By Matt Gordon
Today, I spent a few moments doing something strange. But I think it would only be considered so because we tend to shun vulnerability. When I began writing Living Tributes, it was, in part, based on the fact that the nicest things we say about someone tends to follow their death. Their loyalty and grace and humor and impact—we’ll breathe them into knowable existence only when their breath has ceased.
So I began drawing to mind some of the people who have impacted me mightily—dear friends, teachers, coworkers, even semi-strangers. There is no real order to how I choose, I just chase whatever beautiful neural trail the endearing personage has blazed in me.
Today, I look to my oldest sister. And that brings me to the strange practice hinted at some sentences ago—I literally looked at her. I pulled up the Facebook page of Johanna Gordon Brooks, and pressed play on the tender song, “Sister,” by Dave Matthews. Eyes and ears joined heart, as I thought about my big sister.
Of course, social media is a sham. People post persona. They think what will make them look good or happy or rich or famous and out of a depth of longing they post, hoping to achieve what is already true and forgotten—that they matter deeply. But when I gaze upon the wonder of my lovely, ageless, red-haired sister, I don’t see a front nor façade. I see her. As the song soothes: Sister, I hear you laugh/My heart fills full up.
Johanna is joy. In the pictures she is smiling with her husband, smiling with her children, smiling with her friends, and (perhaps mostly and sadistically) smiling with her dog Ruby Pancake. The woman behind the pictures is not more dour, but even more joyful. She is wry and playful. A gymnast growing up, Johanna’s bounding went from body to soul. Her heart, indeed, is full and causes others to fill full up.
This joy is not because of circumstances or even in spite of them. It is just a part of each day, whatever life brings. A few pictures highlight the care and love and concern for a neighbor boy with a brain tumor. This is not a standalone bit of concern. Since childhood, Johanna has had no lack of compassion, volunteering summers to work with children with special needs and heroic challenges before them. Recurrently, she finds her life lovingly intertwined with those cast out as the “least of these.” Her unspoken mission is seeing much made of them, reinforcing their dignity, and being overawed at the wonder and greatness of humanity—all humanity, all the time. She laughs with those who laugh, but also grieves her way into steady resolve and acts of selfless love. And she never cares alone—she brings others into the breach by raising funds or taking shifts or telling stories. Her care is a contagion, unleashing better narratives upon an oft-dark world. Sister, when you cry/I feel your tears running down my face.
She is a wife, and a good one—ask her husband.
A mom, and a good one—ask her kids.
A worker and a good one–ask her coworkers.
A dog owner, and, well . . . you know those people who love their dogs a little too much? Not only do they call their canines names like “fur baby” and “cuddlepooch,” but they dress them in the latest trends and stress over what present to purchase for the dog’s half-birthday. Yeah, she has a little of that crazy in her.
And she’s always had that too. Just a touch zany and fun and committed. Maybe isn’t in the cards. Student council, costume party, work, PTA, game night, barbecue, vacation, friendship, surprise presents—she doesn’t do “in.” She does all in.
For her younger three siblings, she helped raise us. She still does—offering advice on parenting, giving restaurant and vacation recommendations, hosting holidays, and remembering, always remembering, where we came from, what we dreamed, and who we are and can be.
I’m proud that she is my sister, for she has brightened my existence. But I know I am not alone in that thought, and family, for her, extends, as does her joy and care, to anyone in her proximity. The song goes on, and for so many, Johanna has made so many lines true.
I hope you always know its true
I would never make it through
We could make the sun go down
Just by walking away
Playing like we used to play
Our kingdom will never go away
Feel you beating in my chest
I’ll be dead without
Sister, I hear you laugh
My heart fills full up
Keep me please
Sister, when you cry
I feel your tears running down my face
Sister, Sister will you keep me?