Sunday, February 5, 2012


My brother George, left, was my life's first companion. That's me on the right. George cheered me on in sports and everything else to the end of his days. He was as generous a soul as I've ever known.
This may be in bad taste: I’m about to politicize the memory of my brother George. George died in September, 2008, in the middle of the last presidential election campaign. As we enter another presidential election year, I find myself thinking of him again. This post contains two essays. The first I wrote in 2008; it was published in The Roanoke Times. The second I wrote after George’s funeral; I shared it only with family and with a few friends. As you’ll read, people like George would not fare well in a world run by conservative Republicans. George is a big reason I vote for Democrats.

(Written in September, 2008)

My brother George died last week, at the age of 66. Let me tell you about George and why he’s part of the reason I plan to vote for the Democrats in November.
    George never did well in school, though he tried. Oh, how he tried. His virtues were not in his head. They were in his good heart. 

At school and sports, no one ever tried harder than George.

    George did a thousand kindnesses for hundreds of friends. For the last thirty years, he was the full life-support system for a man who was unable, because of mental troubles, to keep himself in home or transportation. This friend used George’s car more than George used it himself. For all practical purposes, he lived in George’s car. George paid for the gas, most of his friend’s food, the cell phone they shared, and all the expenses when they went on trips. You can call what George did for his friend “enabling.” You can call it “bleeding-heart liberalism.” I call it generosity.
    George also gave money to other friends when they needed it, though he didn’t have much himself. Some of these friends took advantage of him, yes, but George never questioned them. He bailed the sons of friends out of jail, but he never judged them.
    Banks, credit card companies, and other businesses, on the other hand, did take advantage of George, who was never good at finance. They offered him unneeded loans. They offered him unnecessary credit cards. They offered him trips to Bermuda for “free.” Sometimes George fell for these offers. At one point our brother Terry had to negotiate with the banks and credit card companies to rescue him from pounding debt. After that, George tore up all his credit cards but one.

George (waving) and me meeting our dad's commuter train. George was forever a devoted son.
     George worked hard all his life and always supported himself. He worked as a machinist at Grumman Aircraft and later Republic Aircraft on Long Island for many years until the aircraft industry weakened and he was laid off. After a brief period on unemployment, which he hated, George became a night-time security officer for his hometown school district on Long Island. Every work night for more than 25 years, right up to last week, he began his rounds at 11 p.m., and he tried to sleep during the day.
     Though strong, George wasn’t blessed with great health. He had a mild form of epilepsy that caused him to have seconds-long seizures, especially when he was nervous or excited. He had serious diabetes and nearly lost his left foot twice. He endured long hospital stays several times in the last three years of his life. The strain of his abnormal sleep schedule didn’t help. He died of a massive infection compounded by his diabetes.
     George never found a woman who appreciated him enough to marry him, and there was some loneliness in that for him. He never measured up to the achievements of his more accomplished siblings, nieces, and nephews. But he was incapable of bitterness or anger, and he never took refuge in drugs or drink or any other vice I ever knew of. His pride in the rest of us was transparently sincere.
     No, George never complained. Instead, he sang in the church choir every Sunday for more than 45 years, joined the local volunteer fire department, and became a stalwart on a number of bowling teams. Along the way, he was the most loyal brother, son, friend, neighbor, and teammate many of us ever had.

George, left, and me in more grown-up years. He was the most loyal brother anyone could ask for.
George is why I vote for Democrats. He’s why I believe in consumer-protection laws, the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker-protection legislation, universal health insurance, and guaranteed social security—the kinds of things neoconservative Republicans have always voted against. (Once, there were moderate Republicans who supported such things, but not, apparently, anymore.) The neocons believe in some kind of laissez-faire survival-of-the-fittest ethos that says, “Let the buyer beware” and “Every man for himself” and “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
     Well, George wasn’t exactly the “fittest.” He was simply the most humble, the most generous, the nicest.
      The Republicans say they are for “national defense.” But shouldn’t “defense” include defending the health, safety, and financial security of people like George, who can’t always defend themselves? Much as I respect some Republicans, it’s Democrats like Barak Obama who have always offered that kind of national defense, as well as the protect-our-shores kind. That’s why I will vote for the Democrats in November.  I will do it for myself and for my brother.

(Written immediately after his funeral in September 2008)
George, shown here saluting, was himself saluted by the entire Farmingdale Volunteer Fire Department at his funeral.
Two by two, forty white-gloved firemen in full uniform marched to the front of the viewing room, stood in front of George’s open coffin, and slowly, slowly saluted him. Then, two by two, they lowered their hands,  about-faced right, and marched out of the room. It took 10 minutes for all of them to do this, in absolute silence. Watching them from the soft, high-backed “family chairs” facing the coffin, my brother Terry, sister Joyce, niece Becky and I barely blinked the whole time. It took an honorable forever for the firemen to finish.

The next day, after the funeral service in the church (more talk of Jesus and the resurrection than I remember in 13 years of sermons back in my 1960s Sunday-school days; a beautiful tribute from my niece; a letter read from a pastor far away whom George had coached on the Methodist Youth Fellowship basketball team 40 years ago)—after the church service, the firemen put my brother’s coffin on a fire truck and drove in a procession of five fire trucks to the cemetery eight miles away,  first stopping briefly in front of the fire house for the giant volunteer-summonsing horn to blast twice in valediction, later detouring to pass the house where we grew up, and, at every intersection en route, shutting down main highways. A cortege of ten cars followed the fire engines; my brother Terry and niece were in the first car with me. Entering the cemetery, we all passed beneath a giant American flag strung between the cherry-pickers of two fire engines from neighboring towns, their drivers at attention and saluting. All for George.

At the graveside, the forty firemen once again saluted, then took off their “covers” (hats, for the uninitiated) as the tiny, brisk Korean-American minister gave her final “ashes to ashes” farewell. The minister, new to the church, had said during the funeral service that George had been the choir member who sat nearest her during church services each Sunday, and occasionally he’d whisper to her, as she sat down after a sermon, “Now, that’s the work of a good pastor.” She said how much the encouragement meant to a new pastor. At the graveside, the young funeral director, who knew George and is just beginning to follow in his father’s career steps, wiped away tears. Then the mourners placed yellow roses on the coffin, and we all went home.

But all that wasn’t the most important part of my brother’s going away.

George, left, next to our Aunt Nelle and mother and father. For more than 60 years, George was a faithful member of the Farmingdale Methodist Church and a stalwart in the choir.
At the viewing and the funeral, we had met my brother’s choir friends and his firemen friends and his co-workers, who just about all used the words “sweet guy” to describe him.

But it was the Bowlers and his Chosen Other Friends who reminded me that there is a world of people out there that I almost never think about. It was my brother’s world.

George, it seems, was Shepherd of the Misfits. At the viewing, which went from 2 pm to 9:30 at night on Friday, with a two-hour break for supper, his bowling buddies and the Chosen Others were there all day. They never left. They were the stunted and the stuttering. They were the soft-minded and the myopic.  They were the valiant tryers. There were about 15 of them. Three of them were wall-eyed. Two were barely on the functional end of the autism spectrum, one of whom, Jason, couldn’t keep his hands from flying about when he talked about George, which he did at length. Two of them, Jack and Anthony, are barely five feet tall. They all have bad teeth and talk too loud in viewing rooms and look straight at you as if they had never seen another human being before. They can be unsettling. One young man in his twenties, Joey, is seriously mentally challenged (are there politically correct words for all this? I don’t have time to look for them). Joey is big and soft and is missing all the teeth on the top right side of his mouth. These were the friends my brother had found and chosen for his life. And they had chosen him.

One of my relatives was upset because the Bowlers and the Chosen Others kept taking photos of my brother in his casket. They’d stand in front of him as people do when they have their picture taken with celebrities. They took hundreds and hundreds of photos of my dead brother. He might have been their Lenin.

Every 15 minutes, Joey of the tender mind looked at my brother in the coffin and began to keen. The Chosen Others all wept, all afternoon and into the evening.  My brother, it seems, lived among men with no emotional defenses. They all just kept weeping. After I tried to comfort them and they saw that I liked to talk to them, they came to me with a look in their eyes as if they hoped I might transform myself into George. Joey kept within touching distance of me when he wasn’t kneeling in front of the coffin and talking to George and weeping.

These were men from a Carson McCullers novel. If you haven’t read Carson McCullers, read her.

There were also the daughters of two of the men (who had married those men?), and the daughters wept, too, though they were more in control of themselves than their fathers, except when the one girl wailed at the graveside. She had told me earlier that George had helped her get through some bad times when she was a teenager.  Days later, I found out from my mother that one of the girls had once expressed the hopeful possibility that George was her father.

There was one grown woman among the Others at the viewing: Christine, a charming woman with dyed black hair, a crooked smile, and sweet eyes that weren’t quite parallel. Picasso would have painted her. She was a waitress at Friendly’s restaurant, where George ate many of his meals. (We discovered that he never cooked at home. Never.) Christine and I talked a long time, and she smiled at every memory of George.

The next day, at the cemetery, a different, elegant woman came up to me after the coffin was lowered. “Ed,” she said, “I’m Jackie.” Jackie. A high-school classmate of mine, Jackie had been George’s first love. Her father had been permanently shell-shocked by World War II. For years when she didn’t have her own car, George had driven Jackie to see her father every weekend in the veterans’ mental hospital. In his loyal way, George never stopped loving Jackie, even when she went off to her career as a flight attendant and married and had her own children. It was wonderful to see her. She still has a dimple in her right cheek.

I will never forgive the world for not finding George a wife.

But back to the Bowlers and the Chosen Others. What had George given these people—these short, stammering, misshapen, weeping men, with their potbellies? He was six-foot-two, and strong, and he could speak perfectly well (though he often mumbled, as they do—because they do?), and his teeth and eyes were not crooked, and he never passed judgment on anybody. He knew how to tease them—they loved to tell stories of how he teased them. He knew how to reserve motel rooms when they went to watch professional bowling tournaments in Pennsylvania or for trips to Vermont, where they hung out in their rooms or in the swimming pool and never did anything touristy. He could afford to pay for their motel rooms.

There is a world of people out there that some of us—me, anyway— rarely notice and almost never think about. They don’t vote. They don’t read books or magazines or newspapers. They don’t go to movies much. They bowl and watch professional wrestling. They live in basement apartments or group houses, three beds to a room. (In his will, George left little wall-eyed Jack his easy chair. But Jack told me that he had no place to put it; he lived in one room with three other men.) These men work when they can, at the kind of jobs they can do. They sweep restaurants and work deep behind the baggage-claim at Kennedy Airport. They don’t drive the truck that pulls the wide load on the highway; they drive the flag truck that follows it (and they drive 900 miles to be at George’s funeral). Among people like you and me, they mumble or stay silent. They can’t afford to fix their teeth or their eyes or their tongues. At funerals, they talk loud and weep unashamedly. They were George’s flock.

When I was young, sitting at the dinner table hearing George recount the losses of his day—a failed geometry test, a squabble with another student, getting cut at the j-v basketball tryouts—when I was young (my parents getting more and more upset at George)—when  I was young, I thought I was better than George, and I sometimes let him know it. After this weekend, I don’t think I was good enough to sit at the same table with him.

So here I politicize my brother George. When you vote this November, remember him and his friends. Vote for the party that keeps people like them in mind. 

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