Saturday, December 1, 2012

Words finally come for my brother

In the days since I received the text from my niece — "they're taking him off life support" — I have been unable to write about the untimely death of my brother Bill. Heart surgery is no splinter removal, but I never expected it to end like this. I was nowhere near ready for my oldest sibling to die.

Bill with his granddaughter Shelby and daughter Kelley, background

My mind swirled with lost opportunities. Although we had been separated by many miles for most of the past 50 years, we were brothers, joined by common interests in history, cars, genealogy, family stories and other topics and by a profound appreciation of the paramount importance of family. Years ago, as he approached "normal" retirement age, we talked of taking a tour of Civil War battlefields together, along with his elder son, and I proposed an itinerary along the trails our great-great grandfather had followed to his death at the Third Battle of Winchester. Alas, his work schedule did not allow the time away, and he wasn't ready to retire. "I'm the type who has to know where his next dollar is coming from," he told me once to explain why he wouldn't retire. And he used his income to financially help his four grown children. Others depended upon him. When I told him in an email four years ago that I had been laid off from my job after 29 years with the same company, he responded, "What's mine is yours. Just tell me what you need." I never needed to ask for money, but I was deeply moved and humbled by his offer.

I remember the early morning when he woke me up to say goodbye as he left home to join the Air Force. For years afterward, the Air Force was my juvenile ambition. Later, when I had joined the Coast Guard and entered Officer Candidate School, we had another common interest. Less than a year into his Air Force stint, he rode a Trailways bus home from Biloxi, Miss., and the whole family drove to Charlotte to meet him. The bus arrived hours late, and it seemed so awkward for him to squeeze into the car with the other six of us, in part because the Air Force had changed him and in part because, at that moment, he seemed more like a guest than a brother.

A year later, when our sister, age 17, was killed in a car crash, our minister, working through the Red Cross, located him at his Tampa duty station and gave him the news by telephone. He asked, I gathered as I listened to the pastor's half of the conversation, whether the rest of the family was injured. They were not in the car, he told him. The next day, Bill drove up the driveway in his girlfriend's Mercury and came into the house, where our mother once again burst into tears. He gathered her and my younger sister and me into a hug and squeezed rare tears out of my eyes. A month later, he would marry the woman who had bravely accompanied him to meet the family she would join. At our sister's funeral, Bill, our mother's firstborn, sat with an arm around our mother as we bade farewell to her firstborn daughter.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed later that year 50 years ago, his Air Force wing was moved out of Florida to put more distance between them and Cuban missiles. As an electronics technician working on B-47 and B-52 bombers, he was a key component of the power that forced the Soviet Union to back down.

Bill left the Air Force for a job at IBM, and he regularly praised the company where he worked long, irregular hours, and missed the birth of his first child because he was far away in an IBM training course. The distances between us made visits of more than twice a year rare and difficult. His family grew to four children, but his dedication to his job never waned. He occasionally urged me to seek employment at IBM, but I saw myself as a writer or a newspaper editor, and my preferences leaned toward small towns and small companies instead of the corporate world where he flourished, rising in IBM and then moving into banking after taking early retirement from IBM. His last decade was spent at Bank of America, often traveling from his Florida home and maintaining a grueling schedule and boasting of his long hours, pre-dawn to late-night.

When a scary collapse sent our parents to a nursing home, his job took him often to Charlotte, where he would set aside time to visit them in the nursing home, less than an hour away. I also made the trek to visit them, a nearly four-hour trip each way for me. I admired Bill's resolve to sit with them for long hours, even though their dementia and uncommunicative manner left us sitting through long, uncomfortable silences. I would visit for as long as I could bear to sadly see these once-vibrant and compassionate people rendered to their new state, and I would make the long drive back home deeply depressed by it all. But Bill never missed an opportunity to sit with them, even in silence.

His compassion was evident again when Karen, his wife, was diagnosed with cancer. True to form, he told us little, but it was evident from the sketchy information we received, that she was dying. When the news finally came, it was three days before the family was to gather in Charleston. We had worried about what would happen to that planned reunion. They wouldn't leave her behind, but she could not travel. No travel plans had changed. Bill had no hesitation — the whole family would gather in Charleston. Two weeks later, we attended Karen's funeral and watched solemnly as Bill climbed the ladder to slip Karen's ashes into the columbarium. He kissed the urn before slipping it into the niche.

When he was hospitalized with what was called a "mild heart attack" and awaited surgery, I asked him by telephone, "Was this your wake-up call?" "Maybe so," he said. The conversation was brief; he sounded tired and nearly breathless. I expected he would have his ailing heart repaired, regain some energy and stamina, and finally decide to retire. That Civil War battlegrounds tour loomed. A few days later, I received the cryptic text, and I laid my head on the breakfast table feeling as if I had been hit in the heart by a sledgehammer.

2 comments:

Alex Keown said...

Hal, I'm so sorry to hear about your brother. He and your family will be in our prayers.

John Pegg said...

Hal . . .
Ever the consummate writer, your poignant penning of such a difficult subject speaks volumes. Thanks. jcp