This past Saturday my brother was very much alive, a guest at a dinner party, a role in which he excelled. Shortly after dinner he began to feel sick, he grabbed his coat and told his sweet Sarah that he needed to go home. Moments later he suffered a massive stroke and was rushed to the hospital.
The next day, my parents and I arrived in Denver. When we got to the hospital his body was still alive, but that big, beautiful brain of his was gone.
We had a chance to hold his hand, kiss his face, and say goodbye. The decision to take him off of life support was at once the hardest and easiest decision we’ve ever made.
To understand a man like my brother you have to understand just that sort of dichotomy, the simultaneity of opposites existing in a unified whole.
He was at once quiet and commanding, shy and outgoing, intense and playful.
Like his beloved Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes.
As I have wrestled with the death of my brother I’ve searched the breadth of his work for some line, some notion or clue to help me make sense of something so baffling as his passing. Again and again, though, I come back to a passage my brother and I first heard read from this very pulpit.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
If anyone understood the power of the word, by any definition, it was my brother.
He did not merely write words, know their meanings and arrange them on the page with absolute mastery, though he did. My brother was literally made of words. Where you and I have cells and molecules coursing through our veins, feeding our hearts and minds, he had words.
When my brother died some people said to me “I just don’t know what to say.” And I said to so many of them that I didn’t know what to say either, which I didn’t and still don’t. Others shook their heads and said that they just didn’t have the words. My brother never had that problem.
In the acknowledgements of his Masters thesis at Cornell University, entitled “Thick,” Jake left these words for those closest to him.
“To my grandmother, Pauline York, who has argued for the value of traditional forms; to my father David York, who taught me the rhythm of silence; to my mother Linda York, who sang always the mantras of home; to my brother, Joe York, who taught me the importance of life and living; to my uncle Hal Smith, who is a living example of willful resurrection; to my grandfather Harold Smith, who will always be my buddy; to my grandmother, Lurlene Smith, for the gift of food and story, and to my great-grandmother Francis Johnston Brown, for the old stories, old songs, and an urging still”
Though he had not yet met Sarah when he wrote those words, I think that if he had he would have added, “and to Sarah Skeen, my wife, my music, my Love Supreme.”
As I remember Jake, I remember him not as one man, but many.
My brother was a son. He had my father’s discerning eyes and my mother’s solar smile. Like all children he was a unique cocktail of those who poured themselves into him, and he was the best of both of them. Just as my father spent his working years shaping the elements of this world in to steel and my mother spent hers shaping the children of this community into smarter and better men and women, Jake spent his time here reshaping the story of this place, retelling the stories of those who came before him, and renewing the hope that we all have for a more peaceful and just society.
My brother was a grandson. His love for those who came before him was perfect and complete. He was their pride and joy and they were his.
My brother was a teacher. Over the past week, I have received no less than one hundred emails from people I don’t know, students of Jake’s. They simply gush about him, about how he took the time to work with them individually, and how he recognized the beauty in them that they did not, and how he demanded more of them than they knew they could give.
My brother was a crusader. Where Whitman sang a song of himself, Jake lifted his voice to sing the song of others. He gave so many of his words, so much of himself, to the memories of the men an women who gave their lives in an effort to reimagine this region as a place where love blots out hate and where we all have a seat at a welcome table.
My brother was a husband. His wife, Sarah, who sadly cannot be with us today, told me yesterday that he was the most loyal, supportive, and wonderful provider. “He was such a great believer in me, she said. “It took me 45 years to find Jake, and I kept thinking that that kind of love exists out there, somewhere the kind that is all-knowing and unconditional, but I couldn’t find it. When I found Jake I recognized it immediately. He was my miracle.”
My brother was a friend. In a world of digital friends who live in a virtual world of timelines and news feeds, my brother was always true, and real, an analog man without analog.
My brother was a worker. He brought the same work ethic to his poetry that my father brought to his job as a foreman at the steel mill. He worked his ass off. He could outwork anybody, and he did. While he left this world far too soon, I defy any of you to show me someone who did more or better work with the time they were given than he did.
My brother was a listener. I have no doubt that so many of his poems began in the mouths of our grandparents, our mother, and our father. As Jake sat at the kitchen table listening to them tell about the old days, the stories of those who came before us, you could see behind those deep, blue eyes that he was folding them into himself. When he read his poems, I could always hear their voices in his, their cadence, their rhythm.
For many my brother’s work will always be associated with the starling, but when I think of my brother I think of the mockingbird. The mockingbird is both audience and performer, listening and learning the songs of all the other birds in the woods and then internalizing those chords only to belt them out anew in its own voice, remixing them into something that is at once familiar and wholly unique.
And finally, my brother was my keeper. If I am a good man it is because he was a good man. I learned so much from him and I grieve the most when I think of the lessons he had yet to teach me, the pigs that will go uncooked, and the idea of pouring one glass of whiskey where there should be two. I love him so very much.
My brother is not here anymore, but he is everywhere. And through his life and through the lives of those he touched and will touch, I see now that death is simply a shift in tense, a conjugation of the verb, another way of saying the same thing.
What we can all take comfort in the fact that there is so much of him that remains, that abides. My brother will never truly leave us. Again, I tell you that his words were not symbols, they were not mere stand-ins for an idea or an emotion. They were not even words. They were him and as long as they live so does he, perched high on the branch belting out our song like we’ve never heard it sung before and like we’ll never hear it sung again.
And so just as the word was there in the beginning, so too the word remains in the end, to feed us and nourish us and sustain us so that we may forever more dwell in him and he in us.