08 December 2009

The Loss of a Brother - Merrill Strachan, 1944-2009


She didn't have to finish her sentence, "Glenn, I have some very sad news..." I started saying "no, no, no, it can't be" but, in reality, I knew that something was wrong before I even placed the call to Sue, my brother’s wife. Our call ended and a sea of tears streamed down my face as I walked the two tenths of a mile back to work. I was barely conscious of the people I passed as I was walking back to work with the ear pods still connected to my ears but nothing playing on the iPhone being held in my hand.

I walked into work, ascended the stairs and saw the person overseeing my consultancy. He knew immediately what had happened and graciously led me to a seat and asked what I needed. I said that I needed a moment to think about what I should do next. My brother was dead: Husband for 44 years; father to nine children; grandfather of 20 children; foster father to four; brother to two and son of one, well, actually two.

Merrill's life started in the midst of World War II, born to my mother and an aviator/pilot stationed in China, flying the “Hump”, part of the CBI (China, Burma, India) corps serving General Stillwell in support of the Nationalist Chinese. Word arrived to Merrill's mother in late April, 1945 that her husband's plane had been shot down over Burma and that there were no survivors. The truth is more likely that the load in the plane was too heavy, and that there was not enough fuel to get over the hump - the Himalayas. I discovered this little piece of history when I was in my thirties. The science of load and aviation fuel balance was a guessing game rather than a science back then.

The war ended, and eventually, on some fateful date, my father reconnected with someone he'd known in school where he also knew her husband, Merrill's father. My father has told us that once he saw Merrill as a very young child he knew what he had to do - he married my mother and Merrill had the only father he ever knew. Merrill became a Strachan, no longer a Hoyle. Two years later Bob joined our family and seven years later I was born.

An early memory of Merrill is the role he served as a surrogate father to me even when my father was around. I once stepped on a pin and started crying. He pulled it out of my foot and told me that I should be wearing shoes - in the house. To this day I still don’t quite understand why he told me that, but he certainly said it with conviction.

It is no secret that Merrill held strong feelings. He set his mind on something and that was his decision. He was intelligent and made certain that people knew so. Some people might consider that characteristic as arrogance, but I only found out two years ago that Merrill was accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship. Merrill chose to attend Lafayette College to be closer to his girlfriend, Sue Earl, mother of his nine children. Was that an ill-fated decision? What would his life have been like had he been a graduate of MIT? The truth, as I believe it to be, is that his love of Sue Earl played a much bigger role in his life than his decisions about college.

Sue Earl graduated with Merrill from High School. Merrill made a decision that Sue was the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life. If Merrill was cocky, Sue was soft-spoken, the glue that would eventually hold together a family of eleven through the best and worst of times. Sue had, and still has one of the most amazing laughs I have ever heard. She is a beautiful woman and Merrill was lucky to have her beside him for so many years of his life.

Merrill came from a small family and I believe he may have never fully felt connected to us, his brothers, father and a mother who was, to say the least, a source of contention and consternation, despite the fact that our mother loved Merrill, and was his biggest supporter. I grew up in Merrill's shadow as she always raved about how smart he was, bragging about his accomplishments in High School and College. Despite our mother’s love for Merrill, they didn't seem to be able to be in the same room for very long without ending up in a huge argument. Our mother loved to argue and my brother Merrill was not one to ever yield, at least at that point in his life.

So Merrill found Sue, who came from a family of eight children. He was enveloped by the love and support of Sue's family and he became the smart and supportive older brother-in-law. At the same time Merrill and Sue started building their own family one child at a time every two years.

Merrill played a huge role in my life when he permitted me to stay with him, despite his own growing family and distinct lack of space when I needed a place to live as I could not live with my mother. He became my father again and I had to live by his rules. I traded accommodations for childcare and spent a great deal of time with my nephews and nieces, taking them to the beach, going out for ice cream, and preparing supper when Merrill and Sue were working late. I became part of their family.

I believe the worst day of Merrill's life came the day that his son Joey died while swimming in their backyard pool. I drove over to the home of Sue's parents and found Merrill in the living room crying. It was the only time in my life I have ever seen him shed tears. It was also the only time in my life I ever held him in my arms. I was a 21 year old holding my 34 year old brother for a brief moment in time. He became very self conscious of the moment and walked away. No father should ever outlive their child.

From that point in time my life intersected through Merrill and Sue's lives like a thread weaves itself through a cloth. I always returned to their home as often as I could, staying there when there was room -- and there always was room. I felt connected to my brother Merrill, despite the fact that he was more an Earl than a Strachan. That was his life, and his big family neatly interlocked with all the children produced by the Earl family. I was always invited to their huge family gatherings, but I also knew that I was an outsider to a seemingly very insular group.

I told my Supervisor that what I needed was to get to my father before he found out that his son was dead. He asked me whether I was certain that I could get into the car and drive to New York - will you be safe, he asked? I said I could do it. I must do it! It was my duty. I barely recall driving but do remember making lots of phone calls. I was the one who called my brother Bob in Atlanta and told him that Merrill had died. I said that I was going to New York to be with Dad. The call to my father arrived sooner than expected. My father called me on the phone and said that Jim, Merrill's son, had called him and told him about Merrill. We spoke for a bit, and I said I was on my way. My father said that he was fine and that I need not come up. I said "Dad, your son has just died and I want to be with you!" Normally it would have taken six hours to drive from Washington, DC to Freeport, New York, but this time I made it in less than five.

While I was driving my tears would come and go. The car lights around me had a glow which seemed to be sending fragments of light in all different directions. Clearly the tears in my eyes were playing a significant role.

More calls. Should I take Julian with me to California? His mom said that if Julian wanted to go, then she would support the trip. I want Julian to be there because this is his family, my brother's family -- the Strachans of Orange County. I also wanted him with me for support. I wanted him to earn his adult wings. So a decision was made to take Julian out of school for a week in order to attend my brother's funeral.

Oh yes, the call to my daughter, Isabel while I was driving and barely able to compose myself. "What‘s wrong, Daddy?" she asked me. "My brother died, Belle" flowed out of my mouth, unsure of whether she could handle that news. Her response was quick - "My Uncle is dead." And then she asked me, "Are you OK, Daddy?" I said that I was not and then cried so hard that I had to hang up without saying goodbye.

As I was driving I remembered this past June when Merrill flew out to Freeport, for no apparent reason, other than he knew that my brother Bob was going to be at my father's home. I also joined them. The three of us were together for the first time in perhaps 20 years. We did things together. We went to our old neighborhood and reminisced about who lived in what home. It was a great moment for me to be with both my brothers. It felt like Merrill was a Strachan again and we were a family, albeit a small one. Mostly gone was his bravado, but he still had a need to seem like he was the smartest of the bunch. The one area Merrill granted me was all things computer. He was always asking for my help with his computers because he knew that it was my domain and I appreciated that respect. I was always asking him car questions so there was a balance between us. We had a great time together, the three of us and our father.

I saw Merrill several times after that in California -- I am constantly flying back there because I have clients on the West Coast -- and my last time with him came in September. I was alone with him and we were sitting by his pool. I took the time to reiterate to him what I had told him several times in the past – to see a doctor. I said the fact that he was winded after walking for a short period of time concerned me. I told him that I believed that he had congestive heart failure. Merrill was his usual self, telling me that he was fine. He shrugged it off, as he often shrugged off many things which he would rather not hear. I remember walking out of his house and saying goodbye to him. He stood on the sidewalk waiting for me to drive away and he waved at me. That was it. The last time I would see him alive.

When I arrived at my father's house and he was calm. My father is a fatalist who believes that all things happen for a reason and that we must simply go with the flow. He said that he preferred to remember Merrill as he last saw him rather than attend his funeral. He told me that he had one responsibility in life right now which was the care of his partner, Herta, who is in the ever advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He pointed out how much better it was for Merrill to go the way he did rather than the slow death process of Alzheimer’s. He said that Merrill's heart attack, followed by his bypass operation, gave him nearly two complete weeks of joy knowing that everyone was there supporting him. He said that Merrill was surrounded by love right to the last moment of his life.

So here I sit writing this blog whose story has not yet come to an end. My brother was able to convince my father to go to California and attend my brother’s funeral. We get on a plane tomorrow, my son and my father together. I imagine that it will be like a beehive of activity with everyone paying the most attention to Sue, Merrill's wife of 44 years, she being the glue that bonds it all together. All the love that she gave to my brother and her children has brought her to this most difficult point in life. My father believes that there is nothing more painful than losing your spouse. Others believe that the loss of a child is the greatest of all losses. Now Sue and my father have endured both.