshot would. I was asked to hold. Shortly, the doctor got on the line. He explained that my brother had been shot several times and had lost a lot of blood. Okay, so far not too bad, I thought. He proceeded to tell me that they had given him several pints of blood, had done everything they could, but Michael had died about ten minutes earlier.
It took a minute for that to register. I must have misunderstood him. This was my brother we were talking about – you know, Mr. In-Your-Face. Lots of clowning around. Obviously there must be some mistake. A flesh wound, perhaps, but dead?
I sobered up pretty quickly at that point. I knew I was the first of my family to hear this news. My parents – all four of them – were on the road to Houston. I knew they would not stop to call the hospital. Their only mission was to get there. If there was going to be worse news, they didn’t want to know it until they got there. I’m sure both sets of parents were hopeful of getting to Houston to find that Michael was hurt but otherwise okay.
I don’t think I cried that night. If you’ve been reading along with me, you’ll remember this is the brother who’d taught me not to cry. This was the brother who’d suffered taunts of his own in childhood and had a chip as big as Texas on his shoulder. This was the brother upon whom all our father’s hopes hung. This was the brother who’d used me for target practice when he wasn’t in his role as my protector. We didn’t like each other very much as this point. I’m pretty sure we loved each other, just weren’t too much into the “like” thing. He’d tried shortly before his death to revive a relationship but I’d resisted.
He was dead. It was Easter morning, 1979. What was I going to do? Oh, yeah, I was on a mission. I was alone with this information. It was a good thing my friend was with me. Crying, breaking down, flipping out – not in my repertoire in the presence of another. It was time to decide what to do next.
My sister and I lived in Austin at that time. We didn’t see each other often, though we lived in fairly close proximity to each other. I would normally not have had any idea where Judith was on any particular night. As it would happen, though, I had spoken with her earlier in the week and she’d told me she’d be spending the weekend with a friend in a little community south of Austin. I had no idea where Dee lived, had no phone number. I went to my sister’s apartment to see if I could find any information. I don’t recall having a key to her apartment, so I don’t know if I broke in or just how I managed to get inside. At any rate, there was no additional information to be found there. I was just going to have to find her some other way.
Next stop was the police station. I wasn’t always terribly smart when I’d been drinking. I was feeling more sober but it remained to be seen if I could talk to the police without being arrested. I think I spoke with someone through glass and that probably helped. They explained to me how to get to the little town where Judith was supposed to be. John and I headed down I-35 until we got to the exit we were supposed to take. As soon as I drove under the overpass, we found ourselves in fog so thick we could barely see. I had to roll down the window and hang my head out in order to see the center stripe so I could stay on the road. Very slowly, we continued driving until we finally made it to a four-way stop in the middle of, well, nothing. Not knowing what to do next, I decided to turn to the right. In that fog, we could barely even see houses in the dark.
Okay, so here’s the part where a dear friend would say many years later, “Ben, there are no coincidences.” How was I supposed to find my sister at 3 a.m. out in the country? I was afraid to stop at any of the houses. I was afraid I’d be shot. No, there would have to be another way.
Suddenly, we could see a sole figure walking ahead of us in the middle of the road. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t pause to think about it, just stopped the car, got out, and said to the man, “I’m trying to find my sister. My brother’s been shot and I’ve got to find her. All I know is that she’s visiting with her friend, Dee.”
“Dee? Oh, sure. Just turn the car around, head back straight through that four-way stop, and it will be the second drive on the left.” I couldn’t believe my luck.
I thanked the man, got back in the car, and followed his instructions. Sure enough, I saw my sister’s car in that second drive on the left. A large dog was in the front yard, barking menacingly. I wasn’t about to get out of the car. Instead, I pulled myself up through the open window and sat on the door. I called out for Judith until a light came on in the house.
That was the beginning of my role as the Voice of Death for my sister. It wouldn’t be the last time, either. How do I tell my sister our brother is dead? I’m pretty sure I didn’t do a very good job of it. But tell her I did. This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. There were some rough things in my path before this, but this was yet another defining moment in my life. I was not destined to handle it very well. Looking back at pictures from the funeral, I realize just how thin and gaunt I was already by that time. I was burning the candle at both ends and would for years to come.
With my mind set on full-throttle ignore, I refused to see any possibility of grace involved in the events leading up to finding my sister that night. It wasn’t the first nor would it be the last evidence that I could walk away from my beliefs, but that didn’t mean they were gone. I’ve always believed God has a special place in his heart for small children and fools. I was no longer a small child, but I was certainly not finished doing foolish things
The next few days were a blur. I never once drank alcohol in front of my mother. I did, however, keep an ample supply of Valium during that time which I used on a regular basis to try to keep my fears at bay so I could live to some degree in public. I rarely went to work without their aid. They took some of the edge off these events but also would keep me from grieving for years. After all, I had to be strong for everyone else. It was in my job description. Not sure who wrote that job description originally, but I’m pretty sure at this point it was all of my own making.
My brother was pretty much a radical. He wanted to make things better in the world, but I’m certain he was also adrift in a sea of uncertainty about so many things even up to the time of his death. And he frightened me. Events such as the Watts riots in 1965 had already left me feeling like this country was no longer safe for me. The Vietnam War raged on. The hippie movement, civil rights marches, the country at war with itself. I needed an absence of strife in order to feel safe. The 60s and early 70s were not times that put me at ease. I dreamed of going to another country – surely it would be safe for me there. But, I was too frightened of pretty much everything to ever be able to make so drastic a move. I’d learned a hatred of conflict from my mother. My brother, on the other hand, seemed to relish conflict – the louder the better. He was out to save the world and he didn’t care how loud he had to yell to get your attention. Change was what he wanted and change was what I desperately feared. It’s no wonder we saw little of each other at this point.
Looking back, it occurred to me recently that Jesus was also a radical. His ideas about caring for the least among us flew in the face of conventional wisdom and practice at the time he lived. His ideas about just exactly who is our neighbor frightened and angered the authorities of the day. Those in power relied on the status quo and an abundance of cheap (or slave) labor. The Roman Empire had seemingly perfected the concept of peace through conflict. The need for enemies was crucial to the continued success of the empire. Conquered nations provided resources by way of tribute, taxes, slaves, and/or plunder. The idea of who was a neighbor changed on a continual basis.
Jesus said this was not the way. His insistence on an equitable world, on taking care of the less about us, threatened not only the Roman Empire, but also a Jewish leadership who lead Jerusalem at the whim of Roman authority. They didn’t need some rabble-rousing hick from Nazareth stirring up trouble. Jesus was the voice of the little guy. Authority, however, survived by making sure there were plenty on the bottom rungs of society to ensure profitable enterprise. The richest became richer as the poorest became destitute – not unlike the present situation in this country.
It occurred to me recently that my brother would probably have enjoyed going for coffee with Jesus. No Starbucks for these two, though. Nope, too extravagant. That money could be put to better use elsewhere. I’m thinking Denny’s – probably middle of the night. Michael, naturally, would be the louder side of the conversation, but I see a common interest in the topic of the Big Guy versus little guy. And Michael, ever ready for a heated conversation, would be there with pointed questions about how Jesus thought this “love thy neighbor” thing was supposed to play out in the real world. Of course, there’d probably be some discussion of the whole religion thing – whether Jesus was for or against. Michael, after all, was the guy who’d spent time at Glorieta one summer as a youth counselor. He’d convinced the other counselors our father was a Rabbi. Leave it to Michael to tell his co-counselors at a Baptist retreat that our father was Jewish. Yep, he loved a practical joke, though those often had an angry little twist.
Sadly, my father never quite recovered from Michael’s death. The killer was never found, though I’m not sure how that would have changed much. I believe closure is something we allow ourselves, whether or not we ever get an answer we think we have to have in order to go on. There’s a lot of God’s grace in that. I know my mother was devastated but she showed us a completely different way to live with this loss. While my father could barely speak of Michael without going into a deep depression, we were able to talk to mother about him. We were allowed to remember the good things, the funny things from the past. Admittedly, it took me a long time to allow myself to remember anything funny about Michael, but it came gradually. He was, after all, my brother. We’d shared a lot in his twenty-eight short years, not all of it good. But, I remembered finally, it wasn’t all bad, either.
I believe I’ll see my brother again. And, I have to remember that he’s always there beside me as long as he survives in my memory. Thankfully, I remember now there were good things I’ve allowed myself to see again. The bad stuff shielded my view for too many years. And I believe there was a little more than coincidence involved in finding that guy in the middle of the road so many years ago on an Easter morning.
That conversation at Denny’s? I’m afraid that conversation may go on for a very long time. Michael, you see, will be trying to outlast Jesus – waiting to see if he’ll pick up the check. Some things just never change.