I really hate people dying on me.
It started back in my high school class at Briarwood in East Point, Georgia, a southside suburb of Atlanta. An unusual number of my boyhood friends died in some odd ways in the year after we graduated high school from the Municipal Auditorium in downtown ATL and the end of my freshman year in college. It must have affected me, as I chose to work in an arena where I seemed to end up around death.
Odd, I think. But it’s my life, I know.
I received an email blast from my brother that went to all of the consultants, past and present, of Galloway Consulting. It forwarded a note that one of my Galloway colleagues, Brue Chandler, had died. It was a complete shock to me, as we had talked recently.
Brue had undergone a colon resection, after the removal of a cancerous tumor. Chemotherapy was the obvious protocol but he happened to be in the 1% who did not have the enzyme that put brakes on the chemo effects. It shut down his body, resulting in his death this past week. completely unexpected.
Brue had pretty much retired from our work, living in Knoxville, where he was an avid fly fisherman and enjoyed his family, being a superb loving grandfather.
He, Gary Auton, and I had started working with Galloway at the very same time. As a result of that, we wound up on a team together working at a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, which meant we would be together throughout the week at the hospital and then, spend the evening at a local restaurant processing the day’s work, as well a being culinary critics of the eatery. It meant we got to know each other pretty well, pretty quickly. Or, as Larry David would say, pretty, pretty, pretty well. It’s the nature of the beast known as consulting.
The three of us hit it off well, and we wound up doing a lot of work at a variety of hospitals. From Jacksonville, we went to Ann Arbor, where in the time we were ‘in country”, we had a grappa tasting at a fine Italian bistro. I still get notes from the owner.
From there, we went to Chicago working with a large healthcare system, but also exploring the incredible restaurants in the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago. We found one special Italian cafe near our hospital, Nonna Silvia’s, that we made our base camp. Luca Brasi was our personal waiter. Seriously, I kept looking for Don Corleone but we did find some serious veal.
Chicago was, say it in Mafia accent, “unbelievable”, but the high point was the summer Brue and I tag-teamed a hospital in Butte, Montana. Brue and I were both fly fishing aficionados, and so after work each day, we would head to the nearest river to “match the hatch”. Brue also had done some research and found a phenomena known as “supper clubs” that were in these mining towns. The most notable was the famous Anaconda Mine which had, by reputation, the best supper club in the territory.
Brue also was witness to my dust up with a young Native American man who charged at me unexpectedly, with wild eyes and no shirt, claiming I was blocking his view of the sunset. The kid was obviously tripping and rather than call the police, I tried with my Grady Hospital-St. Luke’s mojo to talk him down. This all happened in an drug store parking lot, and honestly scared me to death…..but I wasn’t going to let him smell fear on me, recalling the clinical protocol of Jimmy Buffett and the drunk bear. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I was able to get him to let us take him to his home, which was a lesson in and of itself for Brue and me.
I tell you all this to give you a sense of my deep connection to Brue. He was a brother, as we worked closely together trying to transform troubled hospitals. But it went beyond that. Being on the road is like being in a band on tour. You do everything together, performing, eating, travelling, relaxing. Yeah, Brue was my brother.
Brue had served as a medic in Viet Nam. He had a kind of practical wisdom that came from having to get it done in a second, under pressure, where lives hang in the balance.
Brue moved slow, but was steady. He even spoke slowly, his words well-chosen. After awhile, I learned to watch his face, observing the color redden, but he would never lose his temper when people didn’t get it. He was patient, until he wasn’t. I often described him to others as having a kind of Andy Griffith, Mayberry sheriff-feel, wise but with a country drawl, just to throw you off scent of just how smart he was.
There was a quiet confidence in Brue that my rabbi teacher, Edwin Friedman called non-anxious presence. It simply means that you don’t let the hysteria of all those people around you going crazy in a crisis catch you up in it. You stay calm and collected, like you got Katy Winter’s Secret on (an old pop culture reference). You are like Fonzy,,,and what is Fonzy like according to the guys in Pulp Fiction? No, not a Hawaian Burger….but cool! Brue was cool in a crisis moment….which a valuable thing in a urgent moment when everyone else is losing their stuff. I imagine Brue might have learned something about non-anxious presence in a Huey helicopter dropping down in combat in Nam. Just a hunch.
Brue and I worked at a hospital in Lexington, North Carolina. He was there “in country” for a couple of weeks before I could arrive. He had done copious and thorough research in the celebrated Lexington-style barbecue of which I was unaware.
I almost said “look it up” but how unhip is that? Google it. It’s a style of North Carolina barbecue sauce that is “red”, produced by tomatoes and vinegar, and red pepper flakes, and is applied to the famous pork shoulder of the hog. It is also inexplicably applied to a slaw that did not pass my grandmother’s test, but it is all a matter of taste…..or life and death, depending on where and when you are talking. Brue gave me literally the “cook’s tour” of the area, having personally gotten to know the various pitmasters. It was most cool.
So, I guess by now, if you are still reading this free-association on Brue, that you know how much he meant to me. In fact, I loved the guy.
And as you are coming to the recognition of how much I enjoyed him, respected him, loved him, I am coming to the realization that I am using this time to begin my grief work on losing this good friend.
It’s hard to lose family members because they are genetically, historically linked to your sorry ass, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it, as my old uncle Mac would say. You are stuck, like it or not.
But there’s another family, the family that you choose.
In my experience, it sort of evolves. You don’t know how close a certain person will turn out to be. You begin in some sort of association with that person, maybe through work, or school, or neighborhood, or activity. But then, the relationship deepens due to shared values, experiences, especially crises…..especially crises. You start to weave deeper bonds with those particular and peculiar folks, and you not always sure why.
And other associates, not so much. Again, you may not know why, although many times it’s painfully obvious. Those people remain acquaintances, but they don’t linger on your mind, unless they are particularly heinous. There’s one staff member I remember, and one consultant, but let’s not go there.
But these chosen family members, the family you choose, not dealt by the cosmic lottery….they are special. That’s what Brue was. These folks are gifts along the journey. If you are wise, you notice them in the moment, not just in some blog retrospective. You recognize them, you value them. Brue was one of those.
As you get older, those special “chosen” family member will slip away. My academic advisor died a few years back. My clinical supervisor has left the building as well. You just can’t replace those persons in your life as they served specific, formative roles. I call them up in my memory, and on rare occasions they might grace me in a dream.
Most of my companions, my chosen family, are still around. I call them to check in, see what’s shaking. Wendell, Lee, Keith, Nancy, Mark to name but a few. But they too will slip away, if I don’t beat them to the punch.
Having served as a priest in a number of congregations, the numbers of the chosen family members tend to increase natively, but not always.
Brue’s death reminds me of why I value these special people in my life. And while I am even in the act of grieving, it reminds me to pay better attention to those folks who have graced my being with their presence.
My grandmother used to sing the old hymn, Count Your Blessings, and the verse admonished or advised, “name them one by one”. Might be time to do that with my chosen friends. How about for you?
Brue Chandler, good friend and colleague and fellow adventurer….brave journey. Blessed be his memory.