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He’s Not Heavy: Tribute to a Brother

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My younger brother Ted Louis Mungin was born March 23, 1946 in Hollywood, South Carolina. Late in 1947 we were brought up in Harlem with our sister and mother. We were poor and newly fatherless. In a short while we found our way to the Amsterdam Projects in midtown Manhattan. The Amsterdam Projects are located in an ideal section of the city not far from many of the city’s cultural institutions. From this section of Manhattan, we were just a short walk from the planetarium and the Museum of Natural History. Central Park was our front yard; Riverside Park was our back yard. We were just a short subway ride from the great cultural institutions of the city and jobs of all descriptions. This close contact to that other world gave us hope that led to dreams that led to options.

Growing up in the Amsterdam Projects exposed us to possibilities we could have never have dreamt of in the rural section of Charleston County, South Carolina where we were born. Not even in Harlem would we have found the life we adopted in midtown Manhattan.

mentor of the year award

Ted receives “Mentor of the Year” from family.

We went to a racially integrated elementary school (P.S. 141) and lived among white people so we got an early apprenticeship in detecting and identifying the many mysteries surrounding white privilege. We were in the same hopper of childhood with white children so some of the mystery of their supposed superiority dissipated with our close experience of their abilities in the classroom, the sporting arenas and even the neighborhood social sphere.

I was already 10 years old when we moved to that multi-racial midtown Manhattan neighborhood. Ted was only five and had far less experience with racism then I had experienced by 10, so he grew up with less racial uncertainty; saw less of a racial distinction between the  nature of black and white people. He grew up thinking he was equal to anyone and that his being black put no limitations on his possibilities that his abilities couldn’t overcome. I grew up thinking that I was equal to other people also, but I had to bring the thought to my consciousness. Ted felt so instinctively.

We grew up three blocks from Central Park and we spent much of our time there. In the summer when school was out, we didn’t need much money for summer activities like movies, swimming pools and baseball games. We only needed ice cream, sodas and permission to visit Central Park. Every day we spent hours exploring the park. We went to the free zoo; we watched the well-to-do kids ride the merry-go-round; we sat in the bleachers and enjoyed softball games, fished in the lake, sat in the grass, climbed rock formations and trees. A couple of times each month in the summer we went to the Museum of Natural History. And in the late summer, we would sneak into the old Madison Square Garden (the one on 50th Street and 8th Avenue) to see the circus.

We slipped into Madison Square Garden by infiltrating  lines when large groups of children were stalled at the entrance  while their chaperones presented their documents to the ticket takers. I always waited until a group of black kids from the Boys’ and Girls’ Club from Harlem were in line, then I would infiltrate with them, blending in. Ted never considered that; he would infiltrate with a group of all-white kids from some Catholic school in Queens and still make it into the Garden. He would stick out like a sore thumb, but no one ever questioned him. For kids in our neighborhood this was a popular, effective and widely used method to see the circus and the annual rodeo. We did lots together, my brother and I. It wasn’t until I entered junior high school that we became somewhat separated.

After high school, Ted had a few starter jobs before he landed a position in the office of British Petroleum. He worked in the mail room, but made himself invaluable to the entire office either by the efficiency of his service or the force and charm of his personality. Ted was a highly resourceful person and he had a laugh that was infectious. Even at a young age, Ted had the aura of someone training himself for success – he read the right books and he was highly adaptable to prosperous philosophies. He believed in himself and had this uncanny ability to stay on course.

Ted was the last sibling to leave our mother’s household. He moved to the Bronx in the early 1970s. He and his high school girlfriend Deanie married in 1973. They had a son name Lateef and later they moved to San Francisco with Ted’s company British Petroleum. With the company’s financial backing Ted got a degree from the University of San Francisco. Ted and Deanie both worked in San Francisco. They brought a house in Concord California and had another child, a girl named Rashida

The city of Oakland lay between San Francisco and Concord. Ted slowly became fascinated by black Oakland as he got to know it. It reminded him of Harlem. He became involved with a group of Black Muslims in Oakland and he adopted the name Talib. He wanted to be involved with the black social awareness movement, but he soon realized that his first desire was to make a success of himself and raise his family up another notch in the social order. His example of success would be his contribution to black awareness.

Ted traveled back to New York as often as he could afford. In 1980, our father whom we had no relationship with died and we met in Hollywood, South Carolina for the funeral. Our father died of adenocarcinoma, cancer of the lungs. Ted loved the idea of being bi-coastal; of having lived in the two enlightened centers of America. While he was in New York, he would lavish attention on our mother and she would be sure to cook his favorite foods. He would regale me with tales of California life and the upper-class black friends he made there. He joined a civic-minded group called 100 Black Men and was for years their recording secretary. San Francisco was the new mecca, he would say, now that New York was on the decline.

Ted was a fast walker and he loved to hike. California was the place for urban people who loved the outdoor life. Ted began his fitness regimen before he went west; he joined the YMCA and exercised several times a week. As he got older, he combined his exercise routine with a working knowledge of medical health issues. Whenever he discovered information important to black men’s health he made sure to disseminate it, a task made infinitely easier with the invention of the internet.

Ted realized the value of his affability and decided to become the world’s greatest salesman; to turn himself into the title of one of the books he had read. He left British Petroleum to begin his career as a salesman. About this same time he became interested in the stock market and began to read all he could about how that institution worked. Ted spent lots of hours in libraries reading about the successful handling of money. He worked selling telephone service to businesses and did well until the phone company was divested and embarked on a series of rapid changes that brought varying options to businesses. These changes decreased the importance of the telephone sales force. Ted found himself in a situation that provided less and less of a living wage.

He was doing well in the stock market after a rocky start with penny stocks. Ted made some rules for buying and selling stock. Number one among them was to never buy a stock selling under a dollar. This was the rule that helped him to acquire a valuable high grade stock portfolio. The family moved to the more affluent city of Walnut Creek. Ted decided that he was doing well enough in the market to make that his main job until things in his field sorted out. Besides, Deanie made an excellent salary as an executive secretary to an oil executive. She even agreed with Ted’s decision to set up an office in their home to make his personal trades.

Ted suffered from mild stomach discomfort for years. He had always thought that he had gas or acid reflux problems and he took over-the-counter medicines to combat the ailments. The periodic stomach discomfort was not a thing that slowed Ted down; he went about his life as if the discomfort didn’t exist. Ted did some traveling; he was interested in seeing how the rest of the world lived. He traveled to Amsterdam a couple of times to jazz festivals, but after he retired and moved to North Carolina he wrote out a bucket list of places he wanted to experience.

In 2002 Ted travelled with his family to Cape Town, South Africa where they met other family members for the wedding of Akil Cornelius, a nephew. Ted loved South Africa and its hiking trails so much he made two other trips there. The other places on his bucket list that he made it to were Aruba, England, Paris, the Panama Canal, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Iceland, Switzerland, Cartagena and many West Indian islands. He’d no sooner get home from a trip before he was planning his next one.

In the winter of 2012, Ted laid out an ambitious travel itinerary: He and his wife would travel to South Africa with a contingent of friends from California, and when they returned they would stay in Baltimore with an old friend from New York for a few days until it was time to board a cruise ship for a trip they had signed on to with our travel agent sister, Barbara. After the cruise Ted and Deanie would travel to New York to spend Christmas with our mother. They planned to do all this without even once returning home to North Carolina.

The trip to South Africa was enthralling. Ted beamed as he showed his companions around places he had become familiar with on his other trips to Cape Town. He introduced them to our nephew’s in-laws who lived in Cape Town. The highlight of the trip was the safari in which they were once surrounded by friendly elephants. After Africa came the cruise and it was during the cruise that Ted’s stomach started to bother him. He had trouble going to the bathroom and he couldn’t keep his food down. He spent much of the time in his cabin. Many people in their group stopped by his cabin to check on him and to ask him to join them in whatever activity they were headed to. Ted politely declined and suggested that he was having a problem related to being on a ship in the high seas.

After the cruise they arrived at our mother’s apartment in Manhattan. Ted immediately began to self-diagnose and treat his ailment with over-the-counter stomach medicines. Some things bought him some temporary relief. There was a noticeable loss of weight. He was urged to go to the hospital but he resisted, saying he would see his family doctor when he got back to North Carolina. He was thinking that, at worst, he had developed an ulcer.

After Ted returned home to North Carolina, he went to his doctor who ordered  a series of tests, but who also thought from what Ted told him of his ailment that he might have developed an ulcer. When Ted told me that an ulcer was the probable cause of his problem, I told him about the cabbage cure I knew about and had tried years back from the book Back to Eden, by Jethro Kloss. Nothing out of the ordinary was found from the battery of tests Ted had taken, so now the doctor went looking for a specific ailment – stomach cancer. He order a test of the whole stomach. Ted called the morning of the test and his voice suggested he was happy that the answer would come at the end of it.

A week later I received a call from Ted, and his voice was solemn: “There is bad news and there is good news,” he said, “Deanie will give you the details.” The phone went blank for a moment and then Deanie came on to tell me that Ted had been diagnosed with small bowel cancer and that the reason for his extreme discomfort was that he had a tumor blocking his digestive system. The tumor was wrapped around too many arties to be removed, but the good news was that they could perform a bypass operation to free his digestive system and allow him to eat and have bowel movements. Then they would administer chemotherapy treatments to try to shrink the tumor, and if it shrank to a certain size they might be able to surgically remove it. With all this, Ted had one to three years to live. I fell onto the sofa crying; this was real and it was real tough. I cried for three days.

We all gathered at the hospital on the morning of the surgery, our moods hopeful. I saw Ted just before he went up for surgery; he seemed relieved that something was being done – there was a plan of action that would bring him some relief. The veil of mystery was lifted.

Hours later, Ted came out of the recovery room and we were allowed to visit him two at a time. Deanie stayed by his bedside as we visited. When Gussle and I reached Ted’s room he was sitting up in bed, a big grin on his face. He was feeling better than he had felt in several months. Though we hadn’t talked about the future at our breakfast, Ted talked about his future. He and I would walk the length of Central Park. We always visited the park when we were in New York. On my last several visits to New York, I had been unable to visit the park because of my bad knees. I was scheduled for knee replacement surgery on the worse knee in June. So sometime after that surgery and as Ted got better, we would walk the park.

His big plan was for him alone: Ted wanted to hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. He had conquered Diablo Mountain overlooking Walnut Creek where they once lived, as well as several other California mountains. He had hiked Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa on several visits there. Mount Kilimanjaro would be the appropriate way to celebrate his recovery and to raise money for cancer research. When I returned home I ordered a book about the several hiking trails of Mount Kilimanjaro and had it sent to Ted.

How does one write about losing such a brother? Ted lived for 10 more months. The chemotherapy didn’t work and the cancer spread. His magnificent wife made sure he got the best treatments – that everything that could be done was done. She kept her promise to him that she would make sure he got medicines that would keep his pain to a minimum. During his months of decline I found it difficult to talk with him on the telephone. My agony came in imagining his agony – I couldn’t stand to think of what was going through my brother’s mind. We visited him the week before he died. Gussie and I walked into his bedroom and when he saw me his eyes lit up, a small smile came to his face and he greeted me as he always did.

Last Words

My brother lay on his back in his bed
His eyes lights up as we entered the room
Gussie stays by the door
He greets me, Hey Horace, but his eyes
Spoke already volumes – he is dying
I reached his bed lean over to kiss him
His mouth pass my face his lips making a
Sound that says he kissed me back

My already rehearsed comments fly away
The moment is so momentous, I love you, I say
His eyes say tell me something I don’t already know
I recalled the dozens of times we shopped together
And after shopping we walked to the same Irish Pub
To eat pastrami, drink beer and talk family
I recalled our adventures in a place we both
Loved dearly – Central Park
His eyes seem to be searching for matching recollections

There is so much more I want to recall with him
It would take a lifetime
The lifetime we had already spent
Plus he is tired

I will always treasure the times we had together
I say, you are the best brother I could have had
And I will forever carry you in my heart
I’m glad to hear that, he says, his eyes closed
And his mouth form a satisfied configuration
Of triumph.

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About Horace Mungin