When George died seven years ago, I chose Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem as his epitaph, as if my brother had been the happy wanderer, worn and weather-beaten from being blown by the wind: “Here he lies where he longed to be;/ Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunger home from the hill.” But his life was no child’s garden of verses, and my excuse for glossing over his sufferings (for which he deserved a gold medal in the Special Olympics) was that his pain was my pain, too, and I wasn’t willing to face the memories that left me heartbroken.
The neatest thing I ever did for him was to unite him in death with Dad in a burial place by the sea, the sailor’s snug harbor of a family in which all the men were fishermen. I thought, “Now he’s out of harm’s way, immune at last from humiliations.” Maybe the only decent break he ever got was to be brought there for the long sleep, for he would have been restless buried with strangers, cruelly separated from his loved ones in death as he was in life.
To tell the truth, I don’t know which direction to turn for cheerfulness when I remember my brother. I could paper over grief with the customary Christian consolation were it not for the Jimmy Swaggarts warning us of the hellfire that awaits sinners who die without accepting Christ as their personal savior. The Catholic version of doomsday is brought to us by the crepehangers in the church who spend their lives praying for a happy death – to die in the state of sanctifying grace, freshly fortified by the last sacraments.
Once you’ve buried a brother who’s regarded by outsiders as the black sheep of the family, you start looking for schemes of salvation that come, like health insurance, as a package deal for all the family, though it has never troubled me excessively that George, in his lifetime, wasn’t conventionally religious. I can’t really believe that my brother’s life, or any life, should mean so little in the sight of heaven that I should have to defend him from God’s trashing him in flames for all eternity.
The restoration of peace in the family begins with the recognition that grace works overtime in an incredible way to bring the mavericks home, though sometimes it’s over the road of hard knocks. It’s not sentimental to say that nothing is impossible with God – that Christ doesn’t give up on anyone.
Our Lord was very fond of telling stories about the father who had two sons, both of them in need of paternal love and wisdom. This is why, if I could write my life as a gospel parable, I would begin it, “A man in Maine had two sons, and one of them was my brother.” Is it possible that brothers can lead each other into God’s presence, that one can appear as a character witness for the other? In the parable of the prodigal, don’t you suppose that later the younger lad would willingly go to court to testify to the worthiness of his elder brother who stayed at the father’s side, working hard all his life, even when the old man gave half his savings to be wasted by the playboy of the family?
In bible stories the brother who obeys his father’s instructions and the brother who flouts them often strike me as being the same son in different moods. In those stories one son can see in his brother his own better, or darker, half. One brother can see the other as his twin in mediocrity or his counterpart in virtue or vice. This homemade insight may be shallow or unimportant, like pop psychology, but in my house I think it was true. How can I sort out what Christ means in my life except to say that, in my family, I got the vocation to be alter Christus and my brother George got the vocation to be Simon of Cyrene, helping Christ carry the cross in a way I never did. It must have been Christ’s cross that George was struggling under, considering its size and weight. So I became the priest who got spoiled by attention, and he was the ne’er-do-well brother, expected to keep out of sight. Still, he must have gotten the lion’s share of grace or he couldn’t have been so patient. I never did as much for him by the influence of my good example as he did for me.
George was my handsome and gentle elder (there were nine years between us), whose name must have been on the short list of the Beautiful and the Damned. Even as one of the boys of summer in their ruin, he still had a head like Lord Byron’s. I’m not willing to tell you, even now, how often and how cruelly he was wounded. I could say, as many have said to me, that he was his own worst enemy, but it wasn’t true. Life was the enemy that kept defeating him, though only by a TKO. He was a plucky lad with style and class, and he never ran out of that courage called grace under pressure. Unfortunately, that’s a secular grace that doesn’t sanctify you, but perhaps God accepted it in lieu of the sanctifying grace which is the credential you need for entering heaven.
He never married, though he was in love with an Irish girl named Eileen, sister to his teen-age chum, Carl. She may have loved George, though it worried her that he wasn’t a Catholic. Then Carl got killed riding piggy-back on a boxcar, his head knocked off by a low-lying bridge, and Eileen gave up dating the young and the restless. Soon George had his own injuries to deal with: He fell off the back of a truck and was dragged through the streets until the toes of his shoes were burned off before the driver knew he had a hitchhiker in tow. He was left with a scar on his brain from which he suffered ill effects the rest of his life.
When he was in his late 40s, he started to have anxiety attacks that left him so manic he would have to be hospitalized. Once, when he felt an attack coming on, he tried to take his own life by slicing his throat. After that my mother kept the razor blades out of sight. When he finally died in a nursing home, crippled by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair, this helpless man was a prisoner in a locked room – though he was as peaceable as a nun breathless with adoration – to keep him out of harm’s way in case he had a mood swing.
The saddest scene of his life must have taken place on the day he went in a wheelchair from his nursing home to see my old, blind mother in her nursing home where she was confined to a room on the second floor. The home didn’t have an elevator – only stairs he couldn’t climb up and she couldn’t walk down. George, stunningly disappointed, never got to visit the mother he adored and hadn’t seen in several years. Because of their illnesses, he never saw her again.
He shouldn’t have died at 66 from a stomach aneurism that started to hemorrhage. When the bleeding began, the doctors couldn’t figure out where the blood was coming from; no mention had been made on his medical record of the aneurism he had had repaired 10 years before. By this time in his life, he may have felt that his soul was being stretched over a wheel of fire, but I have no way of telling whether he felt ready and willing to die. All you can say in the words of Thomas Hardy, is that the President of the Immortals had finished using George for his sport.
Years before I opened Darby’s as “a clean, well-lighted place” for the night people of Notre Dame, George was trying to open a social club for people who needed a light for the night. It would cater especially to dried-out drinkers who sought something happier or more swinging than an AA meeting as a barrier against feeling empty inside.
George started to drink when he was very young. As a boy, he got into the sneaky habit of sampling the home brew that my uncle made in my grandfather’s cellar. My first awareness of what the repeal of Prohibition could mean was when George, at 17, was brought home pissed to the gills and passed out in the back seat of a police car. That’s the only time I ever saw him under the influence, for he never drank at home and I never was with him when he took a drink.
After the age of 45 or so, he never touched a drop. Another hail-fellow-well-met had smashed George’s leg to pieces by breaking a two-by-four across it, and from then on George was afraid to drink for fear of getting hurt again. The pain from his shattered limb must have bled into the pain circulating around his head. Even if he’d wanted to find the amnesia that lies at the bottom of a cup, the sobriety forced on him when he was hospitalized for months deprived him of the chance to use liquor as a crutch. You’d have to be a shrink to understand the damage so much trauma can cause. All I can tell you is that after that, his mental health gave him a run for the money.
The first time that we noticed our boy was in deep trouble was when he told us about the “Blackbird Club” he was trying to find premises for. The name came to him from a song: “Make my bed, and light the light/I’ll be home, late tonight. Blackbird, bye-bye.” From then on, whenever he mentioned the Blackbird Club we knew his mood was switching from depressive to manic, and neither hell nor high water could have kept him from trying to go into business as Toots Shor.
When he was a practicing alcoholic, George didn’t like to lush unseen, wasting his sweetness on the desert air. When he started to practice sobriety as a lifestyle, he would stand outside bars – as he once told me – looking through the window, watching the folks inside who were laughing and having a good time. That’s when he started to want his version of Hemingway’s clean, well-lighted place, where wallflowers committed to total abstinence could meet to dance.
The older I got, the harder I tried to let him see how fond I was of him, partly as a penance, I suspect, for trying to play him as a fool when I was still a college student. Once I wore, without his knowing, the good-looking new suit he had shopped for to wear at my father’s funeral. It was blue, double-breasted and Brooks Brothers – the most expensive set of threads either of the Griffin boys had ever had on his back. I wanted it and was jealous of George’s having it, though on me the pants were too short, the sleeves not long enough.
Unfortunately, I fell down while I had it on and ripped a hole in one knee. I hung the suit back in the closet without saying a word. When George discovered the damage, I tried to convince him that he, while drunk, must have torn the pants without knowing it. The look he gave me would have wrung tears out of the eye of a turnip, as he realized I was treating him like a dummy. And he probably wondered why I would want to humiliate him, since he wasn’t about to get in a fight with me over a suit I could have had for the asking. God love him, he wouldn’t have seemed half so tragic in his lifetime if he hadn’t been so transparently sensitive. When he was 60 years old, wobbling like a wino with a wet brain because of his injuries, he still looked elegant in the peajacket and corduroys of a longshoreman.
He was always kind to me and infinitely courteous, full of love and charm for the baby brother. If he was ever unhappy with self-pity or bitterness, he never let me see it. He would have enjoyed my needing him as a big brother, taking care of me as my role model, defender, social coach, guardian angel – and, after my father’s death, as the family breadwinner anxious to see that my mother didn’t spoil me. He never held it against me that I became a priest, though he could have made it tougher, as the man of the house, for me to continue in the seminary. He could have pointed out, as my sister did, that it was I, not he, who worried my father the most by my decision to sign up as a Catholic.
He was not, in any outward way, remotely religious. As far as I now, he wasn’t even baptized. He asked me once why I had taken up with a church that so many scholars, scientists and other bright people regarded as nonsensical. I gave him one of the smug answers that preconciliar Catholics were famous for, then asked him if he believed in God. “I would have to be a fool not to,” he said. In the time we spent together that was as close as we ever came to a discussion of religion. I have no way of knowing if he was close to God, or if he said prayers, but I may find out in heaven that his prayers were the ones that kept me going all the way to ordination.
The only concern he showed for me as a priest was his worry about my getting too heavy. He asked my mother once if I had to kneel down in performing my duties in church; he was concerned that kneeling could be hard for me, since I was so greatly overweight.
He was intelligent and a keen observer, and the wilder he was on his antic days, the quicker he was to figure things out. Besides, he read a lot. I’m sure that in his own way he must have researched the question of God’s concern for his world, especially after he met proselytizing preachers who offered him bibles and born-again nurses who wanted to bring him to Jesus. How could he not have tried to put God to the test, or tested the efficacy of prayer, in all the time he spent alone as he fought to survive the disaster of his life, or to help my mother and my sister carry the burdens that weighed on them like the everlasting hills. It isn’t necessarily your consciousness, or the nearness or sweetness of God, that makes you a saint or a believing Christian. The mystics warn us of the long, dark night of the soul: That’s when the cries go up from the heart, “Where is God? Where is he when we need him, and what is he doing to help?”
There is a secular version of this divine abandonment that could be described the Gospel According to Hemingway. Everyone has his omega-point of pain, when everything seems lost except the struggle itself. Christ’s was not in Gethsemane, when he was still able to make an act of blind faith in his father’s will, but on the cross, when he cried, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” – when, as Chesterton noted, it seemed the Son of God had become an atheist.
The saints of Hemingway’s gospel are heroes who keep a stiff upper lip and are tender in love, manly in courage and primitive in their instincts, which bond them like brothers-in-survival to the wild things on earth. They are heirs to the kingdom in which God is our nada, because when the chips are down they show much grace under pressure and have obvious class as straight-shooters.
Hemingway wrote, “If people bring much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
The omega-point of Christ’s passion is a mystery to me and everyone else. Though God is Christ’s own Abba, our Lord as he was dying felt so rejected and abandoned that he had difficulty conjuring up his father’s face. How can I build a bridge between this and my brother’s mood as he waited for death in a nursing home?
My brother’s was the passion of the unwashed have-nots. He was not an uncrowned saint, passionately wounded by splinters from Christ’s cross. If he’d found himself in Gethsemane, he’d have left by the nearest exit to drink through the night with Hemingway’s sleepless old man. George wouldn’t have known what I was talking about if I told him he was a victim drawn into the circle of God’s pain. He would have said, “Given the choice, I’d rather be with the sunshine boys.”
The heavenly father couldn’t have allowed him such a large portion of pain only to allow it to lie fallow and unredemptive. Where love is, there is God, says scripture. Where pain is, there is God’s son on the cross. You can get there on the via dolorosa which leads to Calvary from a hundred million directions. Getting there, you bow your head and beat your breast as though you were visiting the Wailing Wall. I can believe all this as an act of faith, but it’s nebulous compared to Hemingway’s gospel of guts. If mercy came into my brother’s life, it had no discernable shape. But I didn’t see doubts there, either. Though he may have had hopes, I don’t think George expected anything. He didn’t die beaten or mute with fear. I’ve seen my brother’s face when the ghosts of old tears behind his smile were struggling to keep fresh tears from emerging. What do you do with the remembrance of things past that dates all the way back to the lost childhood, when innocence is first lost and the child is no longer conscious of himself as nature’s high priest, trailing clouds of glory? Of course neither of us brothers was so Wordsworthian, nor would we have wanted to be if it meant perceiving that the shades of the prison house were beginning to close upon the growing boy.
It’s only as an adult that you reach for the nearest available metaphor to describe how it felt as a child to discover that you could no longer rely on having a good time every day, that the adults who kept reminding you that you were no longer a baby usually had an axe to grind, and they could get in your way like darkness. But where were any of us when we first became aware of tears and the death of things, and understood the sadness of that time as a warning for the future-realized that the blues we were getting were an affliction that could follow us around like cold germs?
For years and years I saw the sadness in my brother’s eyes as I left him behind in hospital rooms, nursing homes and, once or twice, in a jail. Usually I’d be heading off to have dinner at a fancy restaurant with friends who were picking up the tab. I’ve been to so many places where he couldn’t follow me, for the shy explorative and easily embarrassed love that existed between us didn’t mean that either of us could go trespassing into the other’s world.
Carrying an empty suitcase, he once checked into a hotel where I had stayed, just to prove that the place wasn’t off limits to him. After checking in, he found he was lonely and had nothing to do, so he went home without paying, leaving the empty suitcase behind. He suspected that I was embarrassed of him, ashamed of him, and he was probably right, though I was ashamed of myself for being embarrassed.
It would be selfish and unfair of me to save up graces for myself with which to grease God’s palm if I felt that George would once again be left outside to cool his heels, gawking up at the marquee. I would be sick with guilt if I could even faintly foresee it would happen that way. How could I love God without bitterness if I couldn’t trust him not to give my brother the back of his hand? I love him, and I am ashamed of him no longer, and am almost tempted to praise him elegically as “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” But why make him greater in death than he was in life, except as an act of homage which would bring peace not to his soul but to mine?
When you say kaddish for my brother, please don’t pull strings to get him into a pie-in-the-sky kind of heaven; don’t arrange for haloed Veronicas to meet him or virgin-martyrs to fall over him. He’d take no pleasure from a Catholic heaven, lit with candles and reeking of incense, cluttered with statues from the catacombs. The crowd he runs with in heaven should be composed of simple folk: street people, eccentrics living hand-to-mouth, the invisible drifters who became visible to him after they helped him survive with their gutter-wisdom.
While I was watching him crawl toward the grave, maybe I should have encouraged the Salvation Army to approach him with fife, trumpet and drum, offering to furnish him with midwives capable of delivering him into born-again innocence. My brother would have had a great deal of respect for a religion which makes a duty out of serving coffee and doughnuts to winos who would starve without the charity they receive from a skid-row mission. But he wouldn’t have cared to live there as a captive audience. Why would I expect him to be comfortable as the everlasting houseguest of any denomination holding leases to the mansions of glory in a city with jewelled walls and gates of pearl?
Reason, in Catholic tradition, is regarded as the handservant of faith; and faith, in St. Paul’s definition, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” What substantial thing can we reasonably hope for in heaven? Oh, says St. Paul, reason doesn’t come near it. Out of love for us, God created this incredibly beautiful world- which can’t hold a candle, Paul says, to the one to come. God’s heart has reasons that our reason cannot know. Heaven is his masterpiece, and we will dance for him there as though we were honored guests at the Stardust Ballroom at the end of the world.
I can imagine God dancing but, of course, God is more supernatural than that. I can imagine an Emerald City but, of course, heaven’s more ineffable than that. I can imagine iridescent angels and archangels with aquamarine eyes the color of Yeats’ unicorns but, of course, the heavenly choirs are more ethereal than that. What I can’t imagine is a hereafter where the lame and crippled aren’t allowed to enter first.
Rather than believe those pre-Vatican II diehards complacently assigning the soul of my unbaptized brother to a place in limbo (or worse), I’d trash theology and start over. My brother can slip through the narrow gate as an “anonymous Christian,” as Karl Rahner describes those “who are justified by grace even while they remain outside the Christian community-even if they’re not church members, have not been baptized, do not confess Christ, and do not believe explicitly in God.” This hopeful view is a spinoff from the teaching of Vatican II in Lumen Gentium.
I don’t want to claim that my brother was a saint-even an “anonymous saint”- whom the church would be justified in “anonymously canonizing.” But I’d like to think the poor, dear chap had as much chance to grab the brass ring as the rest of us. Insisting that “outside the church there is no salvation” seems to leave him doomed.
My brother’s funeral service was as simple as could be. The casket couldn’t have been cheaper or more modest, but it had dignity and it was better than plain boards and he wasn’t buried by the welfare department in a potter’s field. I had to borrow the money for the funeral, and dignity was all I could afford.
The casket wasn’t opened. The body, zipped in a body bag, wasn’t made up for viewing. I was sorry I made that arrangement: Not seeing him made saying good-bye more impersonal than it needed to be. Despite his tough life, my brother never lost his good looks, but I hadn’t liked the idea of the cosmeticians practicing their arts on him, applying rouge and powder that would leave his fine face looking waxy, or fussing with that magnificent head of hair until it looked like a wig. Still, I wish I could have seen him laid out, and I realized my sister would have preferred an open casket. My mother wasn’t there and couldn’t have been even if I had told her of George’s death, which I didn’t. God love her, she was getting ready to die herself. I should have bought him a new suit for his burial. I felt I owed him one, remembering the suit of his I tried to rip off.
The Congregational minister in charge of the service kept offering to play hymns and asking if I wanted to share the prayers and readings with him, but my prayers were said privately. George didn’t have any great taste for hymns, especially those on tape like Muzak. I did ask for Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” which has always been read at our family funerals.
But religion, too, can be a form of cosmetics used to change the complexion of things. I didn’t want to give my “anonymously Christian” brother a sendoff as though he were a doctor of the church. I did for him in death what I knew he wanted: I saw him laid to rest in the snug harbor by the sea next to my father. It was done with love, devotion and sorrow, but without frills.
I owe it to my brother not to turn his life into a lie, and I’ve had to struggle against the unctuousness that can be a part of the clergyman’s style. I’ve been tempted to say, “He wasn’t heavy — he was my brother,” but it isn’t true. He was a heavy cross to bear, mostly because he was a cross to himself and a cross to my family. I’ve wept for him again and again, and have died inside when I’ve seen him forced to live in some of the saddest places in all the world. I could have been a cross to him as a priestly phony, judged by his cronies to be a pompous bastard who wouldn’t give them the time of day. If so, he never let me know that his pals had a poor opinion of me.
I would love to claim him for Christ, though he may have lived and died an agnostic. I want his life to have counted for something, but I have no right to try to appropriate him posthumously for the church, as though I had evidence for believing that, in his heart, he was a Catholic lad like me.
I can’t rob George of the right and dignity to be who he was, even if he was only a loser who never got the breaks. If he was a victim more sinned against than sinning, maybe his life could count as a protest against man’s inhumanity to man. But when you say kaddish for my brother, you shouldn’t completely disregard the possibility that he may have been one of the unsung heroes who ran secret errands for the powers that be.
The late Robert Griffin was University chaplain from 1974 until his retirement in the mid-1990s.