Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Les Brown

We lost Les Brown on Monday night. Les was my wife’s uncle, and he died of pneumonia secondary to cancer at Rush North Shore Hospital in Skokie, Illinois. He was 64.

I’ve been trying to write about it for a day now, but haven’t gotten anywhere. I think it’s because in my little family we’ve been straddling two worlds for the past week: we’ve been simultaneously saying goodbye to Les and hello to the foster child who’s about to come live with us. The contrast was most stark on Sunday, when we left Les’s bedside and drove right over to the group home where the boy is currently living so that our kids could meet him. This sad/happy roller coaster is making a pulp of our thoughts and emotions this week. I guess that’s why I’m struggling to write about Les.

I want to say goodbye to him, though. If I can’t put together a clear narrative, I’d still like to tell you some things about him.

  • Les is best known around here for founding the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in 1980, and he continued to be its guiding light until he got too sick to continue. He was a creative, effective, and tireless activist on behalf of the homeless. I’d even say that Les’s persistent, confrontational, but never combative advocacy was part of the impetus for the heightened awareness of the problem of homelessness that spread throughout this country in the 1980s.

  • Les developed life-threatening heart disease as a comparatively young man, leading to his receiving a transplanted heart over 20 years ago. He was originally from Georgia, and by chance the heart he received came from a 19-year-old Georgian who died in an accident.

  • Les played a killer blues piano. At family gatherings he would often play a few songs, and his favorite seemed to be Mose Allison’s “I Don’t Worry About a Thing (’cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright.)” Clearly he passed along his love of piano to his son, who is now a professional keyboard player.

  • Les grew up on a farm. For him, living in the city was like wearing clothes that were just a little too small. When he saw the chance to buy some farmland cheaply, he organized some funding and founded Growing Home, a training/transitional employment program that helps homeless people grow and sell organic food. This was 10 years ago, and the organization is still flourishing, selling their produce to restaurants and farmer’s markets.

  • He was a hilarious person, but in a fairly dry way, and he never condescended to children with his humor. He would get a clutch of kids around him and remove the end of his thumb so convincingly that the younger ones would head straight for their mothers. He loved doing that. My 15- and 11-year-olds still remember him taking his thumb off.

  • He was my wife’s uncle by marriage—he married her aunt when they were young, and they divorced while raising their son. But they stayed close, and he remained a member of the family and was expected to come to family get-togethers. I love that when he remarried, his new wife quickly became close friends with his ex-wife. It just so happened that he married two smart, affectionate, generous women, and I guess they were drawn to each other. They’ve been close since, and spent the last few days helping each other through the hospital ordeals.

  • Les and I shared an interest in canoeing, but something always kept coming up to keep us from getting out on the water together. Right now this is tormenting me like an open sore.

  • Having undergone a heart transplant in the mid-80s, Les knew he might not get to live out his full tale of years. The life-long immunosuppressants he took put him at increased risk of continuing health problems, and he struggled with various cancers for the past few years. He wasn’t ready to go, though, and never accepted that the end was coming. Some of his last words were “I don’t want to die.” These are wrenching words coming from a dying man, especially one who got a new heart 20 years ago and made the most of it.

  • Though his name was Brown, Les was Green to the end. (We had a couple of spirited debates about his vote for Nader in 2000, a vote he never regretted. He couldn’t understand why I was so devoted to the Democratic party.) He hoped for a green burial, but it seems that there are only a couple of places in the country where you can get one. He wasn’t keen on cremation, so finally it was decided that his body would be donated for research at Loyola, where he got his transplant.

  • Last year my daughter interviewed Les for a school project. Here’s an excerpt from the report she wrote:
    “My great-uncle Les’s first job ever was mixing cement. His father believed in manual labor, so he got my great-uncle a job in town to help the construction workers.

    The cement mixing job was hard, hard work. He would mix the cement, and then bring it to the workers. He had to go fast, or the cement would dry. He could never go fast enough for the workers, and they were always yelling at him to hurry up.

    ‘At the end of the day, I would be so tired,’ he says. ‘But it was a good feeling, knowing I had a man’s job.’”

    Goodbye, Les. We’re missing you already.


    Anonymous Pete said...

    Well said. Sorry to hear about your uncle.

    4/14/2005 12:11 PM  
    Blogger Moreena said...

    I thought I had left a comment here, but it appears not.

    I'm sorry to hear this. Although it sounds as if he had a fantastic and meaningful life, it's always hard to hear of someone leaving before they are ready to go. Particularly when the story is told by someone who so obviously loved and respected him. Again, I'm sorry.

    4/22/2005 10:05 PM  
    Blogger portia said...

    My condolences to your family, Dan. What an incredible spirit to have known, and to mourn. We certainly need more of him; I hope that the seeds of his wisdom will flourish.

    My dad does a mean thumb-tip removal, which he prefers to torment me with during any and all church services. I imagine that the day lp marries, Dad will be there pulling his thumb off, trying to get me to laugh. I find these things really do help; my best to your family and your ride on the rollercoaster.

    4/28/2005 8:22 PM  
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