The Unicorns Control the Channels: A Tribute to Urban Brother

Urban Father, Urban Brother and Urban Guy, circa 1965

Mark removed the mask supplying a breathing treatment, looked intently into my face, and carefully enunciated, “The unicorns control the channels.” By the time he shared this cryptic jewel we were about thirty-five or forty days into the hospitalization that seemingly would never end. He was becoming less coherent, and I wasn’t far behind him. I struggled to understand the meaning behind the statement that was so important to him in the moment, trying to unlock the completely inscrutable.

Simple communication was often a challenge in those last days. At times his thinking was unclear. Other times he couldn’t speak because of the tubes inserted into his throat. On those days, through a fog of sedation, he’d spell words as best he could onto his blanket. Sometimes I could understand him, other times it wasn’t possible. I learned that H’s could have as many vertical lines as he deemed necessary and that letters might be repeated multiple times but should only be counted once.

Where he, and we, started on this journey now seems like an ancient setting in some sort of Southern Gothic novel in a mythological time. He and I marveled in his last days, when he could communicate, about the stunning developments that brought us to this place. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer on August 28 and he was fighting for his life by early December.

You’ve known him here as “Urban Brother,” but he was born Mark Steven Sims on July 28, 1964, in Mobile, Alabama. He was brought home to parents who had lost a child two years prior and were told they’d never have another, and to a brother, five-and-a-half years older, somewhat skeptical of the new addition, and not always kind towards the new arrival.

Urban Brother, Gay Men’s Chorus, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, May 2019

Ensemble with Urban Brother, Gay Men’s Chorus, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, May 2019

Urban Brother with friend Donald Rickels, Gay Men’s Chorus, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, May 2019

He struggled with asthma as a child and as a result became well acquainted with doctors and hospitals. The time alone probably helped fuel the amazing creativity that would emerge. As a small child he loved Disney and H.R. Pufnstuf and began putting on productions for the family, using his Lite-Brite as a backdrop for puppet shows. He also shared his mother’s talent for art and exceled at it.

His gift for the piano was discovered around age eight, and he soon passed through a number of teachers as he developed past their ability to instruct him. His first paying jobs were in churches, playing piano and occasionally organ. Gifted at learning, he went through school fearing he was mentally deficient and that teachers were simply giving him the grades because the work seemed too easy.

Urban Family, Fantasy of Trees, Knoxville, November 2016

Urban Daughter, Urban Brother and the Doorman, New York City, November 2018

In high school he expanded his love for productions, performing in numerous musicals and developing exquisite skills for building sets. He continued this passion as he attended Mobile College and obtained a B.A. in music. He would later receive an M.A. in Piano Performance from Southwestern Theological Seminary.

He fell in love with Debbi Brown, married her, and fathered two children, Ethan and Sarah. The two children would remain the great loves of his life, the two best things he felt he ever accomplished. He and Debbi would continue to love each other and work together for their children to the end. He became a minister and worked at a large Baptist church in Birmingham for twenty years. He designed sets for their productions, led choirs, and expressed his creativity in every direction.

Urban Brother and Sarah, Christmas Market, Market Street, Knoxville, December 2012 (featuring Urban Brother and Urban Niece)

Urban Brother and his Children

But there was a missing piece to his life; a truth too big to stay buried forever. He’d known since he was a child that he was gay. We didn’t have words for it then, but he knew he was attracted to other males. He did what most southern males did at the time: denied it, hid it, and felt shame. The family acknowledged that he was different in some ways, but no one put a name to it.

Urban Brother, Pride Parade, Knoxville, June 2019

When he called me a few years ago to tell me that he and Debbi would be divorcing and that he “might” be gay, I told him that I had known it for years. What followed was a difficult journey for him and his family. At age fifty, he lost his job and his career as a minister. Culinary school was a saving grace as he’d already begun classes in hopes of a career change. He finished school and became a chef, working low paying jobs before taking a position as a floral designer and displaying his creativity in an entirely new arena.

He visited Knoxville often. He came for the Pride Parade in 2017, and we joined in as it passed by us. He began talking about moving to Knoxville, more seriously after our father died later that year, and in 2018 we were delighted when he moved here, proudly joining the Fourth and Gill neighborhood as a Brownlow resident. He was very happy to serve as the Executive Chef at Knox High Apartments and tried every day to give to the residents what he’d want for his own parents.

He joined the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus in the winter of 2019. It was a big step for him and brought him more joy than any other single thing in recent years. He found the support and companionship he’d missed and he loved their productions. He joined an ensemble, and when the time came for the choir to march in the Pride Parade in June, he proudly learned to twirl a flag and, laughing a bit at himself along the way, realized the promise of that dream when we first “joined in,” by officially being a part of the proceedings.

Urban Brother, Washington Square, New York City, November 2018

He loved Knoxville and he loved his friends in the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus. He also loved his niece, Urban Daughter, and her children Urban Girl and Urban Boy. And they adored him. Especially Urban Boy who appreciated his sense of style. He loved me and Urban Woman, his shopping buddy, and we were so happy to have this time to reconnect and deepen our relationship.

In short, he was the most creative person I have ever known. He was smart, funny, witty, and kind. He loved life, Micky Mouse, Christmas, Broadway (though he was a tough critic), New York, Art, Music, Chicago, and Mardi Gras. He was a gifted pianist, a talented artist, and an excellent chef. Most importantly, he was a good human. As I was told by one of his co-workers today, he touched people and made a difference in their lives.

In the end, nearing forty-five days at UT Medical Center, our communication became more difficult and limited. The last thing he wrote with his finger was “Greenwich Village,” a reference to our family trip to New York City last fall and our best brother day ever. We took a guided walking tour, lingered in Washington Square, bought art we couldn’t afford, and cried at the Stonewall Inn.

The last words he said before he was put on the ventilator for the final time was, “I love you,” words, blessedly, that we said to each other often in recent years. I never deciphered the reference to the unicorns, I simply had to accept that as much as I wished otherwise, I do not control the channels. If I could I would change the channels to a much happier program, free of the drama of the last months. Maybe a good Hallmark Christmas special. He’d like that.

Urban Brother and Urban Boy, Rossini Festival, Knoxville, April 2019

His body finally could go no further. As hard as he’d worked to make it through, it simply wasn’t possible. He died Sunday morning, December 8, at peace at last. As empty as my heart is today, I am glad he no longer struggles.

He asked that there be no service, and I’ll honor that request. However, there will be an opportunity for family and friends to gather. We’ll meet inside the Arcade Building at 618 South Gay Street from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. this Saturday, with light refreshments. At 11:30 a.m. there will be a couple of songs, followed by comments anyone wishes to share. We welcome all his friends and ours to join in acknowledging and celebrating a beautiful life.

Comments

  1. So very, very sorry. A beautiful, powerfully moving tribute to a fine man. Peace to Mark, to you, and to your family.

  2. Alan, I’m so sorry for your loss. Your brother sounds like an amazing person. May his memory be eternal.

  3. So sorry for your loss. You are eloquent in expressing it.

  4. Alan, I am so sorry to hear this. I have lost two siblings; you are so right when you say that your heart is empty today. But it won’t stay that way. Be glad that you were there for him during his struggle. I loved this story and thank you for writing it. Urban Brother was obviously amazing. May God bless you always.

  5. Thank you for sharing so much more about Mark than any of us knew Alan. I loved so much about him, especially his sweetness with a touch of sarcasm and humor. I am sad I won’t hear that piano any more and will miss my friend and neighbor. But I know this Christmas will be bright and sparkly for him. You are lucky to have experienced so much love with such a wonderful brother. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  6. My heart aches for you, Alan. I will see you on Saturday.

  7. Larry Lewis says

    Alan, I remember once telling you I’d entered that HGTV “win a home” contest in Knoxville. You gently warned me that Urban Brother had done the same. I guess neither of us was the winner, but the city of Knoxville and the larger community of those who love & appreciate all that life can offer had definitely won, when Mark moved to your town. My most sincere condolences to you and your extended family.

  8. This is such a wonderful tribute to your brother. I will be thinking of you and your family during this difficult time.

  9. Dorothy Stair says

    Alan, Both Urban Brothers have made unique and indelible contributions to your adopted city, Knoxville which is better for your having been here.

    We share your grief. Dorothy Stair

  10. May his Memory be Eternal Alan. Praying for you during this difficult time.

  11. Godspeed Mark. Know that our thoughts and prayers are with you and and your family Alan. And thanks for the beautiful
    Tribute to Urban Brother- it touched my soul.

  12. Alan and family,
    My sincere condolences to you all.
    Love, peace and blessings.

  13. Joyce Richman says

    Alan, I’m very sorry for your loss. You told a beautiful story about your brother & it’s a blessing for your family that his last years in Knoxville were happy ones for him. May he Rest In Peace.

    Affectionately,
    Joyce Richman

  14. I am so sorry for your loss. I never met your brother, but through your words I know I would have really liked him. This is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful life.

  15. Kristina Gordon says

    I grieve for your loss. What a beautiful tribute to him.

  16. I’m so sorry, Alan. Beautiful tribute. I wish I had known him.

  17. Lori Klonaris says

    What a beautiful and loving tribute to your brother. May his memory be eternal. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

  18. Beautiful tribute Allen. May you and your family find peace and comfort in your memories. I grieve for your loss.

  19. Chyna Brackeen says

    I’m so sorry, Alan. I never met Mark, but from your description I think we would have been fast friends. In his short time in Knoxville, he made a tremendous impact on the community – many of my friends who are involved with KGMC are devastated. It sounds like he was a special man. Peace be with you and your family.

  20. Kevin Smathers says

    What a wonderful tribute, Alan. Thank you for putting the pieces together on the ground we had not yet covered in our budding friendship. At a moment in time not of our choosing, someone or something in the cosmos swooped down and stole him from us. I grieve for him, for you, Karen and your family.

  21. Alan-what a wonderful tribute.
    Mark was a very kind, talented person who was loved by everyone at Knoxville High. His culinary creations, piano playing, his warm smile, and his integrity were the hallmarks of his legacy.
    He will be sorely missed by all.

  22. Annette Winston says

    Until you lose a brother or sister, you don’t fully grasp the pure, unconditional love that a sibling offers you. Neither do you realize the power of familial history, the memories shared that no one else is privy to, that now leave an enormous hole in your heart. Jane Austen said it best, “Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply.” Holding you up in my thoughts as you grieve.

  23. What a lovely tribute. So sorry for your loss.

  24. Mark Crockett says

    Sorry for your loss Alan. I wish I had known your brother.

  25. Chris Eaker says

    Praying this for you today.
    “Grant, O Lord, to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in thankful remembrance of your great goodness, and in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love. And this we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”

  26. Thomas Skibinski says

    So sorry, Alan. You penned a truly touching and wonderful tribute of your brother.

  27. Beautiful tribute, Alan. I wish I’d known him. You were lucky to have each other.

  28. Love is the only thing.

  29. I’m glad you got to spend more time with him recently and you were there to help him over. He sounds a lot like you and you both make the world a better place.

  30. Jennifer Brown says

    I too had a brother die of esophageal cancer…three months of relentless pain. Our 11 years of age difference plus our dying father and nephew kept us from sharing as much as we would have wanted, but we looked into each other’s eyes long and hard. No words were really required.
    Death became part of life.

  31. Bonny Naugher says

    Thank you for sharing this loving tribute to your brother. Praying for peace for you and your family.

  32. So sorry to hear this Alan. Even when you know it’s coming, it’s hard to accept. Please accept our deepest sympathies. Happy to talk anytime.

  33. Alan: I did not know your brother but you painted a beautiful portrait of him with your words of love. Such a wonderful tribute and I could also see through your words the bond created through acceptance and sharing his life. You both were very fortunate to have each other as brothers.

  34. John Dominic Barbarino says

    Your gifts share your brother and continue on what it truly is all about. Thank you. Peace.

  35. Thanks for sharing such a touching tribute, Alan. I’m praying for comfort and peace for you and your family throughout this time of grieving and healing. Your brother will surely be missed.

  36. Aaron Thompson says

    This was a lovely tribute to his life. “The ones we love never truly leave us.”

    Thank you for sharing!

  37. Whit Whitmire says

    Thank you for sharing this, Alan. I really appreciate this tribute and these stories, and am so very sorry for your loss.

  38. Oren Yarbrough says

    I’m so sorry Alan. It pains me to think that such a sweet person has been taken way too soon. I will never forget the first time I met Mark and we had lunch at Market Square Cafe when he was deciding to move up here. I remember hearing Mark’s story of coming out and the struggles he was dealing with at the time, but I also remember to myself how lucky he was to have someone that was supporting him through all this. When people come out of the closet their biggest fear is what those closest to them will think, so your love for your brother probably gave him so much strength to grow into the person he was when he lived here in Knoxville. You helped make Urban Brother a Knoxvillian, even if for a short amount of time, so everyone that has had a chance to know Mark is thankful to you for that. Your words in this article are touching and they paint a good picture of your love for your brother and his love for you and your family. You are in my thoughts, friend.

  39. I am so very sorry for your loss. I lost my sister over 18 years ago . I can tell you from experience that your brother’s love and beautiful spirit will always be with you. I will be praying for your family.

  40. I remember the “talent” act we performed while working at Ridgecrest, the summer of 1984 – We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover from the musical Annie. We had such fun practicing, and shopping for our costumes at thrift stores.

    Mark brought great joy to my life then, and in recent years when we reconnected after our lives went totally different directions. He was a dear, dear person.

  41. My heart is broken at your loss. Thank you for sharing the deep love you have for your brother in this beautiful tribute. I wish I would have known him. My you have peace my friend.

  42. Evelyn Gill says

    Beautiful tribute to a loving soul… We send love and condolences…

  43. Anne F. Ham says

    I am so sorry. What a beautiful tribute. Love is love is love. I’m so glad he found his home.

  44. Sandra Clements says

    The love and impact of a sibling is loosely woven into the fabric of who we are, even before the birth order is completed on the loom within a family. You and Mark are a beautiful tapestry, woven intricately with many similar threads, among them grace, humor, gentleness, creativity and energy…all with outstretched arms toward others. The threads of suffering together have pulled, stretched, and marred at the surface. Those are the patched over places in your garment, with silver skeins spun from the tears and pain of loss. But the garment? It is steadfast and solid, yet has a wrappable flow to envelope around the hearts of those who love you both, being ever and continually laced with solid, golden, silk strands of each recollection of memories spent together.
    Dearest Alan, Wayne & I extend our most tender of thoughts & prayers to both your family and to Mark’s during this time of loss.

  45. Sandi Henry says

    Alan, I am glad that you and your brother were able to spend his last years together. I wish I had known him. What an amazing, gifted person. Thank you for helping him be his true self and for giving him loving care until the end. You and your family will be in my prayers as you grieve. May your sweet memories fill your hearts with joy and peace.

  46. As tears roll down my face, I want to thank you for sharing this article with your readers. May the healing hands of time comfort you, and I agree with Urban Brother, “Unicorns Control the Channels”.

  47. Dear Alan,
    I’m so sorry for your loss. Prayers to you and your family for peace and solace in the knowledge that he is resting easy now.

  48. Donald Rickels says

    Mark was a wonderful person and friend. My heart is broken because he seem to be at such a happy place. He was finally who he was meant to be surrounded by a chorus of men who loved him and supported him. He is blessed to have such a loving brother who can tell his story so eloquently. I can’t seem to stop crying with every memory of him.

  49. Karyn Holbrook says

    What a beautiful tribute to your brother. He sounds like a unicorn, magical. Wishing you peace and love during this difficult time.

  50. Claire Poole says

    I’m so sad for your loss of your brother….what a wonderful soul and what a wonderful tribute for this person you grew up with and loved so very much. My heart is with you and his family….❤️

  51. Thank you, Alan, for giving us your brother in such moving words. I’m sure he would be pleased. In your appreciative and loving understanding of him you’ve also given a gift to the Knoxville LGBTQIA community. The rainbow thanks you.

  52. Cynthia Moxley says

    Wow, what a great job you did on this post, Alan. I could tell when I saw you last night how heartbroken you are. I hope that writing this helped bring you comfort. You did a really wonderful job. Mark would be so honored.

  53. This is a beautiful tribute to a brother well loved. I am so sorry for your loss, Alan.

  54. Angela Roberts says

    I’m sending many condolences and much love to your family, Alan. So much love shines through your words. Very special men, those Sims brothers.

  55. So sorry for you loss, it sounds like you guys really connected the last few good years. What a wonderful tribute you wrote. Sending loving vibes your way.

  56. This is surely the most beautiful tribute I’ve ever read. Partly, I realize, bc it touches on the personal. Your Mark was so like Robert’s younger brother: the frail childhood, the musical talent, the love of singing in a choir, the immense obstacles of cultural ignorance and intolerance. Their stories–fr the gay experience in the 60s South to finally living their true selves–speak to so many. Thank you for sharing this loving portrait and your grief with Knoxville. May peace, love, and these sweet memories comfort you and your family.

  57. So sorry, Alan. It’s been a rough time for you and your family. Love to you and yours.

  58. What a beautiful, moving tribute to a brother who was so powerfully loved. I am so very sorry for your loss, Alan. Your words so honor him and keep his memory alive.

  59. Rebecca Lucas says

    I’m speechless…so moving and perfect.

  60. Amanda and Allen Rigell says

    You’re in our thoughts, Alan. Sending you love and light.

  61. So sorry for your loss, Alan. You are surrounded by people who are here for you, and you’re in my prayers.

  62. Felicia Story says

    Alan, What a beautiful tribute to Mark! My love, thoughts and prayers are with you and your family!
    Love you,
    Felicia

  63. Such a beautiful tribute and honor to a brother greatly loved and who loved greatly!!

  64. Sherry Hopkins says

    I never met your brother, but feel that I know him after reading your tribute. I hope you can have some peace in your heart this Christmas, after all, Mark will be playing and singing at the best birthday party in Heaven.

  65. Charles Griffin says

    This is beautiful. We were fortunate to have met him when he move into the neighborhood. Sincerest sympathies to your family.

  66. I heard him sing. I felt the gift and hear him yet. That joy doesn’t die; it expands.

  67. Melisa Guthrie says

    I am so thankful for the short time I knew him. My visit with Pamela was so special. His home was so welcoming, warm and beautiful. To see him perform in the Gay Men’s Choir was special as it meant so much to him. I will always carry with me fond memories of him and your entire family.

  68. Leland Wykoff says

    So very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful tribute to Urban Brother.

  69. Suzanne Sherman says

    This tribute is simply beautiful. What grace and love you have lived out so well together.

  70. Beautiful. And the Unicorn thing is simply poetry and magic. I felt this immediately before even reading this.

  71. Laura Barroso says

    Peace be with you and yours, Alan. Your brother sounds like an amazing person…lucky you.

  72. Carolyn Rogers says

    Alan, I am sorry to hear of your loss and such a loss for all of us. I know Mark through the KGMC and was so happy for him when he shared his story at the last concert. I am glad he could find his home and such loving support here with you, with the chorus and gay community, and with the love of all of his “families” surrounding him…….a kind and gentle person.

  73. Rosalie Hadley says

    Alan, I am so very sorry for your great loss of your dear brother, Mark. This tribute was absolutely beautiful. Praying for peace and comfort for your dear family.

    • Tere Stouffer says

      Oh, Alan. I’m so, so sorry. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have known him just a little bit, for just a little while. But I’m also so sad for you and your family . . . and that Knoxville has lost such a kind and talented man.

  74. Wonderful tribute to your brother, I’m sure he would be proud of your words that you penned out of love. Please accept my sincere sympathy for your loss.

  75. Kate Spencer says

    Alan, what a beautiful tribute. I had the pleasure of meeting with your brother a couple of times when we discussed the possibility of him working at Church Street. I so wish we had been able to hire him, but we ended up having to not fill that position. He was delightful, and he would have been a great fit with our staff and congregation. I had not heard of his illness. I am so sorry for your loss.

  76. So sorry for your and your family’s loss Alan. Your written words show the love you both felt and beautifully
    written .

  77. Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute. It brought tears to my eyes and did a wonderful job of honoring someone that was clearly very special in your life. I really appreciate that I had the opportunity to read it. Thank you.

  78. Anne Jackson says

    Through my buddy, Donald Rickels, from Parish Choir at Church Street, I learned of your brother… Donald told me of his beloved friend going through such a difficult time in the hospital…since I was at UTMC for an appointment, Mark came to my mind and I briefly visited…what a wonderful lesson he gave me….his message was how incredible his brother had been to him…I asked if there was any need he had…no…his brother sees to every need and takes such good care…Donald, devastated, texted me Sunday to tell me of his passing…envisioning Mark in heaven, I knew there was a new member in the vast choir …and he was smiling in his new adventure….what a family….what a brother….❤️❤️❤️

  79. Alan—this is a great tribute to your brother. I left Knoxville in the 1980s because I felt it to be an unwelcoming place for gay men. Since then, I’ve seen & felt the changes. (I live out of state, but I’m in town several times a year.) I’m so glad to know that he found a welcoming home w/ the KGMC, and apparently in the city overall. Thank you for writing this.

  80. Our hearts are with you, Alan.
    Ellen & Finbarr

  81. Kathy Earle says

    My sincere condolences to you, your family, and all those who loved Mark. What a beautiful tribute to such a special person!

  82. I lost my best friend on Nov. 15, and I know how doubly hard it is when it happens so near a major holiday. I did not know your brother, but he certainly sounds like someone I would have loved to know and I thank you for sharing some of his life with us. May you find comfort and peace in the knowledge that his spirit lives on in you.

  83. Alan, I’m so sorry for the Urban Family’s loss. Never met Mark, but you and I had spoken of him and I’m glad you had such a wonderful relationship, especially in the past few years. Treasure those great memories. And thanks for sharing this beautifully written tribute that has lessons for us all.

  84. Terri Karlsson says

    Alan, I’ve been struggling with what to say. We are so fortunate to have your family in Knoxville and I’m so happy that Mark moved here – if only for a short time. I feel that the pain and loss we feel is equal to the love for the person who has now passed on. I know your loss is immense as I feel the love between the two of you in this amazing tribute. Loss and pain shared is lessened a little. Take comfort in the fact that Mark will not be forgotten.

  85. I am so sorry to read this, but so happy for you and your brother that he was able to spend his last year with you and in a city that embraced him. How lucky for the two of you to have each other. I will smile and think of you and Mark every time I see a unicorn. Hugs to you and your family, Alan.

  86. I had the pleasure of having a few conversations with your brother (not knowing he was your brother) during a couple of home tours that included Brownstone. Each time I felt like I could have talked to him for hours. He was warm and engaging and hospitable. A true gentleman. My heart breaks for you and your family. May you all have peace that passes understanding.

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