Martin “Marty” Jefferson Clifton III died Friday, June 11, following an accident early in the morning at a gas station in Fairfield, California.
Marty is my older brother and the oldest of four other siblings, and his untimely passing is still a shock to close and extended family, and his friends around the country.
This isn’t an obituary for my oldest brother, though, because Marty didn’t die, he lived.
You see, my brother lived his life. Though he was named after both his grandfather and father, he refused to live the lives they lived, and the life they planned for him to live.
Oh, he had many of the attributes of his namesakes: He was a minister like his grandfather and, like his father, he was gregarious and made friends easily.
But Marty wasn’t them and he was happy about that, despite pressures from them and other family members to “Be like your grandfather,” or “Be better than your father.”
Marty ignored familial, religious, and societal pressures to define him, his life, and his happiness.
Marty lived by the hour. Fifty-nine years of living hour-to-hour and Marty wasn’t tired at all. He could continue living despite body aches from years of living sofa-to-sofa, sleeping on streets, and behind garbage bins.
He lived despite being told he was the future pastor of his grandfather’s church, and he lived despite the nonstop pressure from family, church, and friends to “Lead by example or else you’ll end up like your father.” Neither of the predictions came true and Marty continued to live his own life.
Marty was told that going away so far to college was not good – and that was only when he wanted to attend San Jose State, a school just an hour south of Oakland.
He ignored those pressures and after graduating from San Jose State, he left the state to attend Howard Divinity School in Washington, D.C.
For going-away gifts, he was given fear and low expectations, politely wrapped in concern and tied neatly with I-told-you-so ribbons. Provincial life wishes from family would not stop Marty, so he packed it all up and, taking the last piece of advice our mother gave him before she passed, took himself to Washington, D.C. as a graduate student.
In DC, he lived among great biblical scholars and historical religious institutions, remaining true to himself and enjoying the biblical explorative debates and more than holding his own among learned men and women of different faiths and political persuasions. They recognized the uniqueness of the young man who could go toe to toe with biblical scholars with the deftness and accuracy of someone with many more years of education, and he proved their admiration true by being declared Most Impressive Student Minister during his time among them.
They loved him because he was always himself and true to his beliefs.
They loved him.
That was Marty. An everyday man with extraordinary abilities who was never out of his knowledge class.
Marty lived among giants and gained respect by being himself, and gained respect for his loving honesty and gentle kindness that was tinged with intense fealty to truth above all else.
This is not an obituary.
Some say Marty’s life took a left turn for the worse as he delved too far into alcohol and too far from God and religion, resulting in behaviors detrimental to his health, life, and happiness.
But there’s a funny thing about too many left turns; they will eventually lead one back to one’s starting place.
Marty’s literal starting place was Oakland, but his figurative starting place was in the exploration of himself, in all his goodness, confusion, anger, and on to his undefined future.
He loved what he saw and he hated what he saw, because what he saw were truths many of us never wish to see, much less confront, but Marty accepted what truth showed him.
Sometimes salvation is messy. And it is ugly and it is distasteful to the common person.
But Marty knew that his own salvation needed him to travel the roads untrodden and the roads with bumps, unanswered questions, and where real and imagined danger awaited.
Once, Marty’s road took him early on a Sunday morning to a bus stop in East Oakland, where he met a stranger.
It can be said that Marty never actually met a stranger because everyone would become his friend when he began talking.
The stranger-who-was-now-not-a-stranger was stressed and afraid, but never said what he was afraid of. Marty sensed the man’s discomfort and offered him comfort through his words. Marty was long out of the edifices of religion but still carrying the minister’s calling, and so he ministered to the young man, comforting him and letting him know that no matter what he was going through, and no matter how hopeless life seemed, death was nothing to fear.
And to embrace it when it comes for you and know that God welcomes you.
The man had not said he feared death, but he welcomed Marty’s insight with praise and thankfulness. The man was relieved, though, and told Marty so.
The relief lasted only a moment because as soon as the man’s face and body showed his relief, another man who was walking by, paused for a split second and shot the man in the head, killing him instantly, and sending blood, bones, and brain into Marty’s face and body.
The man then pointed the weapon at Marty’s head, calmly saying “You saw nothing,” before walking away and leaving Marty in a state of shock and understanding.
Marty didn’t die that beautiful Sunday morning. He was motionless before his Black-man awareness kicked in, making him realize he had to leave the scene or else he would be charged with murder or be killed by the shooter or by the cops.
He walked in the opposite direction of the shooter.
Marty lived then.
But a few months ago, Marty died. You read that correctly.
Marty died a few months ago.
He had fallen asleep outside and due to outside overnight temperatures and his age, he died from exposure. First responders were called, and they were able to revive Marty and transport him to the hospital. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we could not visit him but his doctor had him on intravenous fluids and said, “I hope your brother Marty makes it through the night, but at the moment, I can’t say that he will. At best I give him a 50–50 chance.”
What the doctor did not know is that a fifty-percent chance is more than many of us ever receive in this country.
My other brother Mark and I kept watch on Marty from afar and waited for night to pass because we have been trained since we were infants to know: Joy comes in the morning and that, yes, we are our brother’s keepers.
Marty woke up the next morning; joy had indeed come.
We talked on the phone and I told him that he had literally died and that he had gone on to his next adventure.
Marty’s response was typically enlightening, silly, concerning, interesting, and filled with deeper meanings.
Oh, he and we laughed. And then quietly and with meaningful awareness, he softly asked/stated:
“I did? I did, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did, Doc.” I replied, smiling and ready to tease him, as brothers do.
“You’re just like Jesus, except you came back in only one day. You can finally start your own religion, Big Bro.”
Marty enjoyed our silly banter. His voice was stronger toward the end of the call, his humor and mind intact, and he said of my brother Mark and me: “You are more faithful than Jesus’ disciples who didn’t believe he had risen until Mary told them. And that Mary wasn’t his mother, she was…” The divinity school scholar had risen from the dead, too.
“Okay, preacher, you need to rest. No sermons right now, Doc.” I said to him, now the big brother in the relationship.
He laughed again, this time with more vocal power, and with the confidence of someone who had risen from the dead, I guess.
That was the last conversation Marty and I had because when I next called, early the next morning, the doctor was called to Marty’s room and was handed the phone to speak with me.
“I am sorry to say that sometime overnight when we weren’t looking, your brother Marty got up and walked out of here.”
I thanked the doctor for his work and ended our call.
Marty was alive again and he had decided to walk into life again, however momentarily.
“What kind of life did he walk back to?”
“He should have lived differently.”
“He should have cared for himself differently.”
All the admonishments are from a place of genuine love and concern, from family and friends alike. And Marty knew and appreciated the care, love, concern, and gentle and not-so-gentle suggestions that never stopped being offered to him.
And he was okay with that, too.
Marty checks off a lot of boxes for life’s difficulties: First born with highest expectations; an extremely religious upbringing; family history of alcohol and drug abuse; and trauma from violence he witnessed as a young kid and as an adult.
Marty also checks the box that far too many Black people – Black men specifically – need to check and address more often: Mental illness.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases and far better understood in our community relative to mental illness. Neither are due to a failure to pray or failure to change. They are not easy to quit and they are not reflective of a lack of willpower.
And mental illness comes in many forms, from depression and anxiety, to bipolar and post-traumatic stress (PTSD), and on to schizophrenia.
All of these affect Black folk just like they affect everyone else, and there are treatments – clinical, theraputic, medicinal – that can and do help. But medicine that isn’t taken is medicine that can’t help. And mental illness left untreated is dangerous.
The diagnoses, the treatments, and the act of normalizing mental illness is important to our community because we are not exempt from mental illness. But we seem to have more stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma and shame are enemies of treatment and healing. Our community must normalize asking for help and getting help from those best trained and schooled on treating mental illnesses.
Marty knew the importance of treating mental illness but not until later in life when he was already self-medicating in harmful ways.
If I had a wish, I would only wish that Marty was and everyone else are treated at the first symptoms of mental illness, that they are comfortable talking about mental illness with loved ones and professionals, and that he hadn’t been and no one else is ever shamed for having a mental illness.
Marty is no longer with us, having died in a traffic accident early in the morning at his favorite gas station, where he sometimes washed windows because he wanted everyone to be able to see clearly.
If there’s anything I learned from Marty and the life he led, it was that Marty always saw clearly.
Marty may have passed from this life a little too soon for us, but I am certain that he left right when he needed to and when things were at their clearest for him.
This is not an obituary for my brother Marty.
Consider it a “so long” until we meet again.
When we do, I am certain he will joke about his beloved Minnesota Vikings, and he will want updates on our family, especially our siblings, but also his nieces and nephews. Hopefully my mom will be with him, reunited with her firstborn, and telling him she does not want to hear about the Vikings again.
And I am going to tease him even more about how somehow, someway, he was able to die, come back, and then leave again, like he was Jesus.
He will like that.
And, finally, we know Marty loved his friends. He never lost faith in his friends or his family, even when and if some lost faith in him because he chose differently.
Like Marty, we are more than the sum of our errors, and we have more depth than what we can see in each other.
Marty helped anyone who asked, though most times all he had was advice, counseling, and positive words of affirmation, even in the darkest nights on the darkest street corners, because that is where light is needed most.
Marty gave and accepted what came his way. And he did so not with malice or a fatal acceptance of disappointment or underachievement.
Marty accepted what came to him because he lived the life he chose, and he did it with joyful acceptance and lovely self-awareness.
© 2021 by Myron J. Clifton. All Rights Reserved.
Myron J. Clifton is slightly older than fifty, lives in Sacramento, California, and is an avid Bay Area sports fan. He likes comic books, telling stories about his late mom to his beloved daughter Leah, and talking to his friends.
The Grand Old Party died. The GOP of your parents and grandparents passed away some time ago, with little fanfare and no eulogies. You don’t remember going to the republican funeral but you were there. Well, you were there if you were alive in 1980 when Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in a…
The first two sessions of the historic January 6th Hearings have been riveting, incredibly informational, and a study in how the nation coddles privileged white men. Led and guided by the steady authoritative Rep. Bennie Thompson from Mississippi, and executed by Rep. Liz Chaney, Wyoming, and Rep Zoe Lofgren, California, the methodical presentation of facts,…
After what seemed like two a year and a half because it has actually been a year and a half, the congressional hearings investigating the GOP and Donald Trump-led attempted takeover of the US Government begins this week. The hotly anticipated hearings will be broadcast live by all network, cable, and online outlets that are…