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,
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
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
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,
As it turns out, I had to tell both Aleta and my mother. My mother had driven up to
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
The people at American Eagle facilitated a flight to
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
Finally, my plane arrived, and I got as far as
I checked in, and ran into a couple guys I saw in the
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
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
We met my parents at the airport, where we gave them Ella. We then flew to
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
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
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
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
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
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