Lessons I’m Still Learning From My Brother John, R.I.P.

I recently came across the obituary for my brother John, who died in 1991 at age 47.  I surely miss him. John was the 4th of my 5 older brothers, the middle of seven children.  He used to say “The middle child gets all the aches, the middle child gets all the breaks”–and I don’t think he meant the good kind of breaks!

brother johnJohn was my buddy. When sibling rivalries and competitions broke out, John was always on my side against my brothers Bill and Robert. (My two oldest brothers, Hosea, Jr., and Donald, were too old to be involved with our games, and the youngest, Rick, came along much later.)

John was a mentor for me my first year at Southern Illinois University– he was a senior when I was a freshman. When he got married, he and his wife became a part of the regular crew who used to party with us in Chicago during the 70‘s. I could count on him to help me out with the children after I divorced, before he moved to New Jersey.  After his two failed marriages, he was here in Washington DC with me, both of us divorced, helping each other out with the kids. His son stayed regularly at my house and vice versa. We played tennis together and sometimes he would even attend church with me.

I really enjoyed having John living near me–the rest of my brothers were in different cities across the country.  So I became angry when he told me he was leaving DC to move to San Francisco. But my anger was about more than him leaving.

You see, he told me that he was leaving not only to take on a new job, but also because he was coming out of the closet.

He probably knew it was hard for me to take because I didn’t talk to him about it. I was angry because I thought he valued his sexual orientation more than his son.  Hosea (named after my father) was a senior in high school, and didn’t want to go to San Francisco, so John asked if Hosea could live with me, which he did, even coming home to my house during his years in college.

But now I know that I was also angry because I didn’t want my brother John to leave me. I knew I was going to miss him.  And I still miss him.

my brothers

After he told me he was gay, I realized I should have known it. John was not like my other brothers, who were all into judo and karate and the like. John played tennis. When he was growing up, the other kids used to call him a sissy. He used to hang around several others in our community who were also called sissies. He got beat up at least once that I know of.

Looking back on my anger when he left for San Francisco, I realize now that I wasn’t thinking at all about his needs. He must have been wrestling for a long time with his sexuality at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for him to be who he was. For him to live out his life as a lie to all of us all of those years must have been terribly difficult. The job in San Francisco must have been like a dream come true. He could go to a place where he didn’t have to hide or to lie, where he could be who he was.

I wish I had gotten over my anger so that we could have been pals again, so I could have met his new friends. I don’t even know if he had a special partner or not. I didn’t get a chance to tell him how I felt, because he died of AIDS a few years after he left.  I suspect he knew that he had the AIDS virus when he left, but he didn’t discuss it with anyone in the family.

What I learned from his life is that being gay was not a choice for him.  He would not have  chosen that childhood. He would not have chosen to pretend at his marriages in order to fit in. He would not have chosen to suffer with AIDS without telling any of his family.

I’ve also learned that I didn’t have the right to judge him. I should have been more compassionate. I should have talked to him, listened to his needs and his desires. I should have been there for him the way he was for me when I needed him.

The reason I’m sharing this with you readers now, with tears in my eyes, is because my brother John’s life has helped me to understand some things about how the Church ought to approach homosexuality and LGBT issues.  I’ll share more of my views about that next week.

For now, I’m comforted by believing that John knows how I feel.  He knows that I finally get it. I love you, brother!