A FEW WEEKS AGO at his home in Grayson, Georgia, my brother made a request, the first of its kind. He prefaced this request with, “If anything happens to me . . . ” which has always been our family’s way of talking about . . . the inevitable. See, I can’t even say it. We never talked about death, except by way of euphemism. “If anything happens to me,” he said, “I want you to speak at my . . . funeral. You and Scott.” Silence. Scott is his middle son. I responded with a nod, some sign of affirmation. “Of course, I will,” I said, or something like it. The conversation moved on from there, as it does, as it should have, maybe even with some haste, I don’t remember.
But I thought about it. And thought about it. It was difficult not to think about it. Truth is, and this is my response, public though it is. I’m not sure I am going to have words at that time, brother, not like I do now. And that is the point. Now. “Speak what we feel,” the poet said, “not what we ought to say.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, brudder, enunciated in the style of my increasingly and somewhat unpredictably verbal grandson, Killian, is a “regional and nonstandard” form of Middle English, a form of the word that seems to have died out in the mid-fifteenth century. Unless you’re two.
A quick spin through my literary saints, William Tyndale used that form of the word himself on occasion. The translator had two brothers, an older brother Edward, and a younger brother John, surname Hitchens. We’ll . . . come back to that. In 1533, the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, referred to Edward as “brother to the heretic.” Even so, he had a reputation around Gloucestershire as a successful business man with standing in his community. A name with weight and reach. There is no historical record as to the type of relationship the brothers may or may not have had, though the youngest Tyndale brother, John, seems to have followed the way of his loner-writerly-headstrong-revolutionary-poet-outlaw-heretic brother William, even suffering on his behalf on occasion. Taken before the new chancellor, Sir Thomas More, in 1531, John was accused of receiving and distributing his brother’s forbidden books. The great man, that is, Chancellor More, the man for all seasons, he adds with some cheek, made brother John spend the night in jail, then sat him backward on a horse and paraded the poor man about London streets with a fake mitre on his head, that is, a cardinal’s hat, what we might think of as a dunce cap, with the following words inscribed on it. In Latin. Of course. “Pecasse contra mandata regis.” I have sinned against the commandments of the king. The outlawed books were fastened around his neck. He was then forced to throw the books into a fire and pay a healthy fine.
William Tyndale had other “brothers” not of his blood. John Frith was one of them. Brother, son, student, Tyndale reasoned or tried to reason with Frith about not going back to England, having been with Tyndale on the continent. Things were just too hot at the moment for the reform-minded. Frith did not listen. Chancellor More, the bright but pitiless, pious but cruel Sir Thomas, used the young man’s capture and death by burning, in part, to punish Tyndale. It seemed to work. Brotherhood for Tyndale was no small thing. A brother has ties to the soul. He is one with whom we are most vulnerable, and yet the one we invest our deepest trust. It was also necessary for his survival. “I am thou thyself, and thou art I myself,” the translator wrote, “and can be no nearer of kin.” Translated, I am you and you are me. A bond closer than blood. That is Tyndale’s equation. How love works. Or how it is supposed to work.
John Keats had two brothers, George and Tom. “My brother, George,” the poet wrote, “has ever been more than a brother to me; he has been my greatest friend.” Denise Gigante, author of The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, in an interview at Stanford, used the phrase “soul mates” to describe the relationship of John and George. Orphaned and alone, the brothers, including the youngest, Tom, clung together. They were all they had. “My love for my Brothers,” Keats wrote, “from the early loss of our parents, and even from earlier misfortunes, has grown into an affection ‘passing the love of women.’ I have been ill-tempered with them. I have vexed them. But the thought of them has always stifled the impression that any woman might otherwise have made upon me.” That is, until, of course, he meets Fanny Brawne.
According to Ms. Gigante’s book, the poet relied on George, particularly, to temper his moods. “Elevated reverie, sustained thought and intensity—combined with a constitutional inability to tolerate inauthenticity, either in oneself or in others” she wrote, “can make for great poetry, but they can also make the poet’s path through life more demanding.” In his brother George, the poet found an anchor of a kind. George stood tower-like against the “dark tormentors that besieged the poet unpredictably, but inevitably, and always powerfully.” Keats’ sonnet “To My Brother George” reveals, as Ms. Gigante says, a “deep need for human connection that the fraternal bond fulfilled.”
MANY the wonders I this day have seen:
The sun, when first he kist away the tears
That fill’d the eyes of morn;—the laurell’d peers
Who from the feathery gold of evening lean;—
The ocean with its vastness, its blue green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears,—
Its voice mysterious, which whoso hears
Must think on what will be, and what has been.
E’en now, dear George, while this for you I write,
Cynthia (the moon) is from her silken curtains peeping
So scantly, that it seems her bridal night,
And she her half-discover’d revels keeping.
But what, without the social thought of thee,
Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?
Not unlike Vincent Van Gogh’s younger brother, Theo, George had the dedication, the diplomacy, and business sense his older tortured-visionary-love wounded-poet brother John seemed to lack. In time, George married, then migrated to the New World, settling in, of all places, Louisville, Kentucky. His departure, along with the death of the poet’s youngest brother, Tom, affected Keats in such a disruptive way that could not help but move his poetry forward by bounds.
Thomas Wolfe had four older brothers, but it is with his brother, Ben, whom Wolfe referred to as “the stranger,” that he makes any soul attachment at all, the one brother who seemed outside the otherwise brawling, loveless Wolfe household. The theme that haunts LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL was inspired by Ben, and Ben’s twin brother Grover (who died of typhoid at age 12), the Lost Boy, as he is remembered in Wolfe. “O lost, and by the wind grieved ghost come back again.”
I want to read a few passages from LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL. Here, Eugene Gant, the fictional version of Thomas Wolfe, describes his brother Ben’s death. Of the entire household, with the exception of his father, whose image seemed to loom over all their lives, at times in menacing ways, it is his brother Ben that draws from his genius the most powerful language—a grand music, elegiac, lapidary. His brother is beautiful in him. Again, it’s something you can hear.
Then, over the ugly clamor of their dissension, over the rasp and snarl of their nerves, they heard the low mutter of Ben’s expiring breath. . . . And as they looked and saw his bright eyes already blurred with death and saw the feeble beating flutter of his poor thin breast, the strange wonder, the dark rich miracle of his life surged over them its enormous loveliness. They grew quiet and calm, they plunged below all the splintered wreckage of their lives, they drew together in a superb communion of love and valiance, beyond horror and confusion, beyond death.
And Eugene’s eyes grew blind with love and wonder: an enormous organ-music sounded in his heart, he possessed them for a moment, he was a part of their loveliness, his life soared magnificently out of the slough and pain and ugliness.
The only sound in the room now was the low rattling mutter of Ben’s breath. He no longer gasped; he no longer gave signs of consciousness or struggle. His eyes were almost closed; their gray flicker was dulled, coated with the sheen of insensibility and death. . . . He was dead, save for the slow running down of the worn-out machine, save for that dreadful mutter within him of which he was no part.
But in their enormous silence wonder grew. They remembered the strange flitting loneliness of his life, they thought of a thousand forgotten acts and moments—and always there was something that now seemed unearthly and strange: he walked through their lives like a shadow—they looked now upon his gray deserted shell with a thrill of awful recognition, as one who remembers a forgotten and enchanted word, or as men who look upon a corpse and see for the first time a departed god.
We can believe in the nothingness of life, we can believe in the nothingness of death and of life after death—but who can believe in the nothingness of Ben? . . . he came, a god with broken feet, into the gray hovel of this world. And he lived here a stranger, trying to recapture the music of the lost world, trying to recall the great forgotten language, the lost faces, the stone, the leaf, the door.
O lost, and by the wind grieved ghost, come back again.
It is not known whether Wolfe ever said or intimated anything of the kind to his brother while his brother was alive. I am doubtful. By the way, when making a declaration on a public stage as this episode hopes to do, one is tempted to lean on hyperbole, on language that is fawning, or precious, that leaves everyone feeling a bit . . . awkward, all of which I have taken care to avoid. Thomas Wolfe wrote about “finding the language . . . discovering the tongue” to say this thing or that. I empathize. To say, “I love you,” out loud, as necessary as it is to say, demands a responsible English. Keats said, “Be serious. Love is not a plaything.” He meant it. The music helps.
But now . . . to my brother.
He was Kevin Costner in the film Tin Cup. He was Otter, in National Lampoon’s Animal House, played by Tim Matheson. That is hardly an exaggeration. He was Van Wilder, in the 2002 film by that name, played by Ryan Reynolds. Okay, maybe Van Wilder is a stretch. But that’s my brother. And remember, these are my memories. How he developed in my thoughts. I was a child. He was the Alexander of our little world, a small but happy world that consisted of mom and dad, my brother and me. He was ten feet tall back then. He could do anything. And everything he did, I wanted to do. Everywhere he went, I wanted to go. The way he carried himself. The way he dressed. The grace with which he shot a basketball, the little thing with the wrist. The way he laughed. The way he stood in church, with a slight forward lean, both hands on the pew in front of him. I thought that was the coolest thing. It wasn’t the same when I did it, none of it. Everything he said I wanted to say, and with the attitude with which he said it at times—that cool delicious snap—which got me in trouble a few times with our father. I wasn’t old enough to question the wisdom of repeating something I had little or no idea what I was saying. I can laugh now.
One of the more remarkable things about my brother, or anyone with this level of aptitude for friendship: he has friends to this day that he went to kindergarten with. And that was a very long time ago (my apologies, brother). Ray has this rare quality of being a leader and one of the guys at the same time. He and a few of his friends started what became the first fraternity at West Georgia College (now W. G. University) in Carrolton, Georgia, that eventually became PKA, or Pike. West Georgia in the 60s had a reputation as a party school. And my brother, well…
He lettered in Varsity basketball, football, and track in the 9th grade. We attended ALL his games. Of course, we did. Our mother kept two large scrapbooks of his clippings. “Sizzling Soph Trips Up Tide,” with a picture of him mid-air making the game-winning shot, poised like a young god, suspended in mid-air. My dad was one of the coaches of his little league baseball team. I was five. The batboy. I had my own hat. And shirt. The point is, I was swept up in the family legend, in the mythologies we create and cultivate over time, that belief of something fine in ourselves.
My brother was the first object I attached my faith to, and with belief that was measureless. I tried to follow in his footsteps. I too played sports when it was my time. “Attempted” might be the better word. I laugh because I didn’t possess those physical endowments he was blessed with. He was tall, thin, athletic. I was . . . shorter . . . rounder. My gifts were . . . elsewhere. Unfortunately, that didn’t keep me from playing sports. To this day, I wonder why no one thought to sit me down and say “son . . . you don’t have to do this.”
We talk about it often now. And I understand how the years can overlay an image with gold, but Ray and I agree our childhood was idyllic, almost fairytale-like in its own brand of perfection. A perfection that must include the psychologies we were subjected to, and other curiosities of the blood—the good, the troubled, the impenetrable. But there was a lot of love around us. Our parents married young, as the war ended, and remained married 56 years, until death actually “did them part.” Our house was young, warm, nurturing, full of animation and promise, a house that loved to laugh, to sing, to play.
Our maternal grandparents built a swimming pool in their back yard not long after I was born. They built it for my brother and me, the two sons of their only daughter. I was 18 months. Ray was 7. I learned to swim the way I learned about most things, by trial and accident. Ray jumped into the pool, the legend says, and I grabbed his ankle and went in with him—no life preserver, inner-tube, nothing. I dog-paddled, the story continues, until my father jumped in and got me out. But our summers were . . . golden. We, of course, took it for granted, the way you do when you’re small.
We shared that life, and all its little surprises. The morning of our grandfather’s funeral, a freight train ran over both my brother and me—without warning, and certainly without preparation. We adored the man. I was 14. Ray was 20. I was living in Orlando at the time. Ray was in college. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry, and it was his father-in-law we were about to bury.
The church was packed. Flowers and wreaths covered the entire platform. Again, I understand how the imagination, particularly a child’s imagination, can color things over the years, how a legend feeds and grows, how the narrative expands or contracts, that we often remember things or think we remember things that may not have actually happened. I can’t remember what my father sang that morning, if he sang at all. The fog was pretty dense. Nor can I remember the first detail about the eulogy, or anything anyone might have said that morning. Except for one thing.
I can hear the preacher’s voice to this day. Well-chosen, well-timed, well performed, the old poem captured my grandfather’s spirit, as it did my troubled imagination. Whether I could explain it at the time or not, whether I had the tools to process just how beautiful, natural, and strange it all was, hardly matters. An opiate in my sorrow, it was a piece of poetry that left its truest and most indelible print in me that morning. And I had the ear for it.
There are hermit souls that live withdrawn In the place of their self-content; There are souls like stars, that dwell apart, In a fellowless firmament; There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths Where highways never ran- But let me live by the side of the road And be a friend to man. Let me live in a house by the side of the road Where the race of men go by- The men who are good and the men who are bad, As good and as bad as I. I would not sit in the scorner's seat Nor hurl the cynic's ban- Let me live in a house by the side of the road And be a friend to man. I see from my house by the side of the road By the side of the highway of life, The men who press with the ardor of hope, The men who are faint with the strife, But I turn not away from their smiles and tears, Both parts of an infinite plan- Let me live in a house by the side of the road And be a friend to man. I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead, And mountains of wearisome height; That the road passes on through the long afternoon And stretches away to the night. And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice And weep with the strangers that moan, Nor live in my house by the side of the road Like a man who dwells alone. Let me live in my house by the side of the road, Where the race of men go by - They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong, Wise, foolish - so am I. Then why should I sit in the scorner's seat, Or hurl the cynic's ban? Let me live in my house by the side of the road And be a friend to man
I can hardly recite that now without emotion. And my brother was just like him. Besides being our favorite, our grandfather was a retired Atlanta firefighter. That morning, on the way to West View Cemetery, in front of every fire house we passed, and in spite of the heavy rain, all the firefighters and their chiefs stood out front in formation with their caps over their hearts as we passed. I had never seen anything like it.
Again, I was a child, with a child’s understanding. But if I was unprepared, and I was, I was also charmed. And not just by the old poem, but the entire pageant. As it often happens, the account, or some element of it, made its way into my fiction. I mean that in a literal sense. All of us create fictions. They are necessary at times, providing, as they are able, a kind of medication when that train turns in your direction. And it will.
As we were leaving the cemetery, my father took me inside the mausoleum. The following is the opening of a two-act play I wrote not long after turning in the Tyndale biography for publication. It is a fictionalized account, but the tone, the music playing invisibly around me, the shading . . . the weather . . . is just as I remember it that day, so many years ago. Here is the opening of MY BLUE PARADISE. A Two-Act Play. A Parable by David Teems.
Having rained hard that morning, by midafternoon the sky was a tedium of slow and tumbling grays. There was no light at all, not the slightest suggestion, and no rain. The gloom was magnificent. I was eight. I didn’t know what a mausoleum was. By the architecture, the spires, by the excesses on the battlements, the vaulted ceiling, it could have been a church. Once inside I was overcome by a stillness so refined and so polished, so dreamlike and unfamiliar I knew I had entered another world, a world more grand than the one I just left. We stood there together, my father and me. I was awe. He was silence. I remember thinking how expensive death looked, how meticulous, enshrined, as it was, in alabaster and reflective granite. I could tell by the rapture on my father’s face it was making the same high music in him that it was in me. And I was happy. I was not afraid, nor did I want to leave.
Our dad was the song leader at the church we grew up in. A self-conscious man, fussy about his looks, he came unsettled if his thinning hair was out of place or his tie was crooked, his shoes without their usual spit shine. Fully aware of our father’s condition and unable to resist temptation when it presented itself, on at least one occasion Ray got daddy’s attention during the service, mid-song. A wrinkle of concern on his face, he stretched his neck a little, moved his head side to side, and pretended to adjust his tie, as if giving our father a head’s up. Daddy, of course, took the bait, so to speak. Ray turned to me with that large bounding smile of triumph and idiot joy I’ve seen a thousand times. We howled at the comedy that followed, the grab and scramble between daddy, his tie, and his vanity, the offense undetected.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying . . .
Sometime later, same small church, same pew—we always sat in the same pew—Ray got daddy’s attention again. This time he began tapping at his nose, the same wrinkle of concern, rubbing slightly at one of his nostrils, as if to say . . . well, you know. None the wiser for his pains, stricken with panic, and right in the middle of “Love Lifted Me,” daddy started prodding about his face, and with as much invention and stealth as he could muster, trying but failing to be anything but conspicuous, and in front of the whole congregation, one arm keeping time, the other mercilessly engaged with his nose. Ray and I giggled like eight-year olds. Then again, I might have been 8 years old.
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore . . .
Artists are often asked about influences—writers, singers, athletes, actors. Who inspired you to take this path or that? Who gave you the necessary permissions? Who championed your gifts, introduced possibility as if the thing were smiling on you the whole time? And so on.
What about life influences? Those few souls early on, who helped shape you, shape your thoughts, your manners, who, in their way, in your greenest days, pointed in a direction and not only made that direction attractive, but gave you the permissions necessary to achieve, who said you can do that. You. I can say, and with a gratitude I may have never acknowledged until now, my first major life influence was my brother, Ray. No, it wasn’t the sports thing. I knew, or at least strongly suspected even then, I didn’t have the tools, the desire, or genetics for that. My attempt at sports was out of some imagined familial obligation. Even so, Ray was a bona fide champion, with the press to show it, and that can rub off on a young impressionable devotee. In that spirit, with his star, rose my own.
Music played around us all the time. It was . . . a thing. I loved the music he loved because he loved it. He introduced me to Ray Charles. “Hit the Road Jack,” and “What’d I Say,” Ray Charles. He introduced me to the Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, “Dream Lover,” “Mack the Knife,” and Bob Dylan, the earliest possible Dylan, the “Blowin’ in the Wind” Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “Don’t Think Twice,” “Oxford Town,” and “Girl From the North Country” Bob Dylan. These were my first musical influences, the ground of it all.
Ray and I shared a room. His heroes became my heroes, his tastes, my tastes. At the time, I’m not sure I had preferences beyond Davy Crockett, a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Popeye the Sailorman or the music from Peter Pan. I liked Dylan because he did. Then I liked it because I liked it. Mine was an ear in training.
He put together a trio and started playing folk songs, popular at the time—the Kingston Trio, Peter-Paul-and Mary, the Brothers Four, “In Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home,” and so on. I was 8. In my standard I-want-to-be-like-him mode, when he wasn’t around, which was often, I snuck his guitar, a song book, and just started playing. He may have taught me to read chord charts, I can’t remember. I would think so. If not the first song, certainly one of the first songs I ever played, and sung, was one I heard Ray’s trio play. “500 Miles.” Sad. Tender. Melodic. Lonesome. Dark. Haunted. The charm was immense. As young as I was, a world opened up to me. Music was also a way to claim my share of the family praise. Ray had a basketball. I had a guitar.
Having a brother, sharing space, even the messy parts, which, in truth, I don’t remember any. But I learned how to be a brother. If I have “brothers” today, and I do—you know who you are—it is because of something strong and invincible I was taught to feel from my earliest memories. The attachment is old in me. Shortly before I graduated from college, Ray introduced me to what became the most successful and certainly the most productive relationship I ever had professionally. Coming home from West Georgia on weekends, Ray often mentioned the name Judge Parker. And with a kind of pride or elevation in his voice. For years all I heard was the man’s name and his skill on a banjo. Before I ever met Judge, he was legend. Because he was just a year or so older than Ray, he fit neatly into that older brother shaped void that has followed me all my life. And it was a nice fit. An only child himself, Judge told me just recently that I was the closest thing he’s ever had to a brother. Because of the weight that word carries in me, to call me “brother” is one of the highest compliments I can receive. And, of course, that brotherhood and the awe that goes with it, is reciprocal. Written in me from an early age.
As compact as our little world was, and as similar as he and I are in more ways than we may wish to acknowledge at times, Ray and I remain, for lack of a better word, opposites—different career paths, aspirations, life paths, different histories to look back on. I was his shadow for years. Even so, at my departure, I think he always knew where he stood with me. From my earliest memories, and perhaps even a few exaggerated ones, he is and will remain beautiful in me. I said that in the 3rd person. Let me say it again and close that distance.
Brother, Ray, you are and will ever remain, beautiful in me. Like those summers, my memories of those days are bound in gold and sunlight. You invested faith in me. It is up to me not to squander that investment, but to honor it. How? By reaching for, achieving, and giving my best, the best that is in me to give.
Because of influence, because he mentored me in his way, because he was a good brother, generous and fun, because he was interesting, because fascination was commonplace between us, because he is a star in my eyes, because he was a good steward of the influence he had over me, because of his investment of belief in my gifts when they appeared, I owe a debt I have never publicly recognized or acknowledged until now.
There are moments. Call it a product of age if we must, but there are moments I return, that my heart carries me back. And you are always there. So, on that day, when “something happens to you,” it will happen to me too, that train will roll again. Until that time, there are years left, and many more miles to go.
That’s it. This is David Teems. If you love somebody . . . anybody. Tell them. Out loud. Now. Forgive my bungled Shakespeare, but to speak what you feel . . . is what you ought to say.