Decades before his booming voice echoed through Congress, Elijah Cummings would lay on the bed he shared with his younger brother in their South Baltimore rowhome and whisper stories.
Together, the elder Cummings told the younger, the boys would slay dragons.
As they grew up, James Cummings heard the tales his older brother told change. He stopped dreaming of make-believe monsters and heroes and started preaching about making a better America.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, 68, died early Thursday in hospice care, due to complications from what his staff described as longstanding health problems. They declined to provide further details, but James said his brother had cancer.
Tributes immediately poured in from across the globe. People mourned the civil rights leader, the Trump investigator, the champion of Baltimore.
James mourned his big brother.
“He was a good man,” he said.
Elijah was the third of seven children; James came next. It was the only case of two Cummings siblings of the same gender being born back-to-back, so they were extra close growing up. It also meant James wore Elijah’s hand-me-downs.
One of James’ first memories is of his older brother using a quarter to buy him a used baseball glove off a cart on the side of the road. Then, he taught the boy the proper way to catch a grounder — keep your knee down, he cautioned.
“To this day, I can tell you who was on the starting lineup for the Orioles in the ’60s,” James, 64, said. “I memorized it to impress my older brother.”
Yvonne Cummings, the youngest sibling, instead remembers the way Elijah taught her how to tell time. He coupled those lessons with a reminder that time is valuable and always must be respected.
That same theme echoed in the congressman’s first speech on the U.S. House floor in 1996, when he shared a poem he had heard Democratic Rep. Parren Mitchell, whose seat he filled, recite: “'I only have a minute, 60 seconds in it, forced upon me, I did not choose it, but I know that I must use it, give account if I abuse it, suffer if I lose it. Only a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.'”
The poem is by Benjamin Elijah Mays, a civil rights leader who was president of Morehouse College in Atlanta from 1940 to 1967.
The siblings weren’t surprised by their brother’s rise to political prominence, always feeling he was destined for something big. They felt proud hearing him defending their hometown against critics like Republican President Donald Trump.
“It could not have been an easy job,” James said.
Even as he juggled his committee assignments, the congressman made time to be at the Cummings family’s “Second Sunday dinners.” At these monthly potlucks, there would be no outsiders asking about politics. Instead, the siblings shared how all the nieces and nephews were doing in school. Elijah would make them all laugh.
“I don’t think people fully appreciated his sense of humor,” Yvonne, 51, said. “As serious as he is, he is exactly that amount of funny. ... Or was. I have to get used to that. But not today.”
“Our brother was a hero to the world,” she said, “but to us, he was so much more.”
The congressman spoke out about the need to defeat cancer “in our lifetime” and advocated for more funding to treat it. He wrote in a 2009 piece about the ways the disease is disproportionately deadly for African Americans, and encouraged people in Baltimore to get regular screening exams, which he called “critical to our survival.”
The congressman had dealt with previous health issues. In 2017, he underwent a procedure to correct a narrowing of the aortic valve in his heart. The surgery led to an infection that kept him in the hospital longer than expected. He was later hospitalized for a knee infection. He used a wheelchair or a walker to get around, and braced himself with the walker when standing to give a speech.
Recently, James visited Elijah, and together, the brothers watched the Baltimore Ravens lose. The younger brother adjusted his older brother’s bed. It was clear the congressman was in pain.
Elijah was there for times when James was in pain, too. His 20-year-old son, Christopher Cummings, was shot and killed in 2011 while attending Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. The congressman pressed the campus community for answers and gave an impassioned speech at his nephew’s funeral.
In his life, Rep. Elijah Cummings was called on to deliver many a powerful eulogy. In his death, someone else will take on that role.
James said he can’t do it.
“I wouldn’t be able to do him justice,” he said.
In addition to James and Yvonne, Elijah Cummings is survived by his four other siblings and numerous nieces and nephews. He was married to Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, and had two daughters and a son from previous relationships.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.