Yesterday, we buried my oldest brother. I wrote and delivered his eulogy, and I wanted to share it with you. For the last few weeks, students have been so protective and loving. They helped me manage my emotions during his illness and transition. One girl even sprinkled gold glitter on my head for good luck, and one silent, young man would never leave my side. I love them for that. Here goes:
“Merry Christmas,” as Ronny would often say on days other than Christmas.
As I sat here through the homily, I found myself remembering the summer of my eighteenth year. I remember growing more and more excited as my freshman trek in college neared. I had a summer job at the General Accounting Office. I was a GS Zero. I earned minimum wage, $1.60 an hour, but I was glad to be working. My mother had helped me secure the job, as she had done for many of the teens in the neighborhood. I saved most of my money to assist me once I got to college. Even with financial aid, I knew things would be tight for her. I had a little over $500 in the bank and bragged about it to my family.
Sometime right before Labor Day, college just two weeks away, my oldest sibling, Ronny, nine years my senior, came to me with a request. He had fallen short of rent money in the Parklands apartment he shared with his wife and sons. If I would loan him my savings, he would repay me in one week once he got paid. I was a little nervous about it, but some of me was proud. It was as if this transaction edified my passage into adulthood. I mean, he had never borrowed anything from me before. So I obliged.
I began packing a trunk for the train ride to Boston. The week came and went, and I had heard nothing from Ronny. No one could reach him. I became nervous and pondered my folly. I still had my last check coming, a little under one hundred dollars, and I could get a work study job once I arrived on campus. Still, a piece of my heart was broken.
Then, the night before my departure, Ronny showed up. In one hand, he held ten twenty dollar bills, less than half of what I loaned him. In the other hand, he clutched three coats, a purple suede ankle-length number, and two leather jobs, one red and the other lime green (it was the ’70s). Things had not gone as planned, and this was the best he could do, he explained. I accepted his offer. I had no choice. But, you see, that was Ronny. Part of him had forgotten, but most of him remembered. That was how he loved.
I packed the coats, after trying them on, and left the next day for college. I especially remember the red one. It had a wide belt and a “Super Fly” collar. Looking back now, I am certain that, as the weather cooled, I was the only young man traversing tony Harvard Yard in a red leather coat with a Super Fly collar. Still, I like to think that was how my wife noticed me. I don’t know if she just felt sorry or what, but here we still are. So, in the end, Ronny had done me a favor I did not recognize at the time. But I suddenly recall now how special I felt holding my girlfriend’s hand walking across campus while wearing my oldest brother’s coat.
A little over two weeks ago, on a Thursday, the 8th, my birthday, Ronny’s doctors delivered good news. Since entering the hospital on New Year’s Day, his vital signs had finally improved enough to allow them to do an internal probe to determine the cause of his breathing difficulties. They discovered there were no obstructions, no cancers, no blockages of any kind. In essence, Ronny had simply stopped coughing, and there were remedies, a special vest with which they could outfit him to help him along. The prognosis seemed good, and I was overjoyed.
Unfortunately, by Friday evening, it became clear Ronny was not improving. In fact, his breathing had gotten worse. But on that day before, that Thursday, we were so hopeful. After teaching, I traveled down to Haines Point, where I often go to celebrate good news or contemplate the day’s adventures. As I stopped in my favorite spot near the water, I watched an older Asian couple park their car near mine, open the trunk, and pull out loaves of white bread. At first, the seagulls nearby simply stood on the railing, waiting. Then, as the lady and man began tossing chunks onto the parking lot and the water beyond, the birds rose in a frenzy.
As the seagulls dove down towards the ground and then back up into the air, circling each other and dancing on the wind, I thought of Ronny’s life. As with the birds, there had been moments of joy, of dance and song, style and substance, and there had been periods of stillness, like the wait before the prize. There were moments without apparent movement, and then suddenly, rhapsody again.
It got me thinking about the gifts Ronny had given me. I counted eight. The first gift was my name. A former altar boy, he had chosen it before I was born because he liked the sound and the message of the apostle Mark. I thank him for that.
The second gift he gave me was humor. Whenever my big brother was around, laughter ensued. I can still hear him exclaiming “Only in America” whenever one of life’s little ironies appeared. And even later, in the nursing home, when the power of speech eluded him, even then his eyes sparked when I told him my silly jokes, or surprised him with a Ben’s Chili Dog with everything on it, the way he always liked. Finding humor in almost any situation was a gift he gave to me, to us.
The third gift was resiliency. Ronny was a fighter, even at times when flight might have been the better course. Ronny could at times be down, but never out. He could take a punch and then rebound as if nothing had happened. There was always a new plan, a new approach, a different scheme, and I learned from watching him that no storm lasts forever if you refuse to let go.
Ronny also gave me an appreciation for style, for verve, for what my students call “swag.” From his dress to his cars to his lady friends, Ronny always impressed me with his ability to shine without apparent effort. He seized the room when he entered. As a teenager and a young man, I watched my oldest brother strut through life, and I wanted to move like him, to dress like him, to glide like him, and I thank him for that.
The fifth gift he gave me was the gift of gab. A born salesman, Ronny knew how to take words and make them his servants. Whether hawking furniture, or cars, or insurance, he could talk his way into and out of almost anything. It is one thing to have a sharp mind; it is another thing to put it to work. Ronny put his mind to work and used his words to take on the world. He taught me how to be fearless when it came to communication, to exchange, to poetry, and I thank him for that.
Ronny also taught me about family. In many ways, family became his church, even when he failed in the attempt. Family mattered to him in a way deeper even then words. Now don’t get me wrong. Ronny could definitely pluck a nerve. He could test your patience. But always, no matter what, always I knew family anchored him. It rooted him even when he appeared aimless. Family was his creed, and I learned from him how to love without conditions the way families should, through the good and the bad, and I thank him for that.
The seventh and eighth gifts he gave me move together in tandem, like peanut butter and jelly. Ronny showed me through his life that there were places I should avoid, parties I should not attend. He taught me, through his life, that some roads should remain untraveled. Later, as he battled his demons, I learned the importance of moderation, of temperance, and I thank him for that because without that lesson there is no way I could appreciate his final gift—forgiveness.
Ronny taught me the importance of forgiving, not just others, but also ourselves. He taught me that life is a journey, that there will be stretches of sunshine so bright you almost have to look away, and there will be patches of fog so thick that stumbling is inevitable. He showed me that even when you feel lost, there is always tomorrow, there is always faith in the unseen, there is God and His mercy, there is forgiveness—the gift you give yourself.
I love Ronny for all these things and more. Like the joyful wings of a bird in flight, I know he inspired all our lives and will continue to do so, even beyond our sight. They say death ends a life, but not a relationship. Speaking for myself, and Michael and Charles, I know Ronny will always be our larger-than-life big brother—and I thank God for that.
I know we will all miss him. Our eyes will water with tears. But let’s face it, even try to embrace it: Rodenard Warren Davis, our son, father, brother, friend, and guide, is flying again–where he belongs.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)