My Brother John—1949-2020 by Esther Nelson

My 70-year-old brother, John, died recently.  As far as we know, he had not been ill although the death certificate listed “hypertensive cardiovascular disease” as the primary cause of death—something that doesn’t happen all of a sudden.  He shied away from doctors.  His obituary is linked here.

This picture was taken in January 2017 when he drove a bus, filled with activists, to the Women’s March in Washington DC.  Some of the women presented him with a pussy hat, something he immediately donned and wore with pride.

John’s memorial service took place on September 12, 2020, at St. James Catholic Church in Newark, New Jersey, a Portuguese parish.  His widow, Cleusa, is from Brazil.  She speaks little English.  My brother spoke little Portuguese.

Cleusa and her family are, at least nominally, Roman Catholic.  I met her for the first time at John’s memorial service.  They had been married 17 years.  I was unaware of their marriage until 3 years after their nuptials in Las Vegas, Nevada.  As time passed, Cleusa seemed to spend more and more time in Brazil.

Cleusa, along with her family (some live in Newark, NJ), were warm and welcoming to those of us who attended the service.  Afterwards, they took us to Padaria Pão da Vida (Bread of Life), a local, Portuguese restaurant for lunch and then hosted a get together later in the day where we got to know one another somewhat.  Cleusa gave me John’s pussy hat for a remembrance.

In addition to Cleusa, John’s first wife (mother of his children) was present as was his long-time partner of several years.  All three of these women were gracious and loving towards one another, mourning together their loss.

My brother was not Roman Catholic although I don’t believe he would’ve cared that his send-off was done in a Roman Catholic context.  He was cremated after being over a week “on ice.”  Since Cleusa was in Brazil when John died, she had to scramble to get to the U.S. quickly.  Once here, she needed to submit to a COVID-19 test.  The undertaker would not give her access to the funeral home unless she tested negative.  She did.

The officiating priest was bilingual (Portuguese and English) and conducted what seemed to me to be a standard Roman Catholic funeral mass.  Ultimately, he had John Nathan, as he referred to my brother, being escorted by the angels to heaven’s gate where he was welcomed by Mary and those who had entered eternal rest before him.  John Nathan, the priest assured us, would be there to welcome us when our time came.

There was no place in the service where friends and relatives could speak personally about John.  The family asked me to read a short portion from the Book of Wisdom, one of the apocryphal books that Roman Catholics accept as Scripture.

I’m including part of the short reading which focuses on the theme of the text.

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.

In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery,

And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace.

As gold in the furnace hath he [God] tried them, and received them as a burnt offering.”

(The “burnt offering” reference seemed appropriate in light of John’s cremation.)


I missed hearing from friends and family about their memories of John.  His obituary mentioned the Japanese exchange students he especially enjoyed driving to places of interest.  I immediately thought of the Japanese poet/priest, Issa (1763-1828).

Issa’s mother died in 1765 and his grandmother raised him until he was seven.  When his father remarried, Issa was forced to leave school to tend to his sibling in addition to carrying a heavy load of farm chores.  In his loneliness, he turned to the small creatures around him for solace and companionship.  My brother found solace and companionship with the sea and its inhabitants as a way to assuage his loneliness—a result of a sensibility that he never quite “belonged” anywhere.

When Issa turned 13, he left for Edo (Tokyo), eventually studied haiku under the master poet, Chikua, and subsequently became a wandering poet/priest.  His message focused on the interdependence of all living things.  Sensitive as he was to the struggle all living creatures faced as well as the interconnection of all beings, he wrote the following haiku:

Please don’t kill the fly

He asks you to save his life

See him rub his hands

St. Francis preached to God’s creatures.  Issa listened to God’s creatures.

Had my brother been born in a different time and place, he may well have become a wandering poet/priest like Issa.  John’s heart was soft and compassionate towards all living beings.  He gave generously of his time and resources to ameliorate the suffering of the Earth and Her inhabitants, understanding, like Issa, that our humanity does not exist in isolation from all else.

After years of wandering, Issa married Kiku, settled down on the old family farm, and in his late 50s, he sired a daughter, Sato.  Sato’s arrival gave Issa an even more intense feeling and understanding for those tiny creatures around him and their feelings for their young.

Wind through bamboo trees

Bringing the father deer

Hurrying home

Sadly, when Sato turned 2, she died.  Issa was heartbroken.  In spite of his belief in the temporary nature of all that is, he could not put aside the powerful bond of human love, giving expression to that in the following haiku:

World fashioned of dew—

Just a world fashioned of dew—

But even so, even so……

All things, including our lives, evaporate like the dew.  Nevertheless, Issa’s love for his daughter is eloquently given voice with “But even so, even so….”  That same phrase expresses the love so many of us have for my brother.

We will miss you, John.


Material on Issa’s life is taken from a booklet authored by Professor Emeritus Cliff Edwards, Virginia Commonwealth University, titled Everything Under Heaven  The Life and Words of a Nature Mystic, Issa of Japan (Mercer University, Macon, Ga., 1980).


Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

26 thoughts on “My Brother John—1949-2020 by Esther Nelson”

  1. Esther, I am so sorry for your loss. What a beautiful tribute to your gentle brother. How you weave together his life and Issa’s is a poem and touches my heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Condolences to you and your three sisters-in-law. What a sweet eulogy you wrote for your brother. When my brother died in 2001, I hadn’t seen him in 20+ years. We’d made plans to get together in San Francisco, but it didn’t work out, and I couldn’t go to his cremation service. Your description of your brother’s service brought tears to my eyes. Blessings to you and to everyone in his family.


    1. Thanks, Barbara, for your comment. In spite of COVID-19 and the long distance from Las Cruces, NM, to Newark, NJ, I’m happy I was able to attend John’s service. Appreciate the blessings. Am sorry about the loss of your own brother.


  3. Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories of your brother as well as the stories and poetry of Issa. They are all beautiful. I’m glad to have been able to get to know your brother a little through your touching eulogy here. I’m so sorry for your loss.


  4. Esther, my heart goes out to you while you grieve your brother’s death. Thank you for quoting the Issa poem on the death of his daughter: “World fashioned of dew—/
    Just a world fashioned of dew—/But even so, even so……”


  5. I hope someone writes as beautifully about me someday. I was so touched by the way you connected him with poet Issa. To see the (for me) basic underlying truth that all things are connected exemplified so simply and matter-of-factly in this tribute did my heart and spirit so much good. Blessed be, Esther, and may John’s spirit be blessed. I ‘m honored to learn about him.


  6. My heartfelt condolences on the loss off your brother. This was a wonderful tribute to him — his personality came shining through. I was deeply moved by Issa’s haiku after the death of his daughter. The last line says it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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