Brian’s Song

Tina.BrianI have deeply loved four men in my life. The man who helped create me. The man who married me. The gay man who was my spirit’s other half. And the man who was my brother. In all ways, but biologically, Brian Corwin Davis was my brother.

Brian’s was the first penis I ever saw. I didn’t know what it was, except that pee came out of it and that he stood facing the toilet instead of sitting on it. Confused, I asked my mom what THAT was all about. In a culture where nice ladies didn’t discuss this type of thing, she told me it’s what boys do when they have a stomachache. I looked down at my puffy, preschool tummy and my outie belly button that looked a little bit like what Brian had peed out of. Lesson learned. When your tummy hurts, pee out of your belly button and all is well. The next time I had a bellyache, I stood in front of our toilet, belly pushed out, trying to rid myself of tummy pain. It never worked.

We lived across the street from one another, two young families in the 1960s, living the American small town dream, with mid-century furniture and bouffant hair to prove it. We were a family of four, as were they. Jack-n-Annette-Brian-n-Shari. One word. My dad was a steelworker; Brian’s a salesman. We had a Boston terrier mix named Pepper. They had a collie named Snookie. We went to the same church. The same school. The same grocery store. Our moms took turns having tea at one another’s house while the kids played. Sometimes we’d play Barbies. Sometimes Brian would preach.

The boy had a calling from a young age and one he heeded whether he knew it or not. He might never have been ordained, but he was a preacher. He preached at his sister and me from his pulpit on our sidewalk. Shari and I sat on the front steps of the porch, swatted sweat bees and heeded his altar call. My baby sister Gina, hung out in her play pen, her Amen corner of sorts.

I remember a few of his sermons. He was big on equal rights and was a social justice warrior before being a social justice warrior was cool. Brian really did consider the ministry several times during his life. Some of us told him he should have been a priest, but we were wrong. Ordination would have limited him and Brian’s congregation was bigger than that. When he posted photographs of beautiful flowers every Sunday with the simple word, “Mass” on his Facebook page; when he reached out to the children he taught in school and ministered to their simplest needs; when he made sure his mother and her twin had the best kind of 80th birthday party; when he wrote prayers and essays that he shared; when he “gave to the least of these,” Brian was already the best kind of minister.

For every moment he was a saint, Brian could also be a sinner. There remains disagreement whether he was the bad influence, or ‘twas I, the morning we decided that while our mothers sipped tea, we should sip bleach with sunbeams streaming through the windows of our back porch and onto our heads. Maternal panic and chaos ensued. My mom grabbed me; Brian’s mom grabbed him; they called their respective pediatricians and all I really remember is a lot of milk and bread. And spanking. I believe I recall spanking.

I believe I recall a LOT of spankings when it came to Brian and me, especially fifth grade. Unable to handle the accelerated class she’d been given, our fifth grade teacher discovered that repeated readings of Old Yeller wasn’t a functioning disciplinary tool. Among other interesting teaching strategies, she would line us up after lunch and whack us with the paddle. Her actions rested on the philosophy that even if we hadn’t done anything yet, we certainly would. Because we were the accelerated class, we were smart enough to learn to earn the spanking.

We also learned to roll with the punches and Brian rolled better than most. With stuntman-like skill, he could tuck and roll after crashes that would leave most of us writhing on the ground. After each blow, he stood back up, dusted off his pants and moved forward, looking back only long enough to see if anybody else needed a hand up.

It was his drive to move forward, to only glance back and not dwell in the pain, that allowed him to rack up more degrees, positions and commendations than I have chins. I’ve known the man literally my entire life and when I read the vita that was his obituary, I was surprised by two-thirds of what he’d accomplished. The thing is, his obituary could only cover about one third of what he’d done in his life.

There isn’t room in an obituary to outline what Brian did with the time he had on earth. There isn’t room in a blog. There isn’t even room in my brain. I have forgotten most of what Brian has done for me in my life and he was doing for me from the days we drank bleach to the week before he died. I want to think I’m special, but I’m not. Brian did that for every life he touched.

Brian loved more than most people. He loved through his pain. He loved through rejection. He loved without boundaries and he loved fully with a heart bursting with forgiveness. He suffered when his loved ones suffered. He rejoiced when they rejoiced. To have Brian by my side during a painful moment was to have a surrogate soaking up my pain, so that I could function more freely.

A few years ago, Brian knitted Christmas gifts for our little gang of friends. We grew up together and we had stayed connected. Brian knitted hats, gloves, and scarves for Libby and Jamie and vest for Jennifer. We teased Carolyn about her forest green hand-knitted dickey, Brian knew that particular green brings out the color of her eyes. He knitted a beautiful baby blue hat for me, plus fingerless gloves because I had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. He wanted my hands to be warm and functional while I write. Literally soaking up my pain, so that I could function more freely.

As with everything else he did, Brian’s knitting was beautiful and flawless. As with everything else he did, Brian’s knitting was a ministry. He knitted booties and sweaters for newborns. He also painted beautifully, and drew. I have pieces of Brian art and cartoons that are decades old. I’m going to ask his sister if there is a recent piece I can have. He’d begun painting again. Brian was also a writer, a good one. The kind that makes me envious. He could find the word that described a situation so perfectly that his reader felt transported. His essay on 9/11 was life altering.

Yes, Brian was there on 9/11. Teaching in the Bronx, because that’s what the Brians of the world do. They earn post-graduate degrees and instead of taking a comfortable position at a private school, they move to the Bronx where their cars are stolen and stripped, and they teach children. When New York doesn’t feel right after a terrorist attack, they move to Florida and teach in a low-income district there.

The Brians of the world teach children from low-income homes. They buy school supplies from their limited personal funds, and they fight the good fight. The Brians of the world get up each morning and they get breakfast for their students who can’t afford breakfast and they decorate their first grade room so that each child is exposed to art and beauty and knowledge. They stand up to the system and fight for their kids to get a fair shake in an unfair world.

The Brians of the world know that it only takes one person to make a difference and they spend their entire lives making that difference. Because Brian knew what it felt like to be “outside the box,” he spent his days trying to help marginalized individuals feel worthy, needed and affirmed.

When my mother didn’t know how to answer my question about Brian’s mysterious urinating ability, it wasn’t the first time somebody didn’t know how to answer a question about him and it certainly wasn’t the last. The world never could answer our questions about Brian, or his questions about himself. He was too complicated, too layered, too dimensional. There was just too much Brian and you can’t compartmentalize a Renaissance man.

But you can love him. You can enjoy him. You can dance with him and you can watch him perform. You can laugh with him. You can cry with him. You can listen to his stories of joy and his stories of sorrow. You can learn from him. You can read The Hobbit in Junior High because that’s what Brian says you need to do. You can be in band with him. You can be in choir with him, unless you’re me and can’t carry a tune in a bucket. You can go to church with him or you can just let him be your church. You can hug him, the best hugger ever, or you can just let him squeeze you on the shoulder as you cuss out your wedding planner. You can let him fix your hair for your wedding and feel beautiful and you can let him cut your hair in a 90s asymmetrical doo and not feel so beautiful. You can read his writing and let him read yours. You can listen to his beautiful baritone voice over and over again. You can nag him about smoking and he can nag you about eating. You can beg him to move to Nashville because you know you’d make him feel loved and make healthy choices. You can accept that his life is in Florida. You can accept and embrace every ounce of Brian that there is because there is so much Brian to accept and embrace.

And that’s what makes the loss of Brian so huge. He is gone. My brother. My minister. My genius. My Renaissance man. My Gandalf. Our friend Jamie, who was probably closer to Brian than anyone, shared this quote from Brian’s favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores. And beyond…a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Go with God, dear Brian, to your green country under a swift sunrise. We will learn, somehow, to be without you. It hurts, but we will learn. I wish I could push my big belly out over the toilet right now and rid myself of the pain in it, the ache in my tummy, my chest, my throat. Just like when we were toddlers, though, it doesn’t work.