My Big Brother–A Good Person

My father lived with quiet dignity. Scott Heuerman

Life changed in a moment for my brother Allan and his wife Phyllis on April 19, 2015.

Driving home from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport after a three-week trip out West, the anticipation of almost being home ended for Allan and Phyllis when their car was rear ended, pushed across the interstate freeway and rolled on its side in the median. It took a rescue squad 45 minutes to cut them free from their totaled car.

After five hours in an ER, there was good news: Allan had a bad cut on his hand and two broken ribs. Phyllis had bruises and a headache. But there was also bad news for Allan: X-rays found enlarged lymph nodes and lesions in several places.

The weeks that followed were difficult: invasive tests that failed to locate the cancer, ambulance rides to emergency rooms for a fall that broke his ankle and another fall that required stitches in his forehead and on his face. Surgery to remove a lesion that had traveled to his brain from some unknown place elsewhere in his body. Then he contracted pneumonia.  I wanted to protect him from pain and fear but I couldn’t.

Phyllis needed help and I set out for Maryland. Not fond of airports or airplanes, I drove. I would be there in less than two days. I was about two hours from the hospital when he left us on July 2, 2015—unexpected until near the end. Phyllis and his children—Scott and Susan— were at his side. The cause of death was pneumonia brought about by cancer of an unknown origin.  We had talked on the phone the weeks before and I knew he loved me and he knew I loved him.

I felt angry at the unfair decline and loss of physical control that humiliated Allan. Allan was a good man: kind, caring and compassionate—a model for everyone who knew him. He deserved better from life and from death.

Why did this horrible sequence of events happen to him? No reason, just random biology. Nature is without values. Being a good person must be its own reward.

My daughter wrote to me from Minneapolis: “I am so sorry. Allan was one of the good guys.”

I thought about Allan often during his last weeks and in the days before his funeral. I thought of what a good guy he was: humble, gracious and soft-spoken. I remembered as a young child, Allan would make up scary stories and tell them to my younger sister and me in the upstairs back bedroom of my grandpa’s home and country store. He scared us and we felt excited. And we loved him for it.

I was about 9 or 10 and Allan was home from college. He gave me a dollar to go to the movie. The movie cost $.15 so I had $.85 to spend, which for a kid with a sweet tooth was easy to do. I got home and Allan said, “Where’s my change?”

Oops, the thought that he would want change back had not entered my mind. I said, “I dropped it in Lake George on the way home.” He let my preposterous fib pass and didn’t say another word.

As adults, we lived far from one another. Too much time went by without seeing one another and I regret that. As we got older, Allan and I went to Africa together on a photo safari and traveled and photographed together out West and in West Virginia.

As the years passed, we visited more on the phone and via email. We saw each other almost every year thanks to Allan and Phyllis who worked hard to keep the family relationships together.

At the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” an aged Ryan visited the grave of the soldier played by Tom Hanks, who had saved him. Ryan was an average man who worked, raised a family and lived an everyday life. He knelt at the grave and beseeched his wife: “Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve led a good life.”

Allan was smart and had great success in his career and community. He had a gentle heart—he was our mother’s son. He was the best of us. He lived an active life until he no longer could. He was, most of all, a good person, not always an easy thing to be in our world. He and his life mattered.

My reflections on my big brother and the life he lived deepened my awareness of his spiritual essence. I feel grateful for the dignity and decency he showed us.

Phyllis described her husband as an “extraordinary, ordinary man.”

That he was.