Farewell Caleb

calebbrokaw

Late last week, I lost a very dear friend. His name was Caleb Brokaw. Some of you who live here in Ypsi, I’m sure, knew him. He lived just east of Depot Town, and he could often be seen walking happily through the neighborhood with his wife, Sue, and their daughter, Evie. He and Sue settled down in Ypsi at just about the same time that Linette and I did, fifteen years ago or so. In fact, they considered buying the very house where, with an incredibly heavy heart, I’m writing this tonight. We wouldn’t know that until years later, though, when our paths crossed here on this site, and we discovered that we’d been living somewhat parallel lives.

I’m not sure how Caleb found his way to this site. I never asked him. One day, he was just there, in the comments section; making me laugh, pushing me forward, and engaging me, and everyone else without earshot, in truly open debate on everything from transportation policy and our local schools, to public education and gay rights.

Late at night, over beers, I would post things to my blog, and wait. Sooner or later, if I was lucky, Caleb, also over beers, would respond. Of course, at first, I wouldn’t know it was him. I’d just know him as his alias.

His comments stood out from all of the others. While often biting, and hilariously funny, they were distinguished primarily by their gentle thoughtfulness. “This man who calls himself Ol’ E Cross,” I thought, “is someone who I could be friends with.” And, in time, I’d get my chance. Several weeks into our online relationship, exchanging witty banter about Ypsilanti politics and social issues, Caleb reached out to me and asked if I’d like to have a beer… And the rest, as they say, is history.

I can’t remember what it was that brought him to the surface, and made him step out from behind his alias and identify himself. If I had to guess, I’d say it had to do with a mayoral election the better part of a decade ago, and his desire to discuss things that he felt might better be communicated in person. [Caleb was a brilliant communicator.] Whatever it was, I’m sure that both he and I thought it was incredibly important at the time. None of that matters now, though. All that matters is, for whatever reason, we met one another and hit it off.

Maybe it was the fact that we were both liberal southern transplants who had purposefully adopted Ypsilanti as our home. Maybe it was the connection we shared as fathers of kind, thoughtful and imaginative daughters of the same age. Or maybe it was just the beer. Whatever it was, I think the attraction was immediate. At least it was for me.

There was something beautiful and warm about Caleb, an easiness and openness that I immediately took to. It’s an analogy that I don’t imagine anyone here can appreciate, but Caleb reminded me of an older folk artist that I’d struck up a friendship a decade or so earlier in Atlanta by the name of Ned Cartledge. Ned’s incredible humanity was evident to me the moment I first met him. And the same was true with Caleb. It’s difficult to articulate, especially as someone who, for the most part, is pretty cynical by nature, but both Caleb and Ned had a way about them that totally disarmed me and cut right through all of barriers I’d spent my life constructing.

When I consider ending this blog, as I do on occasion, I invariably start a list of pros and cons. I’ve probably done this at least a few dozen times over the past decade or so. And, while the list of items in each column is always changing, the one thing that remains constant is that Caleb’s name has always been at the top of the pros column. While I’ve met a lot of truly incredible people through this blog over the years, I don’t think any one of them has brought as much to my life as Caleb Brokaw, who I think is probably the most truly kind, thoughtful and genuinely decent human being that I have ever had the pleasure to have called my friend. While a lot of people inspire and challenge me, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Caleb actually made me think about life differently. And, if the tens of thousands of hours I have invested in this site returned nothing else to me but an introduction to Caleb, it would still be worth it.

And we didn’t just become friends. Caleb became a part of our family. He became Linette’s business partner. And his daughter became one of Clementine’s closest friends. And, so, I didn’t just get to see him through my own eyes, but through theirs as well. I got to hear from Clementine about the beautiful exchanges she witnessed between Caleb and his daughter. And I got to witness just how much he meant to Linette, both as a coworker and as a close friend. Everything I learned about him over this past decade, just made me love and respect him more.

Since Caleb passed, I haven’t wanted to post anything here. The thought of posting about his death seemed somehow wrong. [I mean, how could I even attempt to distill this man’s life, and what he meant to me, into a single, little blog post?] And the thought of posting about anything else, in the wake of his passing, just seemed so trivial and meaningless. [As Caleb is the first close friend of roughly my same age to pass away, there has been quite a bit of internal debate taking place these past several days, as I’m sure you can imagine, over the meaning of life and what really matters in this world.] In the end, I felt as though I at least needed to make an attempt to put into words what his friendship has meant to me, and to do it here, where we first came to know one another.

Caleb was a beautiful, thoughtful, often hilariously funny man. He had a sly sense of humor. And, as those of you know who read his comments on this site, he was one hell of a writer. He was also, above all else, incredibly kind. [Imagine Kurt Vonnegut performing the part of Atticus Finch.] And he was a man of immense faith, who, having grown up in the church, stayed faithful to the principals of his religion to the end. He reminded me, through the compassion he showed others, what it really means to be a Christian, and I will be eternally grateful to him for that.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time these past few days, going through the letters we’d written to one another and the comments Caleb left here on the site. [This reference will probably mean very little to most of you, but there’s a scene in the Henry Fonda movie Mr. Roberts in which, after the protagonist dies in war, the men he once served with read a letter that he’d sent to them just prior to his death. One of these men, before touching the letter, stops to remove a work glove from his hand, after pausing for a split second to consider the significance of the written words left behind. As I made my way through our exchanges, this scene kept replaying in my head, as I considered the words he left behind, which had now taken on so much more meaning.] While there are any number of brilliant, thoughtful examples from the ‘Ol E Cross library of comments that I could share, here’s something that I think very much reflects the man that I knew. It was posted a while back, when, for personal reasons, Caleb chose to stop commenting here as ‘Ol E Cross.

Speaking without wit or humor… I was raised to think it was my job to change the world. I tried my hand at it, but it didn’t last long. In brief, I eventually realized the person I most wanted to emulate was my grandpa from a nothing town in NY, who worked a nothing job, but was decent to all and, to varying degrees, encouraged the lives of those around him. I decided my life would mean more if I shoveled my neighbor’s walk than if I strove to stop apartheid.

I don’t think this blog will stop global warming, but I think life in Ypsi is better for it. I’ve met neighbors, engaged in issues, and attended events that I’d otherwise have been ignorant of. And, I think dialogue, even the basest, is useful. We’re often too proud to admit it when it happens, but dialogue does soften and shape our views.

And, this blog gives some angry, otherwise ignored people a bit of attention. And even the worst of us deserve attention.

For the amount of work you put in, I doubt it’s worth “It.” But it’s worth something. Maybe that’s all, maybe that’s it…

Goodbye friends.

Last words:

God love fucking Ypsipanty.

God forgive us all.

To paraphrase a poem by Ken Mikolowski:

“I am drunk.”

Goodbye you fucking beautiful motherfuckers…

Ah. So farewell.

Going…

going…

Goodbye, my friend. If there is something beyond this life, I know that you will find it. And I will do my best here on earth to keep your memory alive, not only in my heart, but, to the best of my ability, in my actions. And I know that I am not alone. You touched a lot of lives, and there are a lot of us who are much better for having known you.

[If you haven’t already, and would like to donate to the fund set up to help defray the expenses associated with Caleb’s nearly year-long battle with cancer, you can do so here.]

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29 Comments

  1. Posted November 23, 2015 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    http://markmaynard.com/2008/08/the-2008-ypsilanti-fried-chicken-showdown-installment-1/

  2. Peter Larson
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    I never knew this guy, but, after this year, I hope he is in a better place.

  3. Demetrius
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Caleb could be sarcastic and very funny, but I think this was mostly a cover for the real Caleb – who was extraordinarily sweet and kind, was passionate about his family, his neighborhood and Ypsilanti (and the people in it), and who generally thought (and said) the best of everybody, even when that was sometime difficult.

    Mostly, I know he thought the world of Sue and Evie … and would have done anything to stay here with them.

    I wasn’t extremely close friends with Caleb, but I always thought he was a wonderful man and I really enjoyed the times we spent together. I have been very sad since his passing, and will truly miss having him around.

  4. EOS
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    I never met Caleb though I had many conversations with him. I always pictured him as a 70 year old retired professor. I admired his intelligence and his insight. I have missed his comments. My prayers go out to his family.

  5. Jean Hwnry
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Just drank my morning coffee reading through a few Ol E Cross comments– the ones that stick in my memory. He was a gem. Few people employ a curse word with more gusto or toss off an oblique (often made up) reference with more panache He always made his point– succinctly and with humor and humanity. He might just have been better than the rest of us. Although I’m partial to any person who can site scripture while swearing. Never knew him. (His face is super familiar so I probably served him food a time or two.) But I’m feeling his loss for his family, his community. I’m sorry Mark. This sucks.

    I’m taking his words to heart about worrying less about geo-political hornet nests and cat fights over dogma, and caring more about helping my neighbor. If you aren’t thriving, you don’t blame the weather, you tend to your roots. I knew that once, but needed the reminder.
    If at all possible, at some point, it would be great to assemble a few of his choice comments in a post. Most don’t even need a context to be great. A simple search of his moniker does not work here.

  6. freeto
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Fuckn el. Thanks for Sharing Mark… RIP brother, as while I never met him, it seems as if he was a kindred spirit.

  7. Gobble Gobble Gambino
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    The almost imperceptible changing of the world is sometimes frustrating and disheartening. Feeling planted in the beliefs and cultures, as I do, the sensation that waiting for others to catch up/grow up is maddening. I want to beat my plowshares in to swords and wage war on laziness, hypocrisy, bigotry, and all the other well-worn words…but its wrong.
    War and pariahs don’t change the world, really.
    Kindness and empathy are the waves that turn stone to sand.
    Caleb was right. Bring in the trash cans of your neighbors. Pour gas in the broke down car you almost passed. Smile at faces on the sidewalk.
    Change is constant, action, steady, and little at a time.
    I’ll do more Caleb today.

  8. Shannon
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Caleb and Evie came into Gordon’s for candy on a regular basis. I always enjoyed seeing them and talking with him. He brought a lot of joy with him, and I’m thankful for having known him.

  9. Jimmy Alcumbrack McDaniel
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Caleb was Ypsi.

  10. Dan Gillotte
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Nice tribute, Mark. Caleb sounds like a gem. I’m glad for your blog for the chance to “meet” people like him.

  11. Anne
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Mark, I did not know Caleb. I am so sorry for your loss and your family’s loss. Losing dear friends to cancer while I was in my late 30’s- early 40’s was a horrible experience I was unlucky enough to repeat five times. I want you to know that today (10 -15 years later) I am a better person for it. Their battles and their legacies taught me what true gratefulness is. I think of them often and they inspire me. May Caleb inspire you and provide you with a “guiding light” in the years to come.

  12. Lynne
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I am so sorry for your loss. He sounds like a really great guy. I remember his comments here well. I am sorry that I never got to meet him.

  13. Kim
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    It’s been really hard reading anything online lately because it’s simply too upsetting, this was really lovely, as heartbreaking as this is thank you for the reminder of the beauty in people and the possibilities.

  14. Kevin Sharp
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful portrait of what must have been a beautiful man. Thank you for introducing us. My condolences.

  15. Posted November 24, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Mark, Caleb wasn’t the only one who is a hell of a writer. What a beautiful tribute. My condolences to his family, and yours.

  16. Bee Roll
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I only knew Caleb peripherally, but always found his presence of spirit contagious and fully engaged.

    Amazing tribute, Mark, I can imagine how difficult it must’ve been to write (and rewrite in your head and your heart as you will likely do many times…)

    What a loss.

  17. Jay Steichmann
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this remembrance, Mark. I was fortunate to know Caleb from our time together as Master’s degree students in Written Communication at EMU–yes he was an excellent communicator. I don’t think that I ever knew him on a more personal level. At one time, I thought I did, but just before our cohort ended, he dropped out of sight. I learned later that he didn’t drop out of sight, but instead turned everything he had to support his family, which was his wife and his daughter-to-be.

    After grad school, I ran into him twice. Once on E. Cross; a friend of ours was renting a house just east of the Bi-Lo station, and I saw him there, and talked a few minutes. I think he was working for SEMCOG in a PR position. The last time was in the course of where I work now, which was related to his course of care. He was cheerful, but I’d have to say he didn’t remember me. While I knew people who cared about him from our cohort, I of course could say nothing.

    Just yesterday, one of those friends told me he had lost his fight. She and the main professor in our program have kept in touch with Caleb and his family. They plan to be at the services tomorrow.

    Caleb always was thoughtful, and while we didn’t stay in touch, I will always–have always–thought of him with warm thoughts.

  18. grandma
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    A beautiful tribute to your friend. I know you and Linette and Clementine and Arlo all loved him and his family. Cherish the memories!! I’m so sorry for all who knew and loved him.

  19. Marissa
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Great post Mark. I’m sorry for your family’s loss of a great friend. I’m sure he would have really loved this blog.

  20. Eel
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    “Goodbye you fucking beautiful motherfuckers…”

    It’s a lovely sentiment.

  21. kjc
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    When I found this site, his comments were my favorite. And part of why I stayed. (Blame him.) I was sad when he stopped commenting. (That goes for Brackache too.)

  22. Posted November 24, 2015 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, kjc. He was my best friend for a long time. He first invited me to comment here for some lively debate back in the day, but in hindsight I far prefer the fried chicken revues to the arguing.

  23. Gary Clark
    Posted November 25, 2015 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Thank you Mark for your post about our mutual friend and my across-the-street neighbor Caleb Brokaw. Today we join his wife Sue and daughter Evie to say a formal “farewell” to this sweet, warm, intelligent family man who my partner Glen and I have had the pleasure of knowing for about 15 years. We have many and varied memories to treasure. Special among them are the small things like the times we would sit around a fire in their back yard telling bad jokes and sharing stories from our lives into the early morning. I remember fondly the times at Tony Swan’s and Mary Seelhorst’s annual holiday party when we would convince Caleb to pick up the washboard. He would play it like a grand piano. Certain people live on in our memory through their intelligent words and kind deeds. Caleb is one of those. Gone too soon.

  24. Frosted Flakes
    Posted November 25, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry your friend died. I remember when he used to post comments. It would be great if you could compile some of the interesting old threads so we could read through them. He was a very good writer–he seemed to often put things into proper perspective….

  25. Demetrius
    Posted November 25, 2015 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m just home from the memorial service, and it was clear from the many heartfelt remarks and touching recollections what a remarkable man Caleb was, and how much he will be missed.

    Thank you Mark (and Linette, and others) for your beautiful comments; and thank you Mark for providing this post as another way for people to remember, and grieve.

  26. Posted November 25, 2015 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I felt bad that I couldn’t make it all the way through my prepared statement. Judging from the feedback I got afterward, though, people didn’t mind it. In fact, I think a lot of people actually liked the fact that I stood up there, in front of everyone, and melted down into a blubbering mess. Afterward, a lot of people came up to me and thanked me. As I didn’t really say anything that anyone else hadn’t already said, I can only assume that my crying was somehow cathartic for folks. If that’s the case, I’m glad that I could play my part.

  27. Posted November 25, 2015 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    It was good, Mark; it’s the funeral version of when the fake mustache comes loose in an SNL skit.

  28. Posted November 26, 2015 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I teach in the MA program Jay was talking about and Caleb was at least in one of my classes way back when. I never really kept in touch with him after he was in our program, though I ran into him once in a while. Great guy, smart guy too. I was shocked to hear he was ill and I’m as shocked to hear of his passing. Very sad, but thanks for sharing this, Mark.

  29. Posted November 22, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    This was a great gift. I never knew him and now I am grieving.

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