Rest in Peace, Dunbar Brooks (1950-2014)

This is long. I don’t expect anyone to read all of this but … this is how I process these things. I actually began writing this weeks ago when I thought he wasn’t going to pull through that last bout of pneumonia, infection and septic shock. I feel guilty about that.

Dunbar passed away at 11:16pm on Sunday, August 17th.

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November, 2012
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November, 2012

PROBLEM CHILD

Back in the mid 1970s, my mother, older sister, and I were living at Grandma’s house. I think I was about four or five years old when my mom decided to introduce us to her boyfriend, Dunbar. AKA DB or Deebee. I don’t know if they were engaged at that point. I think she may have been pregnant with my younger sister. But you have to bring the kids into the loop at some point.

I didn’t like the idea of some man taking up Mommy’s time, apparently. I mean, come on. I was the son. I was the guy. Who the hell was this man?

So, at the age of five or so, outside on the sidewalk near my Grandmother’s my mom introduced me to Dunbar. I greeted him with, “Faggot!” and then ran as fast as I could into my grandmother’s yard, closed the gate behind me, and hid behind Marquesa, a sandy colored shepherd mix with a bark-howl worthy of a descendant of Cerberus.

I’m not proud of that. I gave him a hard time for a spell. I did not like him.

Eventually, I warmed up to him, though. At one point, my mom had me spend a weekend with him at his place in Baltimore City. I remember there was a big hole in one of the walls in his apartment. To a five year old a gaping black hole in a wall is terrifying. Obviously, it was some kind of gateway to the land of child-eating monsters.

I asked him how the hole in the wall got there. He said, “I had a party, had a little too much to drink, and was dancing and fell through the wall.”

Ha! Oh. That makes sense, too.

DB and my mom got married and we moved into an apartment at the end of the street. I don’t remember a wedding. My little sister was born and brought a new phase for the family.

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After a few years we moved back up the street to a bigger house. There was lots of wallpaper steaming and scraping, stripping layers of paint off of doors and wood furniture, painting, and all of that business. That was and still is home base.

THE GHETTO

Dunbar was born and raised in West Baltimore in the projects. The ghetto. Sandtown. It was just him and Grandma Brooks. As far as I know, and for reasons I don’t understand (I hope that it wasn’t because of something tragic), he was never told about any relatives. We have no idea who his grandparents were, or if he has any cousins, aunts, and uncles. I looked on ancestry.com but couldn’t find anything. While I was looking, I noticed that DB had looked, too.

Kind of strange, though, because Grandma Brooks had an interesting medical history. She had three kidneys and underwent some study at one of the Baltimore hospitals. It seems like there’d be some family history interest there.

He used to tell us — me, my sisters, and our cousin — all of these racy stories about growing up in the projects. Dating, his football days, the riots in the 60s and his run-in with the national guard where his foot “may have slipped” and kicked a guardsman while trying to climb a fence.

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And the Vietnam stories. Wow. The fear, the escape, the racial tension. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be drafted, sent off somewhere to be trained to kill, and then sent half way around the world into a tropical meat grinder. I can’t fathom it.

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Senseless death. Returning to the streets of Baltimore where his friends lived and died, one way or another.

102 east ave bday party
Very old and historical pic with my grandfather and DB in the same photo. And me. Plus life long family friend, Nikki.

He was a determined man. Willful. He quit smoking in 1986, cold turkey. Literally overnight. There was a lot of gum chewing, I recall. Drove my mom up the wall. Ha. She can’t stand the sound of people popping their gum and open mouthed chewing. Trade-offs.

We used to watch movies as a family. I remember laughing until we couldn’t breathe and our stomachs hurt watching “Monty Python’s the Holy Grail”, “Porky’s”, “Back to School”, “Airplane”, “Airplane 2”, “Ladybugs”, “Revenge of the Nerds”, and the guilty pleasure of Troma films like “Toxic Avenger”.

All of those icon 80’s action movies from “Death Wish” to every Arnold Schwarzenegger movie like “Conan the Destroyer”, “Commando”, “Robocop”, etc. Some of them may have been age inappropriate but we watched as a family and that turned it into an experience. We could process it together.

All of the comedy specials. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious”, George Carlin, Bill Cosby. Does anybody remember the Robert Townsend specials on HBO? “Blake Arrington is a tiger for tuh-wenty seconds!!”

He and my mom made a point of watching and keeping up with black actors, actresses, and black movies. (We got gifts from Santa and Black Santa.) We stood in line for a loooong time to see “The Wiz” starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, Mabel King. Soundtrack produced by Quincy Jones. That was such an epic experience for African Americans. Seminal. We went as a family, and I mean some aunts and uncles and cousins, too. That was in the late 70s? I still listen to the soundtrack today.

Well there may be times
When you think you’ve lost your mind
And the steps you’re taking
Leave you three, four steps behind
And the road that you’re walking
Might be long sometimes
You just keep on steppin’
And you’ll be just fine
Ease on down, ease on down the road

MOTOWN

The first music concert I ever attended was the Temptations 25th Reunion Tour with DB and my mom. I was so excited and it was amazing. All of the surviving members of the various incarnations together on one stage, doing the moves and all.

I got a serious Motown jones from him. I still know most of the words to a lot of songs. I’d record from vinyl to cassette and listen on the walkman or the big home stereo. I’d write down the lyrics, shuttling back and forth to pause so I could catch up.

There was one time I remember seeing my mom and DB slow dance. I can’t remember what song it was. My mother’s side of the family isn’t into PDA. You never saw much demonstrable affection, but I remember that moment clearly.

We had a stereo — a stereo amplifier with a separate dual cassette tape deck and record player and radio components — and I would pump Motown. I would record vinyl to cassettes for my Sony walkman. I would sit and meticulously transcribe lyrics and later try to pick out melodies and chords on the guitar or Casio keyboard. I was a weird kid that way.

Every elementary school, middle school, and high school crush had a Motown soundtrack.

Like sweet morning dew
I took one look at you
And it was plain to see
You were my destiny

With my arms open wide
I threw away my pride
I’d sacrifice for you
Dedicate my life to you

Playing through my 12 year old mind all day. I couldn’t wait to get home and listen.

Ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from gettin’ to you

Oh my god. The memories. That music is in me.

I know you want to leave me
But I refuse to let you go
If I have to beg, plead for your sympathy
I don’t mind ’cause you mean that much to me
Ain’t too proud to beg (sweet darlin’)
Please don’t leave me, girl (don’t you go)

WORK

He worked as a regional planner, a demographer, and I remember him going off to training and classes and he eventually got a Masters degree. He was all kinds of busy with one thing or another outside of work. Turners Station Development Corporation, head of a local NAACP chapter, he was on the county and then the Maryland State School Board, which he was president of for a few years. Also the Franklin Square Medstar board. And he taught at Dundalk Community College.

He just retired from work after 30-something years earlier this year, I think, mainly due to his deteriorating health.

Back in the day when he had to work on the weekend he would take me with him to his office on Charles St. The pitch dark corners and hallways always creeped me out. But he would sit me down for some of those text based racing games, show me how the computer punch cards worked.

Barbie Wedding 6-2
DB officiating at Cheryl’s Barbie doll wedding. Tracey is holding up the bridesmaids. Do you have any idea how hard it was to not laugh out loud the whole time? We did not succeed.

IN THE END

He had diabetes, kidney disease, and something else that can affect the liver. Eventually, his kidneys began failing and he was on dialysis. He was still going strong, though. He was doing the dialysis at home multiple times a day, running back and forth between home and work. On vacations he’d bring all the stuff with him.

There were many hospital visits and infections.

Then his liver started acting up. He was put on the list for a kidney/liver transplant. More on that in a bit.

THE COMPUTER AGE

When I was a kid, DB introduced me to computers and the idea of computing. This is back in the days of the green screens. None of that b&w or color stuff. D&D-like games were all text. You’d read and then guess at the commands:

“West”

Computer: “Sorry, I do not recognize that command.”

“Go west”

Computer: “You go west and are in a clearing. There is a castle in the distance.”

“Go north”

Computer: “There is nothing in this direction.”

It was an introduction to word processors, BASIC, and I remember him trying to explain binary trees to me and the concept flying way over my head.

He brought home the ATARI console and that was, like, magical. Space Invaders all day long, boy. Tanks. Pong! Asteroids.

Then we’d go outside and play tackle football. Me, DB, and Glend would play football in the backyard. I learned how to tackle and a little about how to run plays. Run ten steps and button hook left. The high-low tackle if you really wanted to mess somebody up.

We would go to the baseball diamond and he would hit softballs to us, calling his shots. “Here comes a grounder. Don’t be afraid of the ball. Get in front of it!”

Or I was occasionally forced to play basketball with the big kids and grownups and he and Glend would get frustrated at my, shall we say, lack of enthusiasm (whining how much I didn’t want to play). Have I mentioned how much I hate basketball? Despise it.

I remember that time Glend was going for a pass in the back yard and ran into one of the clothes hanger poles. Oh man, we all laughed so hard. The sound it made.

We played a lot of ping pong and pool in the basement. DB taught us how to put spin on a ping pong ball and a cue ball.

THE TENNIS DAYS

DB got us into tennis, too, big time. We were out there on the courts in Dundalk a lot. We knew where all of the lit courts were and we’d play at night, too.

On vacation once in Florida we were out playing at night and all of those tropical-style night bugs were flying around and creeping us out. Palmetto bugs. DB hit one with his racket and knocked it in half. So gross.

Eventually, he joined a club and would play in mini-tournaments at the Greenspring Racquet Club. He told us once that he always wanted to play tennis when he was a kid but there were no tennis courts in the projects. He definitely made up for it, though.

VACATIONS

We went on vacations every Summer. Orlando, Miami, San Diego, Tijuana, New York, Ithaca, NY, Detroit, Toronto, Niagara Falls, etc.

I remember in Niagara Falls there was this big steel roller coaster and we went on it a bunch of times. Too many. I had to tap out after a while but DB, Glend and Tracey kept on. Later that night we were all asleep in a cramped hotel room and apparently DB was dreaming about the roller coaster because in his sleep he was going, “Whooooaaaaa! Haha. Whoooooooaaaa!”

Anywhere we went DB always wanted to go to the black part of town. He wanted to check out the hood. Us kids would complain and get snarky but he was undeterred. It was striking how in a lot of cities, the shadows of gleaming steal and glass high rises were cast on run-down little homes.

DB and Cheryl went to Egypt. I wonder if those pics are still around. He went to Mozambique, too, at some point.

Yesterday, my mom told me that he always wanted to go to Aruba so she’s going to go in his honor.

It’s a damn shame how many men, especially black men, don’t live to enjoy their retirement. Over and over again. I think I’m going to make it a goal to at least see 70. Is any man in my family going to make it through their 60s? Come on. At least live long enough to collect Social Security if it still exists.

DB, Kyle, Jordan and Justice
DB, Kyle, Jordan and Justice. April, 2012.

THE TRANSPLANT

Christmas Eve of 2011(?) he got a call saying that a kidney and liver had become available. He was rushed to a hospital — almost didn’t get that call — and they did the procedure.

The organ donor was a 14 year old girl. A pretty European American girl with big eyes who may have had a pre-existing congenital heart condition, but unfortunately she died after drinking too many (2) energy drinks. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to mention her name so I won’t. You can google it. Her death was in the news. DB sent a letter to her parents to thank her and let them know that their daughter’s tragedy had led to something good.

It amazes me how that little girl’s kidney and liver kept DB alive, giving him life for more years.

Unfortunately, immediately after the transplant DB started having GI issues. He was in and out of the hospital between the GI issues and chronic nausea. I thought that maybe it was a side effect of the immunosuppressants since they’re known to cause nausea. It was the beginning of years of decline.

He kept on working, though. He was doing his thing despite the downtrend and being in and out of the hospital.

At this point, he had been in the hospital for about eight or nine months. He hasn’t eaten any food in seven months. The last sustenance he had orally was ice chips and that was months ago. Anything in his stomach caused nausea and vomiting. Anything. So you can imagine, he’s been starving to death.

“Nutrients” through a tube directly into his stomach, but that would cause vomiting, too. Then directly into the intestines. There was a perforation and then a surgery to fix it and a blockage. Lines kept getting clogged. Lines and tubes were constantly leaking. He has multiple tubes going into his body for multiple reasons.

The wounds and surgical wounds never healed. He just didn’t have the nutritional capacity — the energy reserves — to heal. Still, he was maintaining.

He was somehow able to walk with a walker during rehab. They were going to send him home in a few weeks. It would have been a rough adjustment and he would still have had all of the lines and things. It wouldn’t have been pretty but he would have been home. Then the infection.

Pneumonia and sepsis. That’s when he was transferred to ICU. On Sunday night his breathing was labored and he was exhausted. Vitals low. His O2 levels were dropping the whole time. I left right before they began the procedure to intubate him.

Ugh. Intubation is not pretty and it’s one of those things I hope I never have to deal with. He wasn’t happy about it but he agreed that even the O2 mask wasn’t working.

Yesterday, he was still being sedated and his vitals were still dropping. His kidney — the good, transplanted kidney — had shut down due to septic shock. His lungs are full of fluid. His belly doesn’t work.

As I write this, he’s in ICU being monitored. We had the family meeting yesterday. If his condition doesn’t improve by this evening the doctor will talk with the family and then will remove the continuous, slow dialysis machine. The acidity of his blood will increase and he will pass within minutes, hours, or even a day.

He’s being kept comfortable, sedated.

My second father will pass. I can’t communicate the amount of strength and will he has. But the body can only deal with so much.

The family has been amazing. I want to be like them when I grow up.

My mother is a retired nurse and she’s been a staunch advocate and by his side all the way. Knowing how understaffed nurses are she’s even done some of their work for them. She caught things that they missed.

I feel for anyone who is hospitalized and doesn’t have loved ones advocating for them. Chances are they aren’t getting the treatment they should unless someone is fighting for them.

I don’t know how my mom does it. Cheryl and Joe have been the second line, visiting regularly, and keeping watch.

END OF LIFE

Since I wrote that last bit about a month ago, DB had bounced back. Within 24 hours his vitals improved. A few days later his kidney started functioning again. They performed a procedure to find the source of infection and discovered that one of his lungs had collapsed. They reinflated it, however that works, but he was still intubated. That is no fun, by the way.

You can only have a tube down your throat into your lungs for so long, though, so they gave him a tracheostomy connected to a ventilator. Since then he wasn’t able to speak. And then another infection and dwindling kidney function.

A few days ago he told the doctor and my mom that he wanted to stop. All of the machines, meds, procedures, etc. Yesterday they removed everything except for pain killers. He was actually breathing pretty well, considering.

A few years ago when my dog, Leika, was afflicted with what was probably a spinal or brain tumor, I knew she was getting to the end. She couldn’t walk up and down the stairs of my apartment at the time.

All I wanted to do was give her big hugs, hold her, pet her, kiss her on the top of her head, scratch behind her ears and be close. To let her know what a good companion she had been all of those years.

She just wanted to be left alone. If I had a porch she would have been under it.

When people reach the end of their life they shift to a different plane of being. All of the things we worry, fret, and stress about lose their impetus. They may want quiet or to be left alone. They may want to take care of unfinished business. They may have nothing to say.

They want peace. I do know that. At the end, they want to live in peace and they want to die in peace.

What a life. A kid from the west side of Baltimore, the straight-up ghetto. From a segregated life in an age of racism, raised by a single mom. He would be written off today as a lost cause. Seen as a threat. Expendable.

He survived the Vietnam War to become a father, a leader, an advocate. He rallied the community to stand up for itself.

LIFE

I once wrote that when I die I want to be ready. You know the saying:

May you live as long as you want to and want to as long as you live.

And I want to be surrounded by people who I love and who love me. I also would like puppies or kittens to be present. Music, too. I wouldn’t mind a few balloons.

Now I’m thinking, that will be a good way to die but I also want to live that way. Celebrating life. Not some crazy YOLO to excess BS. Not celebrating excess. Celebrating life.

That may not be the case, given the nature of our culture, particularly men in our culture. Even DB with all of his activities and accomplishments — like a lot of married men he didn’t have friends that he hang out with. I can’t name one. But he did have a family that made him family. Love, respect, admiration. He was our long term thinker. Strategic, rational, logical. He saw the big picture.

A part of us is gone now. We aren’t the same without him.

That’s how things go, though. The way life tills us from one generation to the next.

Rest in peace, DB. Rest. You earned it.

Sunshine, blue skies
Please go away
My girl has found another
And gone away
With her went my future
My life is filled with gloom
So day after day
I stay locked up in my room
I know to you
This might sound strange
But I wish it would rain
(Oh how I wish that it would rain)
‘Cause so badly
I wanna go outside (Such a lovely day)
But everyone knows
That a man ain’t supposed to cry, listen
I gotta cry
‘Cause cryin’
Eases the pain
People this hurt I feel inside
Words can never explain
I just wish it would rain

Raindrops will hide my teardrops
And no one will ever know
That I’m crying (crying, crying)
When I go outside
To the world outside my tears
I refuse to explain
I just wish it would rain

(Oh how I wish that it would rain)

Let it rain

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15 comments

Add Yours
  1. Jennell Evans

    What a beautifully written story about DB, who had to have been a great human being. Loss of someone who we love so deeply that they feel like a part of us is very very hard. It hurts emotionally and physically and mentally…it is simply a surreal state of being in the world that we struggle in our own way to grasp what is a new normal. Normal? Nothing will seem normal for a while, so be gentle with yourself and grieve as you need to because I while I imagine DB would want you to miss him, he would also want you to live life to the fullest. Sending you a huge UA-strong hug all the way from Nashville, my friend.

  2. Nancy Jones

    I am so sorry for your loss. I had the privilege of working for Dunbar at BMC and asked him many times to write a book. He wove his life experiences into amazing stories that captured so much history. It is so great to read your tribute to him. Keep writing and be well.

  3. Nelda Levy

    What a lovely tribute. I grew up with Dunbar in the Gilmor Projects. He was closer in age to my older brother but I considered him a friend. We all considered him one of the “smart boys”. I hadn’t seen him since my youngest daughter graduated from Carver Center for Arts and Technology. He was one of the school officials who handed out the diplomas. I’m glad we had a chance to speak to him. I know he will be sorely missed.

  4. Amy Menzer

    So sorry for your and your family’s loss, Dunbar was a very kind person and a great leader, he was admired and respected and will be missed by so many.

  5. kristinkeen

    Gary – Like others have said, this was a beautiful and breathtaking tribute. I can understand what you are going through–I lost my “second parents” in the last four years (pop pop in 2010, the only dad I knew for most of my life, and grandmom in May). Also being a writer, I wrote program tributes and spoke for the family at both funerals. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it downright sucked. Nothing ever prepares you for the loss of someone you hold so very dear, no matter their age. Likewise, words at times are never quite enough to capture the love you shared. My heart aches for you. Keep writing, keep active, and keep feeling everything you need to at any given time. I’ll be holding you and your family in the Light.

  6. Harriet "Cookie" Johnson

    I am so blessed to have read this wonderful tribute from you. It is a heart-felt telling of Dunbar’s life through the eyes of his son. What a beautiful way to start my day. My sympathy to you and your family.

  7. Marlene Brown

    This was truly beautiful and so very interesting.
    Dunbar was a good man and we are all blessed to have known him.
    Edythe is the Proverbs 31 woman. Virtuous, her family arise and call her blessed. A well respected and loved woman in her community.
    You should write professionally.
    May the memories of your wonderful Dad (DB) live in your heart forever.

  8. Barbara Herron

    I worked with your dad at BMC, too. The last fee years were physically tough for him, but the bright spark of his spirit never dimmed. That bright spark shines through in what you wrote. Thanks for sharing the photos, too. I love the one of the Barbie wedding. I never heard that story, but he did talk about his family with pride, and with love. And he made me laugh. He was one of a kind.

  9. Katherine Scott

    I laughed and cried thought this reading. Gary your thoughts and memories showed an authentic man who overcame many challenges Dunbar love and passions was deeply rooted in “first thing first”. Faith, family and folks that brings joy. His legacy and leadership will be continued in the hearts of those he touched. Thanks for sharing and continue to tell the story.

  10. lillian

    Thank you for taking the time, during your loss, to help all of us who loved Dunbar to know him a little better. We at BMC have missed him every day since his retirement. It was wonderful to hear just one more Dunbar story.

  11. Mandy Breedlove

    Wow Gary! I felt every word you wrote. Your words brought me to tears and laughter too, all in one tiny wrinke of in time. I’ve always admired Dunbar but I got to see him from a whole different place (through your eyes). Thanks for the perspective and insight. It’s awesome.

    They say the quiet ones have the most going on inside. I guess it’s true. Keep writing; it’s a beautiful thing.

  12. Stephanie

    I used to chat with Dunbar every once in a while at BMC. Dunbar had an open door an open mind so you could step into his office and shed some light on how best to approach something that needed someone to be doing something about it. That’s what I’ll always remember about him, even though it’s been a few years and I knew his prognosis, when I bridge gaps I do it like he’s watching. Sorry for your loss and hope the many lives he touched help carry him in your memories.

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