Early on Thursday, Sept 14, 2017, my brother died at the age of 44 by his own hand. He leaves behind a wife, three children, our parents, and me. This news has been a bitter providence from the hand of God, who is very good, yet very mysterious. I do pray the words I write here will bring glory to the name of Christ my Savior, though, as most of us do, I sometimes struggle to understand his plan.
I’ve tried to think of ways to write a tribute for Chris that is purely objective (he was a smart business man, that sort of thing), but at 3:53am, I’ve decided that it’s impossible. I can’t be objective when it comes to Chris. Too much of my life, especially my emotional life, is tied to him. So this is probably just as much a therapy session for me as it is a tribute for Chris. But hopefully, it will function as both.
Chris and I lived separate lives. We had almost nothing in common, except our last name and a semi-fondness for Braves baseball. Over the past 25 years, we hardly ever saw or spoke to one other. We lived in two very different worlds. This type of relationship is usually described as unhealthy and estranged, and I suppose that’s true. But for many years, Chris and I were roommates or hall mates (when we lived in places that had three bedrooms). Throughout childhood and beyond, Chris was often the last person I saw every night and the first person I saw every morning.
We share a common history. We grew up in the same household. We played endless hours of basketball (I beat him at least once), football (he was all-time QB), baseball (mostly pitching practice), tennis (the apartments in Rainbow City), racquetball (at the Y in Hattiesburg), etc. We spent many days together at Maw Maw Dollar’s house, along with our cousin Julie. We spent as many days together at Maw Maw Floyd’s house, playing pool (billiards) in the bee house or exploring the chicken house. We watched Chips (the cop show), we saw The Three Amigoes together, we collected sports cards (he had an OJ Simpson rookie card), and we cooked Totino’s pizzas together. We have about a hundred good and funny memories of various events from childhood, some of which became family legends.
Once we went mud-riding with his friends — sometimes I was invited on these excursions — and one of the vehicles became stuck in a huge mud hole. I ended up in that hole at one point, attempting to help dislodge the vehicle. The end result was me covered head-to-toe in thick and sticky Alabama mud. Only my eyeballs were showing. Chris, ever focused on maintaining a pristine-looking car, made me ride all the way home in the trunk of his Monte Carlo on a piece of cardboard. At least he brought me home. My mother did not like any part of that story.
The truth is, our real-life, flesh-and-blood experiences as children and teens cannot be recounted in a written tribute. We lived it. We shared it. It is the backdrop of my early life.
Though we shared a lot of our childhood together and have some stories, even back then we were very different. Chris was three years older than me, so we had different sets of friends. We also had very different personalities. He played football and worked out; I was in the band and played the trumpet. He was preppy and serious; I was nerdy and goofy. From the beginning, it seems, we were on two very different courses that would invariably diverge dramatically from one another.
Often we try to discern how deeply someone is mourning the loss of a loved one by how close they were to the deceased. “Were you two close?” we ask. If the person says, “No, not really, we hardly ever saw or spoke to one another,” we assume that the loss doesn’t hurt as bad. Makes sense. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Chris and I were not close. But we were. Here’s what I mean. Chris played a huge role in shaping who I am today, not because he tried, but because God used him that way in my life. The clearest instance of this has to do with my watching his life from the perspective of a younger brother and seeing how some of the poor decisions he made brought miserable consequences into his life. In this way, Chris has always served as a negative example for me. That is, he inadvertently taught me many things not to do.
But a more important example of this has to do with my desire to earn Chris’s approval. For me, Chris has always been my big brother. In fact, the last correspondence I had with him occurred on July 31, his 44th birthday. Here it is:
Chris was my big brother, and I always saw him that way. From my earliest days of consciousness, I wanted him to like me and approve of me. Much of my own decision-making in childhood and my teen years were shaped by how Chris would respond to what I did. I wanted to be tough and strong like him.
I remember once he took me to work out with him. I strained so hard to bench press as much as I possibly could. I knew this type of thing really impressed him, and I was willing to literally be crushed by the weights in order to hear him give approval. One of Chris’s first jobs was at a pizza place. A few years later, I worked at a pizza place. Whatever music Chris was listening too, I would invariably listen to the same music (Beastie Boys, Run DMC, the Fat Boys, Guns N Roses, and even Simon and Garfunkel, who I ended up liking much more than him). I wanted to be like Chris and I wanted Chris to like me. It’s just that simple.
After awhile, my desire to gain Chris’s approval became futile and unrealistic. By the time Chris was 18 and I was 15, we were on extremely separate paths. At some point, I came to give up on the notion of impressing him, and I began following God’s plan for my life. Chris went into the Club La Vela scene in Panama City, and I went into the ministry at Southeastern Bible College. Our lives diverged, I think, about as dramatically as two brother’s lives could diverge. We didn’t just go our own ways, we traveled to two different worlds.
Since this is (mostly) a tribute to Chris, I’m not going to get into all the darkness of his life during those years, or at any part of his life. Those who knew him knew that he struggled mightily with all sorts of demons. I know that I prayed for him thousands of times. When it seemed appropriate, at least two or three times through the years, I was able to reach out to him on a spiritual level. But the bottom line is this: He chose a path that led him into great sorrow. Again, I’m not going to dwell on all that.
Though I did at some point officially give up on trying to be like Chris (and get Chris to like me), I must admit, the hope of his approval and our reconciliation never left me. Even after we separated into our different worlds, I always looked up to him. Even as I type these words, I look up to him. He was my big brother, and there is something gritty, earthy, and biological about that. At the end of the day, he was Dollar and I was Half-Dollar, as his friends sometimes called me. Chris has always been a part of me. I have always felt him looking over my shoulder, as it were, and I guess I always will.
A few years ago, I wrote a book called Drowning Swine. It is an analysis of the story of the demoniac of the Gadarenes (Mark 5:1-20), who was possessed by Legion. I included in that book two stories about Chris from our childhood, and I want to share one of them here. For me, this particular event is deeply symbolic of the fact that Chris was my big brother.
Mark 5:6-7 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” (ESV)
In these verses, the minions of Satan, who easily overpower mere humans, appear puny and weak. Rather than a demonstration of power and strength, Legion cowered in fear and terror in the presence of Jesus Christ. The dark side is incredibly powerful, and we should never underestimate it, but next to Christ, dark beings seem like ants facing a crushing boot heel. They aren’t near as intimidating when Christ is around.
During my sixth grade year, a bully named Russell began threatening bony little me. Russell was a fighter who didn’t mind detentions, suspensions, a paddle, or any other form of punishment our school dished out. He was an intimidating, husky pile of cornbread-fed muscle. So I asked my brother, Chris, to help, and he agreed. Russell had appointed the following morning before school as the time he would end my life. When he saw me, he kept his promise and began chasing me across the campus and into the lunchroom. I remember terror filling my soul as I fled, thankful I was a little quicker on my feet than hefty Russell. That’s when Chris came through. He had seen us enter the lunchroom, and he darted in behind us with an angry look in his eyes. Russell was big and tough, but Chris was older, bigger, and tougher. When Russell saw that bony Jason had Big Brother looking out for him, he knew he was beaten. He yielded to Chris’ threats and never bothered me again. When facing him alone, Russell was a mountain of power, but next to Chris, he flinched and shrunk to a molehill of whimpers.
In the same way, dark spiritual beings seem daunting, threatening, and unbeatable when we attempt to face them alone. But when Christ comes to the rescue, suddenly they seem tiny and pathetic.
Chris and I lived in very different worlds and had very different views on life, but when he came to my aid and protected me from Russell, he was exhibiting the love of Christ to me, even if he didn’t know it. I will always love him for that.
So at 5:55am, my heart is broken. I so wish it could have been a different story with a different ending. But my confidence in the providential hand of God has only been strengthened by this tragedy. I know God is good and full of love. I am more thankful than ever that my sins are washed away by the blood of the Lamb, and I do not doubt his grace. I know that my big brother is in the hands of a wise, kind, and loving God.