Saturday, September 17, 2011

Missing my brother

Bruce, Keith, Allen, David, 1959?
I grew up as the oldest of six children. My sister is about four years younger than me, and starting three years after her birth my parents had four boys in six years. The first, Bruce, was smart and funny and very introverted. Until he left for college, he was pretty much inseparable from Keith, 14 months younger, also smart, and extroverted enough for the both of them.

Bruce sailed through engineering school and undertook a master’s. That’s where he ran into his first roadblock: his adviser left for a year, and Bruce could not complete his master’s project. I’m sure he didn’t make an issue of it; instead he found an engineering job at a paper mill in Michigan.
He was never one to stay in close touch with the family, but after a while he went incommunicado. Unable to reach him, my mother finally called the paper mill. She was told he no longer worked there. They connected her with the personnel department, where a woman did her a great kindness. “I can’t talk about confidential information,” the woman said, “but let me tell you what I can.” She said people had liked my brother, and that he wasn’t fired for misbehavior. The bosses were all engineers, she said, and engineers are not known for communication skills. Bruce was not the first bright new hire to need more help and guidance than he was given.

Uncle Bruce with Lisa and Chris
Losing his job was a shock for to my brother and to our family. Nobody had taught us that workplaces are not like classrooms. Assignments aren’t always spelled out clearly, criteria can be hazy, and you won’t always know the questions, let alone the answers. Bruce found another job, and another after that. He always waited until his money was running out before he started looking, and sometimes he cut it too close for comfort.

Then one day he got hired at a startup company making PUR water filters. They had a great story. Their new technology was more effective than anything on the market at the time. It could convert sea water to potable water; it could even pull a drink out of a mud puddle for someone in a remote location. Their first customers included the US Navy. One day a news story broke; a couple had been stranded at sea aboard their boat and had survived by cleansing sea water through their PUR filter. With the help of that story, the company’s founders talked their way into the household market. Business took off. The company grew. My brother was loving it. He received awards for developing new approaches to inventory control and distribution. He made friends, bought a little house, bowled in a league with brother Keith, enjoyed the occasional visit to the local racetrack, and happily joined the family three or four times a year for holiday gatherings.

Me (left) and Lynne with Al, Dave, Keith, Bruce 1985
One day Peter asked Bruce, “If money were no object, what would you do?” The answer: “Sit around in my underwear and watch television.” We thought that was a good answer. Happiness is being satisfied with what you have, loving what you do. And he seemed happy enough; he was extremely well-read, had opinions on lots of subjects, and never minded when somebody disagreed. He refused to take things personally.

Everything changed when the founders sold the business to Proctor and Gamble. Oh, the company survived for a few years, during which Bruce shook his head about various changes made by the “suits” from P&G. Then came word that the plant would close. All the jobs were exported to Mexico. My brother tried to be stoic about it, but I know it broke his heart. He was one of the last to leave; he was the one who knew how to disassemble the lines and ship everything out.

He looked for another job, without much hope of finding one. When funds ran out, he began to take small weekly withdrawals from his retirement funds. He stopped paying his utilities and began to live off the grid, using a windup flashlight and a sometimes cooking on a small charcoal grill. He was probably sitting around in his underwear, but he was no longer watching television. Except we didn’t know it.

My brother Bruce had had a heart attack in about 1991, when he was 40. At the hospital, we’d heard the doctor’s advice: stop smoking, eat less fast food, get more exercise, take these pills. Over the years, he did seem to be eating more wisely and riding his bike a lot.

On Friday, September 15, 2006, he went to his bank to withdraw a few dollars for the weekend. He dropped to the floor, dead of a heart attack at 55. When we got his keys and entered his house, we learned the truth of his existence. That’s when we discovered that he had no electricity and no heat (we don’t know for how long). About three years of unopened mail was tossed on the floor near and under his bed. Books overflowed their shelves. There was a lot of dust, but no animals and no filth – it was not a garbage house. But it had problems, including the fact that the cold water in the kitchen sink was running full blast and couldn’t be turned off. Clearly it had spilled over at some point; floor tiles were lifted out and there was still the smell of mold.

Emptying Bruce’s house after his death, it didn’t take us long to find the very pills he’d brought home from the hospital 15 years earlier, plus the prescriptions, never filled. We also found cigarettes, and his reading spot reeked of cigarette smoke. We found bags of empty Mountain Dew cans, and new cartons in the kitchen. And a large bottle of aspirin.

Clearly (to me, at least) he knew the risks. He was having pains, had no interest in being medicated, and stocked up on caffeine and nicotine, two things that could help send him on his way.

Al, Kay, me, Dad, Keith, Dave, Bruce 1993?
He did it because he was depressed. He was running out of money and knew he’d never find a job like the one he’d loved and lost. Things around his house needed fixing, and although he had assembled an impressive supply of tools and how-to books, he couldn’t manage to do the work. I talked with my doctor about some of the things we found, and my doctor called them classic indicators of depression.

How could we not have known?

We held a celebration of his life a month later. We called all the numbers on his cell phone and located many former co-workers who considered themselves his friends. They all came, and they brought others, and they all told us how much they had enjoyed my brother. He was funny, a good story-teller, proud of his family, and very, very good at his job. The stories they told, and their obvious regard for him, were extraordinary gifts for our entire family.    

Having been stunned by finding the hidden sad and dysfunctional part of his life, it was wonderful to discover the equally well-hidden happy and successful part. It makes me smile to think of it now. Except that I am angry – very angry – that an American company shipped my brother’s job across the border. Of course he’s just one among hundreds of thousands. This exporting of jobs is not good for the country or for the people to whom it happens. I wish I believed that all the other people’s stories turned out happier.

It has taken me a long time to write this, and to decide whether to publish it. The time has come. Bruce, I thought about you all this week. We miss you. Rest in peace.



Teresa Evangeline said...

Oh, Nancy, I'm so glad you wrote and published this. It's an important American story, a story all too common now and no relief in sight. It's exactly the time these stories need to be told. and you do it so well.

Thank you for telling us about Bruce, his life, and his death. It matters. Very much.

When I think about all the people out there, unemployed because all those jobs went overseas, sent there by people lacking in anything resembling ethics or compassion....and what it's doing to this country...It's hard to understand and hard to bare.

Again, thank you for this story of your brother, Bruce.

Lo said...

What a sweet but sad story.

I am obsessed about trying to keep family close or at least connected.....but one does not always succeed. The big problem is that some people cannot communicate......sigh

DJan said...

Introverted people often need an extrovert to help them cope. I wish Bruce had found his, who would have been there when he needed one. But you are telling his story now, and I salute Bruce for all he accomplished. Thanks for the great tribute, Nancy.

Linda Myers said...

This is such a fine tribute to your brother.

Rubye Jack said...

Nancy, This is such a sad story of your brother's loss and then, your loss of him. As Teresa said, it is sadly a common story and we all should be, or are, very mad about what is happening to our country and our loved ones. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

Red said...

My sympathy to you for the loss of your brother. It's a good thing for you that you've written about Bruce and told him that you loved him and that you did not realize he was suffering. Keep Bruce in your mind.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I am so sorry Nancy. It is so sad that he could not help himself. Some people do not rebound from setbacks very well.
Think good thoughts about your brother now, hopefully writing about him has helped you to put his life and death in their proper place. Savor the good memories:)

Grandmother Mary said...

This is a lovely tribute to your brother. As a former psychiatric nurse, your portrayal is also a classic story of a depressed man. How to handle such feelings and reach out for help is another example of how our culture fails men.

Manzanita said...

A well told story and a great tribute to your brother. History does repeat itself and it's beginning to feel like the 30's again. I hope not. When that happens, it's the life changes where people cannot cope. People born into a depression time can cope because they know nothing else.

Anonymous said...

Just imagine how many families have been wrecked by companies who ship their jobs overseas? It must be awful. I have heard that Obama has been considering taxing the companies on their profits they make overseas. I think that is a must do for him to save the manufacturing in this country.

The piece your wrote was very well written, interesting and had just the right tune to it.

Deb Shucka said...

Bruce sounds like he was a wonderful man who did the best he could to live with a series of bad situations. This is a lovely tribute to him, and to your sibling ties. I'm so sorry for your loss - one that I know will always occupy a space in your heart.

Dee Ready said...

Dear Nancy, Thank you for sharing this story of the arc of your bother Bruce's life and for making us aware also of what happens when jobs get shipped to another country.

I am in complete agreement with the comments by Teresa Evangeline and Abraham Lincoln.

I found myself holding my breath as I read Bruce's story and now I just feel sad that this is happening all over our country.

With your tribute to Bruce, you have awakened my sense of the Oneness that exists between us all.


Indigo Roth said...

Hi Nancy, this is a huge piece. Thanks for sharing it with us. You write of your brother with enormous warmth and affection, and this is how I'm sure he'd like to be remembered. Indigo

Anonymous said...

He would have turned 60 right? I have a siser in law who turned 60 in june, she had a stroke then kidney cancer, we never were told anything..she works and never talks to us at all, my husbands favorite sister..she does for her kids who are now 40 and 38 and her husband who is 62..she always appears to be happy..but behind that facade is a smoker still, works in a hospital ordering all the food for the place..gambles at bingo weekly and never complains..I don't think depression is ever ever taken seriously at all in our society..She and her husband have the means to retire and take it easy but instead of making her one son 40 really grow up they rescue him all the time..oh, my living God...our nearly 34 works like the dikens and never asks for anything, she tries to spoil us we refuse, but we do vacation together and we get her clothes and spoil her but not with money and rescuing her at every disappointment..not much help can be given if one is unaware of a persons (sibling or others) brother has ptsd and never asks for anything his siblings don't do one thing to help, he is a gentle person, we spoil him, yet his partner of 20 years passed away and then is when we heard from him thru another relative, he lived in a remote area and we tired to help him come back to civilazation..he is doing great now, but other than my hubby and my self in a huge family we are the only ones to drive almost 100 miles back and forth to see him and make sure he is okay, I call and e-mail him a lot..families are families..Sounds like your brother was a very special, loving and wonderful, you have enormous love and affection for him and the article was I am sure very painful to write, but you alerted others to contact their siblings to make sure they are okay, depression takes the life out of many, my brother in law was a vietnam hero and had ptsd and has had it for many years, got help when we were contacted after his partner of 20 years passed away..thank you for your article, it will help so many families..depression isn't a shame it is a medical and mental problem that can be helped..God bless you in your grief..we know how you feel we really really do..

Nanette Stearns said...

Thanks for the memories, Nancy. And I love seeing the old photos too. That's how I remember Bruce - kind, funny, loving but shy and introverted too. I think too, that he made sure we didn't know what was going on. Could we have reached out more? Sure. But I'm not sure he would have welcomed it.
I miss him too and will always think of him very fondly.

Keith said...

He was my big brother. We competed from the day I was born. Over the years, I spent much more time with him than anyone else in the family, and I was shocked when he died that I hadn't had a clue about how he was doing. We were never going to know what he didn't want us to know. I think he lost more than the rest of us when Mom died. We had wives, children, etc to talk to and cry with. I think Mom's early departure left a bigger hole in Bruce's life than he could ever find a way to fill.
It doesn't surprise me that our jobs have been going overseas. As consumers, we have never said we would pay more for products if they were made in America. Ike was in the White House when that started.
Bruce lost his job, so he also lost his health insurance. Why do we tie health insurance to jobs? I don't really think he would have gone in to see any doctors even if he still had coverage, but he could have had the option.
There is a niece and some nephews who will always remember the "Sea Monster". He is greatly missed.

Nezzy (Cow Patty Surprise) said...

What a lovin' precious tribute to your dear brother.

It reminds me of my sister who has had several TIA's but continues to eat poorly, drink, smoke and live an unhealthy life. {{{SIGH}}}. She is much younger than I.

Thank you so much for putting words to this story.

God bless and have a most beautiful day!!! :o)

Anita said...

I see from skimming some of the comments that lots of us have a "Bruce" in our lives. We wonder why the self-destructive behavior takes over their lives. We try to help; to advise, to encourage. Sometimes it's not enough.

I'm glad his life had value, even if he was not fully aware of it. You've written a nice tribute to keep the memories precious.

Chantel said...

Nancy, you are in my heart today.

Eat To Live said...

What a wonderful tribute to your brother. You have such great memories of him and will have them forever.

Pearl said...

Well told, Bliss. I can only imagine the confusion -- and loss -- your family must've felt upon hearing of his death and how he had lived those last years. Life is harder for some than others, and it's good we know and acknowledge that.


Linda Medrano said...

He was a lovely man, and I'm really sorry he's gone. Losing a job is right up there with death and divorce. It's a terrible trauma. I just wish he had been able to pull out of the depression, but it sometimes just can't be done. He went way too soon. Thank you for sharing this. I hope you and your family find peace in your hearts. I'm sure he's a peace now. You should take some comfort in that. Really, my most sincere condolences. I lost my brother Michael last year in a single car DUI incident. It breaks your heart. I know.

Unknown said...

I could really feel your love in this post. There are things people do and we will never really know why. I am an only child and don't understand the sibling bond, but I sure felt it here. *hug*

FranE said...

Wonderful tribute. Sadness dripping from the post, mixed with pure love. Thank you for sharing. This is a good example of whether a company is devoted to their country on not.
BTW thank you for your comment on my blog. I have been bad about blogging and reading. There are those you know that care and you are one of them.
: )

GeneaDiva said...

Thank you for telling Bruce's story. It needed to be told and the love and admiration you have for your brother was so evident. I hope writing this article has helped to heal your soul wound and brings some peace for you as well as your family.

Unknown said...


A life documented is remembered. I know the emotional process it takes to write such a post, but let me reassure you, it was so worth it! A lovely way to remember him and cherish your family.

Maryhocam said...

This is a wonderful tribute to your brother. Your love for him shines through. Depression is such a difficult illness. Some people are very good at hiding it and it is hard to help them through. I hope your decision to write about Bruce has been a good one for you. It is a story that should be told.


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