Until recently, I all but forgot a visit to my parents’ several years ago. My brother Malachi and I arrived about the same time. It had been a while since we had seen each other. I remember him as he stood in his black Converse tennis shoes, both hands hidden in the pockets of a worn-out black leather jacket, wearing narrow silver-framed sunglasses with blue lenses.
“Cool!” I nodded. He said nothing, but slowly smiled, beginning at one corner of his mouth and ending at the other. He was clearly pleased he had impressed me with his hip blue shades. Secretly I wished those sunglasses were mine. Later, in retrospect, I wished I hadn’t.
It’s been over a year now since Malachi passed away. I continue to discover more about this man, my brother. He felt unrewarded as an electrical engineer by day but was an ardent recording engineer by night. He archived avant-garde jazz performances—some two thousand concerts in total. Malachi's website, savagesound.com, was considered the go-to source for Chicago's experimental jazz scene. A fixture at every show, the regulars knew to find him by following the microphone cords to where he set up his equipment.
My brother was known for his quiet generosity. The musicians recounted how he routinely gave them copies of their performances and refused to accept money in return. At one concert, a drummer thought no one noticed as he fumbled with a broken hi-hat clutch until new one surprised him in the mail a few days later—sent by Malachi, a drummer as well. During another concert, Malachi scribbled over 1,100 digits on a slip of paper, representing the infinite mathematical number Pi. He then impressed a young woman by presenting it to her as a valentine.
Malachi’s friends recalled his wry sense of humor and thoughtful discussions with him about love, art, photography, literature, politics and food. Especially food! He grew his own hot peppers to make his trademarked hot sauce. He also had a terrible sweet tooth and a particular passion for pastries. He received as much pleasure from eating them as he did sharing them, going back to the store for more, if necessary, to make sure there was enough to go around. At his memorial, I learned that he saved a bakery from going under by extolling the virtues of its cinnamon rolls on his website. The bakery is still there.
On November 3, 2006, my brother made a decision to take his life by self-immolation—self-sacrifice by fire—in protest of what he believed was an unjust war. Death by self-immolation is the most painful, powerful demonstration of one’s dedication to a belief. A long-time peace activist, Malachi felt strongly that war is never the answer to conflict. He believed the direction needed by humankind is one of unification, integrating all people into a world body, yet respectful of the individual.
“I too love God and Country, and feel called upon to serve,” he wrote in his Mission Statement, which he posted on his web site before he died. “I can only hope my sacrifice is worth more than those brave lives thrown away when we attacked an Arab nation under the deception of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'. Our interference completely destroyed that country, and destabilized the entire region….the violent turmoil initiated by the United States military invasion of Iraq will beget future centuries of slaughter, if the human race lasts that long…”
While mainstream media barely reported his final protest, the news spread through the Internet. People from all over the world posted their thoughts on blog sites, missing his presence and touched by his wake-up call to the world to end war.
Reading through the comments, I stumbled upon this one from someone who recalled how “a slight smile would slowly creep across his face in recognition that you felt the same way about something, or got one another's joke.”
He added, “That smile was like a secret handshake.”
I had all but forgotten the brief exchange between my brother and me until I read that blog post. I can still see him as I did that day, with his hands in the pockets of his leather coat, wearing those blue sunglasses with the silver frames. Indeed, his smile had been like a secret handshake.
Malachi did not live nor give his life in vain. If he had only known his impact on other people and the world. For that smile, even, if for nothing more.