Farewell, Brother John


Yesterday my brother John—my Republican brother—called me from our hometown in Southern Illinois as he was about to board his little plane. He was an experienced pilot and loved to fly, even though he had just turned eighty. Returning from a visit to our other brother who was in a long term care facility, he wanted to report on his progress. The phone connection was bad, and he said he’d give me another call when he reached Elgin, his home near Chicago.

The call never came. His little plane came down in a cornfield four miles short of the runway, and John did not survive the crash.

When his daughter reached me with the news this morning, it seemed simply impossible. He was so full of life and grit and optimism, and besides, I had just talked to him a few hours earlier. Is life such a fragile and fickle thing that it can just disappear, blown out like a candle in the wind?

Then the shock turned to a kind of internal sickness, as if a part of myself had been wrenched away. Which it had, after all.

I often called John my “Republican brother,” as if I had more than two—and both of them Republicans in fact. But John wore it on his sleeve, and his politics seemed to magnify what was different about the two of us. Whatever he was for, I was against; whatever I favored he found absolutely detestable. I used to joke that when I couldn’t decide what stand to take on a public issue I would consult with John, and then take the opposite position.

Often our political competition turned to humor. He would jab with a Hillary Clinton joke, and I would thrust back with a Sarah Palin to the heart. Other times it would be extended discussions on the causes of the national debt, and the reasons for the financial meltdown in 2008. His views seemed so wrongheaded, and at times outright daffy, and yet I learned from them. They conveyed a perspective that is easily ignored in a California academic community, and yet a huge part of the American political psyche. My brother gave me a window to that world.

It was not my world, I would affirm to myself, with a sigh of relief. What divided us—mostly politics—seemed so fundamental and irreconcilable.

For this reason it always startled me when other people would remark about how similar we were, our laugh, our tone of voice. John and I talked on the phone several times a week—we were the joint legal guardians of our bedridden older brother. And when I called his office his staff would sometimes think it was John, our voices were so similar.

So too was our wacky sense of humor. “Tell him it’s Juergensmeyer calling,” I would tell the woman on his office phone. And he would cut into the line and thunder back that he was in fact Juergensmeyer, and that clearly I was an imposter. This would go on for a while until the lady on his office staff, tiring of the stupid banter, would simply hang up. We, of course, thought it was hilarious.

Then there were the comedy routines we would run through at family gatherings.

“Say, John, did you put the cat out?”

“Put the cat out,” he would respond, “I didn’t know he was on fire.”

At this point people would quietly slip out of the back of the room.

“Say Mark, how do you know you have a carpenter dog?”

“Why just this morning,” I countered, “he made a bolt for the door.”

By this time there was no one left but us, and we were just warming up. We had dozens more where those came from.

It was not just the bad humor that made us similar. Some six and a half years older than me, John was both mentor and annoying role model. I pretended that I was independent. Yet after he became an Eagle Scout, I became an Eagle Scout. He went to the University of Illinois, and so did I. He pledged a fraternity, and I followed suit, the very same fraternity in fact. John got a PhD in political science from Princeton, and my PhD in political science was from Berkeley.

We came from a pious Protestant family, and both of us kept the faith, though his preference was more evangelical, mine more towards Christian social justice. Yet I recall that when we were both in college at Urbana-Champaign—when I was an undergraduate and he was in law school—he was the one who encouraged me to support the movement for racial equality. He may have been conservative, but he had a heart.

Sometimes his heart was so big it seemed that it would burst. Incurably sentimental, he would be moved easily to tears when talking about the love of our parents, or the distinct charms of his granddaughter. Truth to say, I’m capable of tears myself sometimes, and like him, my hard exterior hides a soft-hearted soul inside.

So as much as I wanted to distance myself from John, my Republican brother, ultimately it has become clear to me that there really was not much distance at all. He has been another side of myself, for good or for ill, and inside we were made much the same.

I suppose that is the remarkable thing about family relationships. We don’t ask for them; we can’t choose them. They are simply there, a part of our lives and a part of ourselves. And we don’t know how much we have treasured them until they are gone.

14 thoughts on “Farewell, Brother John”

  1. Mark, I am so sorry to hear of your loss – and was moved to tears by your loving account of your crazy Republican brother. I know it is a terrible cliche, but however his plane went down, he clearly died doing what he loved to do. Reading your account of John gave me insights into you as well – your irrepressible humor, openness to all ideas, incredible (and fearless) love for life. Ut reaffirmed the incredible affection I have always felt for you, and in some way brought your loss home to me – perhaps because, too, have a Republican brother (although unlike you and John, we never broach the topic, and I have never confirmed this by asking how he voted). You have my deepest sympathy,


  2. This is a sweet, wise and touching memoir, dear cousin. My heart goes out to you! I have always felt a resonance with you that transcends the time and distance, and here is another. Your relationship with John seems similar to mine with my precious sister Melanie. I know you must be feeling so bereft … a part of you is gone.

  3. Thank you for sharing this touching reflexion about a relationship that not all of us have, but which this piece allows us all to have an understanding of. Once granted that insight, empathy is not far behind, which must be why I’m teary-eyed right now.

    I’m sorry for you loss and don’t kid yourself about having a hard exterior.

  4. Mark, I am so sorry to read this news! Thank you for the insights into your enviable relationship with your brother, and sharing your “soft heart” and the picture of the two of you with, I presume, his granddaughter. Keeping you in my prayers!

  5. A deeply touching reflection, Mark. I was moved by the profound feeling beneath the light touch of your prose, and want to reiterate my condolences for your loss.

  6. Thank you, Mark, for sharing these words about your brother and, thus, insight into you. I can’t help but smile imagining the levels of impishness and intelligence in any room the two of you occupied.

    My most sincere condolences to you.

  7. My deepest condolences. Thank you for sharing with us some of the ties that bound you to your brother. And thank you for the reminder that no matter the differences family relationships are a profound part of our lives.

  8. I am so sorry, Mark. I, too, have a very close relationship with my older brother, and much of what you write resonates with me deeply…especially telling one another bad jokes that only the two of you laughter at.

    May the deep and meaningful memories you have of your relationship with your brother bring you comfort. Peace be with you and him.

  9. Mark, I was so sorry to hear of the death of your brother. Your reflection was both loving and humorous. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  10. Oh, Mark. I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Reading this reminds me of one of my brothers — who is a conservative Republican. We have a similar history and reading your accounts helped me see more clearly the value of my relationship with him.

  11. Mark,

    I worked for your brother for 36 years, and our entire staff is overwhelmed with grief. We have read your blog this morning and this is a beautiful tribute. His presence was huge in our every day lives and we can’t imagine going forward without him. But we will soldier on, remembering all of the good — including his stories and jokes that he loved to tell. Our thoughts are with you.

  12. Mark – memories of your family flood the mind with good memories. Your Mother was a very special Christian woman. She was proud of her family , We had good memories at the old Methodist Church in Carlinville & on University Street.

    You and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers. Loved the picture with little one. Siblings are very special people in our lives. We were lucky to have great siblings and we have great family memories.

    Karen Arnett

  13. Juergensmeyer Family,
    My sympathy is with all of you at this difficult time. I, too, laughed and cried when I read Mark’s post. How very moving and very true of all of us and our siblings. What wonderful memories of living next door on University Street.
    Mary Powell Curtis

  14. Even beyond the beautifully touching tribute to your brother, Mark, your words give a deeper, and profoundly moving message our world needs to hear and understand. As we appear more and more polarized from each other in almost every area of life, from politics to lifestyle choices, we continue to live a story that has not served us well over the millennia – the story of separation. This person is good, this person is bad. I am right, he/she is wrong. This government, company, religion is to blame; I am not at fault. And so on.

    Your relationship with John tells with fresh truth the story many of us have been or are becoming familiar with, that of still caring deeply for others with whom we adamantly disagree, even seeing “the window”, as you said, they provide. I believe it’s out of this kind of brotherly love that in losing him, you understand with an illuminated clarity that he is and always has been, a part of yourself. In the broadest sense, even in our (sometimes vastly) different perspectives, we are still One. The microcosm has always reflected the macrocosm, and your precious relationship with your brother John, “the Republican”, is no different, perhaps showing the pathway to global peaceful coexistence that right now we can hardly imagine.

    When we begin to live a new story, that of oneness or interbeing (instead of separation), recognizing that our “brother” anywhere on the planet is only another side of us, and what we do to another we are actually doing to ourselves…that the idea of “self-interest” can never exist independently of the interest of others…a more empathetic, compassionate world has the chance to emerge.

    I am so grateful for my cousin John’s life, for all the boldness and optimism he brought with him, along with a larger-than-life smile that graced my presence every time I was with him. There is no doubt in my mind that he felt immeasurably blessed to call you brother, Mark, and I thank you for your moving tribute that has once again affirmed my belief in a more beautiful world I know is possible.

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