This page is dedicated to my brother, Phil Calder, who died on February 10, 2006.  Phil suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 42.  He is survived by his wife, Aleta, and their 2 year-old daughter, Ella.  Aleta and Phil's second child is due in October of 2006.

Please post comments!  Phil's children will not have vivid memories of him, and this is one of the ways they will get to know their dad.  It also seems to promote my mental health to remember things about my brother.  I hope you will share some stories.

The story 

A lot of people have been asking me what happened this month, and it’s a hard story for me to tell verbally.  It’s not so much that it hurts to talk about it, although it does hurt a great deal.  It has more to do with the details of the whole story having become blurred in my mind (in many cases, this happened almost immediately).  It has been easier for me to get it right by pecking away at a draft, and coming back to it as I remember more and better.  If memory serves me, the following account is accurate

My brother and best friend, Phil, died sometime early in the morning of Friday, February 10, 2006.  This has been the most difficult event of my life, and I am sure my mother, father, and Aleta, Phil’s wife, would say the same thing.  Phil and I were close, particularly during the last 15 years or so.  He became content once he got a job doing what he truly loved to do, which was flying airplanes.  Phil found his greatest happiness, though, after his daughter, Ella, was born nearly two years ago.  I had never seen him as happy as he was when he had Ella.

I spoke to Phil that Thursday afternoon.  We were discussing a trip I was thinking of taking, and the feasibility of using one of his airline tickets.  He was in Dallas at the time, in the cockpit.  We had a short but pleasant chat, and then he had to take off.  He called me back when he landed (I now know he was in Fayetteville, Arkansas).  He sounded good, but he was tired.  That wasn’t unusual for the pilot/husband/father.

The next morning, I woke up at about 5:00.  As usual, I took advantage of the peaceful morning by answering emails, entering data, and surfing the web.  My cell phone rang well before 7:00.  I did not find the phone in time to answer it, and the caller did not leave a message.  The number did show up on caller ID, however, and it was an area code I did not recognize.  Five minutes later, the phone rang again, and it was from the same number.  I answered the phone.

A youthful southern voice said, “Is this Andy Calder?”

I replied, “Yes, it is.  May I ask who is calling?”

He hesitantly stammered, “This is Lt. Thad Shaw, with the Arkansas State Police.  Are you related to Phil Calder, the pilot with American Eagle?”

“I am his brother,” I said.  “Why?”

At this point, the cop sounded like he may have been about 20 years old, and he may have been reading a script off of an index card.  “I am sorry to inform you that Phil passed away last night.”

I did not believe Lt. Thad Shaw, but I don’t remember exactly what I said.  I asked what happened, and he said they did not know.  My brother was found dead in his hotel room, he told me.  I think he said they would have to do an autopsy, but I’m not sure I remember that right.  I thanked him for making such a difficult call, and hung up.  I still did not believe Lt. Thad Shaw.

I paced around the house for a few minutes.  I was alone, because Julie had gone to Florida for the weekend.  My mind began to race.  My first thought was that this was Phil’s all-time lamest prank.  It simply wasn’t funny, and I knew he could do better than this.  Certainly, the boundaries of good taste would not have prevented my brother from pulling a stunt like this, but I know he was much cleverer.  I was intensely hoping he had simply stooped to a new low, but the whole thing did not add up.

I called the cop back.  He assured me that this was real.  Lt. Thad Shaw gave me some other phone numbers to call, numbers of detectives, medical examiners, and American Eagle executives.  I copied them down and hung up.

I became numb.  I became a lot of other things, too, but I don’t know the words that describe those things.  I don’t think those words exist.  Images of my brother flashed through my mind.  I still did not believe Lt. Thad Shaw.

On the odd chance that Lt. Thad Shaw may have been right, I quickly realized that I needed to pass the ugly information along.  Without a doubt, I was about to perform the most difficult task I had ever been charged with.

I called my mother’s brother, Michael, who lives in South Carolina.  Michael is very close to my mother, and he is, for better or for worse, very good at this sort of thing.  Our conversation was short.  I told him what happened, and I asked him if he could pass it on to my mother.  Admittedly, this was a tall order, but I didn’t think I could do it myself.  I knew I had to call Aleta, and I anticipated that to be a tough phone exchange.  I just didn’t think I could handle both calls.  Michael agreed to call my mom.

As it turns out, I had to tell both Aleta and my mother.  My mother had driven up to York to visit Aleta and Ella that morning, and she had just walked in the door.  When I first told Aleta what happened, she didn’t believe me.  Why would she?  I still didn’t believe Lt. Thad Shaw.

Within a couple minutes, she became convinced.  Obviously, Aleta was shaken by the news.  She had news of her own, however: Aleta told me she was pregnant.

She then gave the phone to my mother, so I passed the message on to her, as well.  My mother, too, was quite moved by the news.  We all cried into the phone.

My father was unreachable that morning.  I think he went out without his cell phone.  I was told that Liz and Irv would wait for him in the apartment. 

I spent the rest of the morning trying to figure out how to get to either Baltimore or Arkansas as quickly as possible.  My first urge was to go to Fayetteville.  Aleta had made some calls down there, though, and it sounded like the police were not going to let us see my brother just yet.  The whole thing was under investigation.  They said we would have to wait until the following week.

The people at American Eagle facilitated a flight to Baltimore for me that afternoon.  I made a few calls to my friends and the people I work with in Jackson.  They assured me that they would try to find substitute bass players for the gigs I would miss.

I also called Sandra, my old friend.  Sandra lost a brother some years ago.  I realized that I was feeling things that few people could begin to understand, and she was someone who could.  I also needed a ride to the airport, and I felt I could try to talk to her on the way.  We were able to do that, but I was more or less in shock, and I don’t remember much about what we said.

My flight was delayed several hours in Jackson.  I waited in the airport, barely hearing the gripes of distraught tourists trying to get home.  It was weird.  I wasn’t frustrated or anxious, but I wanted to be with someone familiar.  Mainly, I wanted to talk to my brother.  I was oblivious to what was happening around me.

Finally, my plane arrived, and I got as far as Chicago.  I missed my connection by hours.  A person from American greeted me when I got off the plane, and explained that I would have to catch the first flight out in the morning (I am accustomed to this sort of thing: flights are routinely delayed and cancelled in and out of Jackson Hole).  He also told me that they had gotten a room for me at the hotel in the airport, so I wouldn’t have to leave O’Hare.  That part of the ordeal certainly was easier than I expected.

I checked in, and ran into a couple guys I saw in the Jackson airport who were trying to get home.  They were frustrated with the situation.  I was hungry, and I really needed some company, so I asked them if they wanted to join me for a bite to eat and a beer.  They had the same idea, so we headed down to the bar.  We talked about skiing, music, sports, and New York.  They were New Yorkers, and they possessed all the curiosity and persistence that characterize that sub-culture.  I was immensely relieved to have company, and I didn’t want to ruin the situation by telling them my story, but they kept asking about the specific reason for my journey.

Eventually, they couldn’t help themselves, and they pressed me for an answer.  We had already paid the bill, so I told them what I was up to.   I’m sure they immediately regretted asking.  One of them hurriedly got up and went out to have a smoke.  The other guy stayed for an uncomfortable few minutes, and we all said good night.  I told them that I appreciated the company.

I didn’t really sleep that night.

I got up and caught my flight.  My parents picked me up in Baltimore, and we drove to York.  Aleta’s parents and brother were there.  It was a tough day, but it felt good to be together. 

Everything in that house has been affected by Phil.  The building and all of its contents are reminders of Phil, and his belongings, works-in-progress, and every-day reminders are everywhere.  To say that this is Phil and Aleta’s house means much more than it simply being the place they own and live.  They made it into their own home, with its own memories, and the time and effort they put into the project cannot be measured.  The remodeling, the home theater, the furniture that had recently been moved from my Grandparents’ place, the clothes in the closet, the cd collection, the boots by the door, the lawn mower, the pictures on the wall, the food in the refrigerator, and, most of all, his wife and daughter, amount to pieces of my brother.  They are what remain of Phil, and when I was around them, Phil was all I could think about.

My parents had to leave Saturday night.  It would have been tight quarters, and I think they needed to be alone together.

We all did a lot of laughing and crying that weekend.  I know Phil would want it to be only laughing, so we did our best.  It felt good to think about all the good times.  One of the nights, we did a fair amount of damage to Phil’s well-stocked bar and keg-erator.  He always invited guests to indulge when he was around, and I’m sure he would want us to do the same thing in his absence.  The funny stories got even funnier.

It snowed 14 inches that night.  I made an igloo for Ella, but she fell ill with some sort of flu, and was never able to enjoy it.

On Monday, Aleta made some phone calls and discovered that the medical examiner in Arkansas would be finished with my brother Monday afternoon.  We made arrangements to fly to Little Rock, which is where he had been taken for the autopsy.  We both needed to see him.  In spite of what we knew, none of us truly believed Lt. Thad Shaw.

We met my parents at the airport, where we gave them Ella.  We then flew to Little Rock.

Aleta and I checked into our rooms, and quickly called a taxi.  The mortuary agreed to allow us to come and see my brother, which was a departure from their normal policies.  They were not exactly set up to accommodate visitors.  When we got there, we noticed that the facility was essentially a refrigerated warehouse with a small office in the front.  They had wheeled Phil into the office.  He was literally on a table next to someone’s desk, with a cover over him.

When the cover was pulled back from his face, I believed Lt. Thad Shaw for the first time. 

As I looked at Phil, all the memories raced through my mind.  The times when we rented airplanes at Romeo airport when we were teenagers, the street hockey games in the driveway, the snowball fights, the homemade fireworks, the work we did on his kitchen together, the meals we prepared together, the fights we had, and a million other vivid images scrolled through my head.

Aleta and I stayed with him for a while.  We held his hand while we thought about everything.  It was difficult to see Phil like that, but it felt good to see him at all.  In a way, he seemed very peaceful.

The gentleman at the mortuary had a copy of Phil’s death certificate.  I had to ask him to explain the cause of death to me.  Essentially, Phil had a blood clot in an artery very close to his heart, and it broke loose and cut off the flow of blood.  The complete results of the autopsy are months away, but that was the immediate cause.  Phil suffered a heart attack while he was asleep.

Aleta and I called our cab, and went back to the hotel.  She knew of a restaurant in Little Rock that my brother liked a lot.  That meant that I would surely be fond of it, too, so we went there.  It was a seafood joint called the Flying Fish, and the Calder boys could not have designed a better place.  We ate well, and talked about Phil.  Again, my mind was overflowing with memories.

I got horribly sick that night.  I am sure I had the same thing the baby had gotten two days before.  I spent the night vomiting.

The next afternoon, I had the honor of being with my brother on his final flight.  Southwest agreed to put him on our plane, in spite of the fact that they do not ordinarily transport human remains.  It was difficult to think about this being his last flight, though.  Flying airplanes was one of his great pleasures in life, second only to spending time with his family.  I’m sure he would have preferred to experience his last trip behind the controls, but he would definitely find this to be acceptable, under the circumstances.  At least he was on a plane with two of the people he loved.

When we arrived in Baltimore Tuesday night, Aleta and I picked up Phil’s truck, which was still in the employee lot.  We drove to my parents’ place in Silver Spring, where we reunited with my mother, father, and Ella.  It felt good to be together.

I feel terrible that my parents had to go to the cemetery and find a plot.  I also felt terrible that they had to have the unpleasant experience of making the funeral arrangements.  I would like to have done all of that, but I know that it was more important that I go to Little Rock.  I did all I could.

Wednesday is something of a blur to me.  A lot of relatives began to arrive, both for the funeral and for the marriage celebration of my cousin, Maria Cristina, which was to be held in Washington that weekend. 

I think I went to the doctor that day.  Obviously, there are now concerns about my health, and everyone was anxious to get me checked out.  I’m glad to report that I am fine, for the moment.  I am not finished with doctors, however.  I can’t allow my parents to go through this again, so I will continue to be examined.  I feel like I dodged a bullet and it hit my brother, and I need to be careful.

We also went shopping for all the food and drinks we would need for the wake on Friday.  I can add that to the ever-growing list of tasks that turned out to be a lot more difficult that I had anticipated.  Everything about food was special to Phil, even shopping for it, and it was tough to walk through the aisles of that familiar store without him.

On Thursday, we had two viewings, for two hours apiece.  Phil was in his uniform, with his hat by his side.  He was heavily made up, so much so that he hardly resembled himself.

Ella did not understand what was happening.  She had not seen her father for a number of days, but that was not unusual.  He was, after all, a professional pilot.  When she saw him at the viewing, she figured he was asleep.  She ran up and jumped on him, the same way she always did when he napped on the couch at home.  Today, however, he wouldn’t wake up.  She tried again, this time with a picture she had grabbed off the table in her hand.  It was a sad sight, but it was something that had to happen.  When Ella gets old enough to understand, she will be glad to know she was there.  Nonetheless, it was a very difficult scene to witness.

Following the viewing, I went to a bar in Silver Spring, where I met up with several of Phil’s old friends from Michigan, along with some of my relatives.  Julie was there by then, as well, which was very comforting for me.  Her mother came down from Boston, too.  Our friends from Belize, Ali and Alonzo Flota, even made the trip.  That was truly a gesture of remarkable friendship.  They, too, have lost brothers, and they know what it is like.

The next morning, we had the funeral service.  I know the monsignor well by now, as this was our third family funeral in less than a year and a half.  I was a pallbearer.  It was hard to carry my brother into that church, but I know he wanted me there.  A large crowd came to the service, which was touching.  There were a lot of people there I had not seen in a long time, which was nice, but I only vaguely remember seeing them. 

Toward the end of the service, my brother let us know he was there by causing the church’s fire alarm to activate.  I had a feeling he was there prior to the prank, as I could feel his presence.  This incident removed all doubt, though.  It’s the type of trick that isn’t funny, even to the prankster, unless it is one of a life-long series of stupid jokes.  Then it becomes absolutely hysterical.

Phil didn’t sound the alarm to be funny, this time, however.  He sounded the alarm to make sure we all knew he was there.

Phil and I share so much history and experience that there are things that only we find funny.  Our parents probably get most of those jokes, too.  Pulling the fire alarm at the church during one’s own funeral is the type of stunt that only Phil could pull off.  I know he did it, and I’m glad he did it.

It all becomes very blurry, at that point.  At the wake, I talked with so many people, but I do not really remember much.  We ate and drank, and tried to be in a good mood.  I wasn’t, though.  I miss my brother, and I know certain parts of this feeling will never go away.

Ella and Ella’s future sibling are Phil’s legacy, and I want to do everything I can to allow them to know their dad.  I know more about Phil than anyone, and I can’t wait to relate those stories to his children.  Most of those stories, anyway.  Some I have sworn to take to my own grave, although I believe that enough time has passed since our childhoods that he probably won’t mind me sharing.  I guess I’ll decide as we all get older.

This continues to be a gut-wrenching experience, and I would not wish it on my worst enemy.  I try to look forward, though.  There is work to be done, and it helps me to think of it in those terms.

In the immortal words of one of Phil’s fellow aviators:

 


Tailwinds, Captain Calder

 

Andy Calder
March 6, 2006

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