I got an early morning phone call today from my nephew. He said "Hi Uncle Rick, it's Ty." There was an ugly pause and then he said "I am calling to let you know Ron passed today".
Ron is my older brother. He and his wife live in Billings Montana. We talk on the phone often, but because of the logistics, I haven't see my brother in a long time. He has an extended family, most of whom live in Montana, so our families only see each other when there is a wedding or a death in the family.
I was speechless. Eventually I said "Wow, I am sorry."
Ty, my brothers youngest, is in many ways the patriarch of the Montana Elkin Family. Ron had three kids, a daughter who lives with her husband and three kids in Seattle. His oldest son Cory, also lives in Billings. Ron's daughter, Cameron, the oldest of the siblings, moved away years ago (presumably to escape the 'small town' atmosphere), has successfully carved out a niche for her family in the Great Northwest.
The circumstances surrounding the sudden and unexpected death of an otherwise healthy 73 year old won't be known for awhile. His wife Holly was away on business. When she couldn't get him to respond to phone and text messages, she asked a neighbor to check on him. Until a report is issued, we won't know what actually took his life.
But he had a great life. He and I had spent many hours reminiscing about our younger days. He was especially grateful for his loving parents and how supportive they had always been. Ron was the oldest son, and as we all know, first borns are often over-achievers. That is what he was, always a perfectionist, never satisfied with mediocrity. He had to be the best at everything. He was a clothes hog, always dressed well, always sharply creased slacks and penny loafers. He would wear a blazer to fly from Billings to Denver. He hated the way people wore sweatpants in airports.
I remember Ron wearing freshly ironed Madras button-down sports shirts to high school for years. Eventually the Madras ink-dyed fashion trend died out, but Ron never gave up his wardrobe. Twenty years later, the fad returned and he was back in business.
Ron never gained weight. I hated him for that. He could drink a six pack of beer a day and never feel bloated or gain a pound. I remember one time, when I was probably 10, Ron had his driver's license and had joined a car club. He had a bunch of the club guys over one weekend when the folks went skiing. I opened the refrigerator and low and behold it was full of Miller beer bottles!
Just then Ron came up behind me and said "You didn't see that!"
As kids, my brother protected me and shared adventures with me. Our family was very active and so we spent a good deal of time together. But as we got older, he went into high school sports, and I went skiing on weekends with my folks, we became estranged. When he went off to the University of Southern California in 1964, and I was becoming a high school hippie, we spoke less and less.
I was, on the other hand, avoiding Vietnam, voting for George McGovern and wondering off the proverbial 'white privilege' plantation. He worried about me.
But he was always there for me.
He was always the conservative lettermen, the successful businessman and the active family man, attending school and sporting events, birthdays and especially Christmas get togethers. When I graduated High School and was deciding where to go to college, he was the first resource I had. I didn't have any outstanding grades or achievements to get me into a prestigious school, but I wanted to go out on my own and live on campus. He told me to just go to Cal State Long Beach. It would serve my needs, be reasonably inexpensive and give me space to grow up.
He was absolutely right. I am certain I would have flunked out of any other school. I was able to stay in touch with my folks and local friends and still maintain my autonomy.
For the next eight years I immersed myself in the ski shop business in LA. Eventually I resented making the store owners lots of money so I sought to do my own thing. In 1977, when I moved to San Diego and we went into the ski business together, I was given complete autonomy to do whatever I thought necessary to make the business work. He provided the financing and the bookkeeping, but he trusted me to do the buying. I wonder if he ever really understood how much that meant to me…
Eventually he moved to Montana and semi-retired in a small ski resort community. He wanted to be involved with his kids as they grew up and also wanted to avoid the total, all consuming commitment required to be a top commercial real estate agent in Southern California. Most people thought he was crazy to walk away from such a lucrative market, but his instincts turned out be a good.
Rons marriage to Ann didn't work out, but I know they have maintained a healthy love for each other, and I know their kids all know that too. They have a great group of friends and family in Billings and around the country. Like our folks, Ron and I have always treasured our relationships with family and close friends.
So I lost my brother today, but I will always have a brother in life.