My Brother John: A Eulogy for the Living

For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age sixty-two. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology—or at least to me.

I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms—This is what Langstons are like—so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.

But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.

“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”

So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit forty-five Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.

Imagine him, now, if you will, perched on the very lip of sixty. He was born in 1954, the fourth child of six. This was the Mississippi Delta, and aside from the big-family mythology, you couldn’t find a family less like the Podhoretzes: a clan of rather reticent, superficially mild but passive-aggressive Southern Baptists, yearning for culture yet firmly trapped in the mid-century middle class. We were the people of Jell-O congealed salads and Sunday dinner with long-stemmed silver iced tea spoons.

Amid this tableau, my brother was growing up, aware that somehow he was not like other boys. (Though, we realize now, there were many more teenagers like him than had ever been thought.) He spent hours alone in the living room—years before I was even born—drawing floor plans for imaginary houses, and listening to the film soundtrack of West Side Story and Tony Bennett on the record player. Having become bored with Boy Scouts, he signed up for the Baptists’ Royal Ambassadors, thinking they might wear white tie and tails with red sashes and a chest full of snappy medals, only to find out, sadly, that the program focused on Third World Missions.

Early on, he was another species of the family’s contrarianism: West Side Story was replaced on by David Bowie and Bob Dylan, and later on, by Frank Zappa and Sun Ra, and even later Talking Heads and Patti Smith. (Everything I know about music, pop culture—anything really—my brother taught me.) In high school, he and his friend Teresa Nicholas (now a writer) signed up to work on the gubernatorial campaign of landmark black candidate Charles Evers (brother of Medgar), and while my family was ostensibly on the side of “progress,” for Daddy that move was a bit too far. Never mind: Evers ended up writing college recommendations that sent my brother to Yale and Teresa to Swarthmore.

Thus was born the great mythic sweep that has come to characterize my own life as well: the journey out of the South, up East, back again, and beyond: John dropped out of college, went out West. He came back to Mississippi barely a hundred pounds, and annoyed us all by his refusal to go inside a McDonald’s: “The food is plastic there,” he said, thirty-five years ahead of the rest of us.

And yet as dramatic as the arc of his own story is, his life is a testimony to, in Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s words, the Sacrament of the Present Moment. At the dawn of the 1980s, when he was a Yale graduate working an unlikely and unglamorous job at a school pictures processing plant in Jackson Mississippi, my brother would go out to lunch at Jack’s on Woodrow Wilson Boulevard with a black co-worker, a single-mother named Willie—in an era when interracial friendships were rare. My mother griped at him, and he said he didn’t care.

Here’s a portrait, perfectly limned to the time: Among the employees at the school pictures developing plant were a group of Vietnamese refugees, smuggled out of South Vietnam through Thailand, and resettled by the Southern Baptist Convention (a story that needs to be told) in Jackson. John came to know this group of unrelated, displaced young men, joked around with them at work, and at last, in thanks, they invited him to a dinner party at their threadbare apartment. He remembers arriving at a residence that contained almost no furniture, and being served an elaborate Vietnamese meal that they had labored over—so modest, he recalled to me, but so welcoming and generous.

Another person, I think, would not have ventured so blithely into the cultural unknown. Would not have been the finest listener I have ever known. The one, in fact—as I say to all my atheist friends—who fully demonstrated the Incarnation even while he knew it not. And who, unexpectedly as ever, decided in his fifties to return to Jesus, and became a Roman Catholic.

I was never a non-believer, just a prodigal son, he said to me today.

Looking at him, telling his stories to my children and embracing his example, the saying of Abba Joseph seems obvious, evident: “If you would, you could become all flame.”

I love you, brother John. And I honor you.

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

  • agh

    A heroic man. Inspires me to read this.

    • Caroline

      I am so honored!

      • Doug Tuttle

        Hi Caroline Langston!
        My last remembrance, twenty something years ago, of you, was eating together at Dr. T’s house after church…I still remember how amazing his cooking was then but I got a double dog amazement that day, due to our conversation on past historical events and theories. It held me like a laser beam.
        Now, thanks to this post on FB by our friend Causey, I am glad to rediscover your transporting gift of language, imagination and creativity and that its source is the same from which I love…You remind me of my favorites; Lewis, Edwards, Chesterson and Sarah Agnes Prior, all in one.
        Anyway, I hope there’s lots of catching up a’comin my way.
        My humble regards,
        Doug Tuttle

        • Caroline

          Dear Doug: It is so wonderful and amazing to hear from you! Is this Causey DeCell who reposted it? I am glad my essay is getting out there. Please write to me at caroline_jarboe (at) yahoo.com.

          I look forward to hearing from you about your faith journey in the years since those wonderful Second Pres (very formative for me) days…

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    A beautiful tribute, Caroline. And how inspired of you to “eulogize” someone living. We should all do that more often: honor people while they can still receive the honoring, You’ve set a good model for us (as your brother did in his own way).

    • Caroline

      Peggy–You share John’s gift of careful and compassionate observation in your own work. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Allison Troy

    love this.

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much…

  • Peter Cooley

    This is so beautifully written, Caroline! I’m showing it to Jacki, Nicole,Alissa, Josh and my students!
    Peter

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much, Peter–I hope your own mythic family will enjoy it.

  • Parasha

    I love reading you Caroline. Your writing dances on the page in clever descriptions of your family while introducing us to a much loved brother.

    • Caroline

      Dear Parasha: Thank you so much. I am honored by your words. There are times when I lose faith a bit because it feels like I am sending one tiny drop of work into the bottomless ocean of the Internet. My version of sand mandalas, I think. Then I get a comment like yours and remember why I am doing it…

  • Y. A. Warren

    I, too, believe in eulogies for the living. I have shocked many of my friends with the intent that, in my husband’s current illness, if he receives what I call “the deadly diagnosis” I’m planning an Irish wake for him where we will “roast” him here on earth. I want to hear all that others think is wonderful about him while he can still enjoy the words and laughter with me.

    • Caroline

      Y.A. Warren–I think that is a wonderful plan! I hope that it doesn’t come to that, but please know you and he will be in my prayers. Please keep me posted…

      • Y. A. Warren

        Thank you, Caroline, but know that I realize it will eventually “come to that” for all of us. I simply want to have a plan for handling it when it does. I had the privilege of coordinating an event for a chef friend to party her husband into paradise. It was a blessing to me and to many others who knew them.

        • Caroline

          I will continue to pray for you all…and I think I will make plans for this for my loved ones as well…

          • Y. A. Warren

            Thank you, Caroline.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you for sharing John Podhoretz’s eulogy. I feel that I now carry some of Rachel’s sacred spirit in my soul.

    • Caroline

      Amen. I am glad to hear that. I have to say that I think about her all the time, now, and remember her memory…


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