Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In The Blink of an Eye

It was the summer of 1978 when he came to live with us.  A man named Brother Cook had come and visited our home several times, I remember all of us kids crawling all over him as he tried to talk to my parents.  I was five, I didn't really understand what they were talking about.

Our parents told us that a new "brother" would be coming to stay with us for the school year.  We were excited.

The church had established the "Indian Placement Program."  They would bring kids off the reservation to live with families during the school year so they could get a better education, live in a functional family and gain a stronger testimony of Christ and his Gospel.  And so it was, my parents accepted an opportunity to bring one of these special kids into our already rambunctious home of six children.

Mom, Dad and us oldest 4 kids were off in Boston at my Uncles wedding when he first arrived.  So, my Dads brother picked him up and took care of him the first few days.  We arrived home from Boston on the first day of school.  As we were passing Redbird Elementary on our way home from the airport...school was letting out.  We pulled into the parking lot and scanned the crowds of kids.  There was a chubby little eight year old boy in a plaid western shirt with the biggest smile covering his face ear to ear.  That HAD to be him.  I was so excited to meet my new "brother."  Dad hopped out and gathered him into the car with us.

And so it was.....Merlin came to live with us 32 years ago.  A chubby, grinning and silent Navajo boy that would become not just a guest, but truly our BROTHER.

Me, Jenny and Merlin
this pic is actually about 2 years after he came to our family

Merlin was so very, very quiet (most of the time, unless he saw a wreck or a big truck, then he had PLENTY to say).  He didn't have much to say in that first year.  And, as I look back, I can't even imagine the overwhelming fear he must have felt.  He came from a literal crap hole, no running water, no real parenting, not a lot of English speaking home into OUR house.  FULL of loud, crazy kids, two parents, food galore, nice furnishings, etc.  He had mostly been raised by his Grandma up until that point.  His Mom was busy having kids with various different men.  He had 3 older brothers from one man, then Merlin came from a mystery man (to this day no one knows who his dad is, though there is much speculation that he was a white man) then she had 3 more from another man.  But mostly she was alcoholic and not around.  His poor Gramma would put him in a walker with a tray on it in the morning, put food all over the tray and leave him while she went to work.  Not kidding, LEFT him, a baby at home all day by himself because she had nothing else she could do.  Somehow he survived and made it to us at the age of eight.

The program called for the kids to live with the family during the school year and then go "home" to the reservation for the summer (at one point there were at least 5 placement program kids living on our street).  I remember so well putting him on that bus those first couple of years.  I hated it.  It made me sad to see him leave.  One year my brother Eric decided he was gonna go with Merlin.  He lasted all of about THREE days on the reservation and then BEGGED and BAWLED to come home. According to my Mom, we were camping at the time, and they brought us to our campsite and dropped his bawly butt off.  It was NOT a nice place to live.  After a few years, Merlin stopped going home in the summers, he just stayed with us.  He got caught between two worlds, and his "real" family wasn't kind to him.  They called him "apple boy" (red on the outside, white on the inside) and mocked him for thinking (in their mind anyway) he was "better than" them.  They tried to force him to drink, they'd hold him down and try to pour alcohol down his throat.  It was difficult, but he chose to stay with us. 

His quietness gave way to a wicked sense of humor and a streak of prankster.  He and my brother Eric were only 5 months apart in age and they were a naughty twosome for sure!

When they had a paper route they would mostly spend their earnings on junk food.  And much of the time they would just ditch their papers somewhere and NOT do their deliveries, or just meander off around the "world" doing heaven knows what.  They're route was seriously in the scariest ghettoist part of town, and for some reason one early morning I went along with them, and the greatest part was going to Circle K afterward and getting a chocolate cream pie (but shhhh, don't tell Mom).

We used to have a fullsized pinball machine in our basement.  One day Merlin was trying to get a ball out or something (and there was a huge broken area on the glass) and his hand slipped and there was a HUGE/DEEP slash on his finger.  He and Eric ran upstairs to assess the situation.  I ran up to find out the severity.  They were freaking out, I wanted to see, they said, no I didn't.  I DID!  So, they showed me.  His finger was literally cut TO.THE.BONE.  Most disturbing thing I've ever seen.

Over time he called my parents Mom and Dad.  Just not to their face, EVER!  To all of us they were Mom and Dad.  To them, he just found ways around addressing them.  BUT, he loved them.  He idolized my Dad.  My parents were really the only real parents he ever had.

Merlin was very artistic.  He would draw and create all the time.  One year my Mom spent many painstaking hours (which I SO did NOT appreciate at the time) making me my own doll house.

See that dollhouse beaut on the left there.
Merry Christmas to ME!

I wasn't all that thrilled with this GREAT present.  But Merlin made it his personal job to create and build all kinds of furniture for this little gem.  He spent hours making couches, bathtubs, toilets, beds, etc. all out of some form of cardstock.  And you wanna know what....that house and that furniture got played with for YEARS!  Strawberry Shortcake and her friends were housed rather swankily.

He really fit in effortlessly with our family, and with all of Erics friends.  In highschool and beyond he was just so fun and funny. 

At some point during highschool his oldest brother was killed in a car accident.  It was very, very hard on him.  In spite of his life with us, he truly loved his brothers and sister and his Navajo roots. But, he also very much appreciated the life he had. 

After highschool he chose to go on a mission for the church.  He was called to the Manchester New Hampshire mission and served there from 1989 - 1991.  After he came home he went to school a little bit and worked.  He was always finding new jobs, trying to figure out what he wanted to do.  What he really wanted to do was be an architect or something like that.  But, it never happened.  His TRUE skill was as a salesman.  There was something very special about Merlin.  He had a charisma, a charm, an ability to draw you in.  He finally decided that he wanted to do something to help to lead his tribe.  So, he moved back up to the reservation and took a job with the tribe, and would eventually meet his future wife.

When I left on my mission THREE of my siblings all decided to get married.  SERIOUSLY, THREE, and I missed all three weddings.  Merlin was the last of the three.  He married a lovely lady who already had 3 kids.  Her name was Bernie, and he was so happy to finally have found his mate.

They were first married in the AZ Temple and had a reception here in town.

Then they went up to the reservation and had a traditional Navajo ceremony.
Sitting just to the right of Merlins shoulder is his Mom, and that older lady on the chair is his sweet Gramma.

Merlin loved Bernies three kids like his own, and was such a great father to them right off the bat.  But, he wanted his own too.  They stayed on the reservation for several years, but then moved back down here to take care of some financial issues and figure out their future.  He ended up taking a job as a car salesman and he was RIDICULOUS!  He did so amazingly well because he was literally the only Indian salesman around.  The people would flock off the reservation to buy JUST from Merlin.  So, his work life was good, and now his family life was getting better because his wife was pregnant with their first child.  Sweet little Megan was born into their family and he was over the moon.  I swear I've never seen a guy love his child more.  And she adored him right back.

Merlin had not 9 lives, but more like 1000 lives.  He was a thrill seeker, an ambulence chaser, a lover of adventure.  He was in more car accidents, roll overs, crazy situations than anyone I know.  He was INSANE in the car.  He had no fear of driving like a MAD MAN, taking risks or scaring you.   More than once Bernie had recieved phone calls that he'd been in an accident.  But, there he was, always fine.

At some point Merlin decided it was time to move back to the reservation and try again to help "his people".  He was approached about starting his own dealership up there, and was working on starting his own business.  Also, Bernie was pregnant again, with baby girl number two.

December 1999
No comment on my Daddios stash. hahaha

At Midnight on August 14th Merlin started on a drive down to the valley.  He needed to take an insurance test.  He'd put off going all day. He just didn't want to leave. Bernie was due THAT day with baby #2.  But finally, at midnight he knew he had to go.  So, he hopped in his truck and made his way toward the valley.  On a lonely road between Holbrook and Heber he fell asleep at the wheel and met a semi head on.  His 1000 lives had finally run out. 

Ten years ago this week our Merlin, our BROTHER went home to be with his older brother, with those that had gone on before, and with  God.  I also like to believe that he got to spend some precious time with his sweet daughter Cameron before she came down to earth.

That morning I walked up the stairs into the kitchen and found my Mom on the phone.  She was discussing something of import.  When she got off, she looked at me and said, "I just need to tell you...Merlin was killed in a car accident early this morning."  Those words didn't make sense to me.  It was like she spoke, but the words bounced off me.  I couldn't BELIEVE what she was telling me.  "NO HE WAS NOT DEAD."  I think I turned around in stunned disbelief, ran downstairs and bawled.  He was GONE, "in the blink of an eye." I called Jere (he had JUST moved to Utah the week before) and sobbed uncontrollably.  I screamed, "HE'S GONE."  "He's DEAD."  Poor Jere had no idea what I was screaming about.  I couldn't pull it together.  It was the worst feeling I'd ever felt.  It hurt.  Jere tried his best to calm me down, to reassure me and help me out.  He told me he'd be back as soon as he could.  And he was, he made it down and went to the funerals with me.

First we had a funeral for Merlin up in Chinle, where he was from.  It was AWFUL to look at his poor wife, 11 months pregnant, in a total stupor.  Harder than that was watching/listening to 2 year old Megan wandering around the funeral asking where Daddy was. HORRIBLE!  But really the hardest part of all was at his internment.  Merlin was a volunteer firefighter, and so they did last call, ringing the horn on the firetruck.  Oh.MY.GOSH!  I'm pretty sure I stopped breathing, the crying was so, SO out of control.  Add to that, that ALL his friends from growing up came from all over, Utah, Arizona and beyond to be there.  And watching them throw dirt onto the coffin and say their final goodbyes was heartbreaking at best.  How could he really be gone?  How would the world go on without Merlin.  Without his wit and humor?  What would his kids do?  What would we do?

The second "funeral" was a memorial down here in Mesa.  It was a little easier this time, Porter didn't bawl through our whole song like he did at the first one.  There were MANY people there.  He was truly loved by all.

It's hard to believe that TEN years have passed.  Ten years of living, of life changing, marriages, babies, divorces, etc.  Somehow life keeps marching forward, with or without those we love.  But it doesn't mean I don't think about him, that I don't miss him.  I wonder where he and his family might be at this point in time.  I wonder what might have been.

But mostly, I am grateful for the 22 years that we DID get to have with Merlin.  I'm grateful for the lessons he taught.  For the laughs he gave us, for the love he shared.  I'm grateful for a brother that came to us, quiet, chubby, scared and left us boistrous, large and full of joy.

We love you Merlin!  Your journey here on earth was but "the blink of an eye" in the enternal scheme.   Can't wait to catch up with you again someday!

Loving you,



Diane Barazoto said...

What a beautiful tribute. I always thought Merlin was a part of your family--he fit in so seamlessly. Still sitting here crying...

✩Molly✩ said...

Cried my eyes out reading this, and of course none of it was news to me, but still.. just the same. Of course now, 10 years later I am a mother, expecting my second baby girl. I cannot imagine the pain Bernie must have felt to lose the man she loved. Life is so fragile, and priceless.

Love you. Isn't it funny how even after someone is gone you still find yourself thinking, "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to go do this with that person.. or I wonder what they would say about this.." and you have to remind yourself that they are not here, we can't call them on the phone or hug them.

Makes me value the time I have with all the ones I have and love in my life.

Kristina P. said...

What a bittersweet story. He sounded like an amazing man and was clearly treated as if he were you family.

I am sorry for your loss.

The Bipolar Diva said...

That was amazing, and so terribly sad. Thank you so much for sharing. :*(

The Atomic Mom said...

I remember when Merlin died, it was a sad time. I'm sorry Allyson.

Denise said...

What??? I just kept thinking, of course she is doing a birthday tribute to Merlin or something. That was way too sad. My Dad had a "brother" that is now my uncle from the reservation. His kids are my cousins and we love them so much. I am so sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing that.

Hanneke Nelson said...

How fortunate you are for having known this wonderful man.

Thanks for your visit to the Northwoods!

Rocketgirl said...

I'm blown away by how awesome your family is. How accepting and loving, what a lucky man Merlin is to be a part of it. I am also in awe about how you can even remember the funeral. I can't relive my sister in law's funeral... I've really blocked it all out. You are an amazing woman, Allyson. :)

Rita/Fighting Off Frumpy said...

Sooooo sad, Allyson! But despite the ending, it's such a beautiful story. Merlin was really lucky to have been taken into a family who accepted, loved, and cared for him - I'm sure it changed his life in ways you can't even fathom.

What a wonderful tribute. :)

jen said...

Makes me think of my own little Navajo that I'll never see again. I hope his family is okay. Poor wife.

Jason and Kate said...

Touching story!

LanaBanana said...

All I came in to do was sit down and pay some bills!! WHAT THE HECK?

Porter and I are having ourselves a little cry-fest here, so thanks for that!!!

You told the story really beautifully. Thanks.

Lizard said...

Thank you. Thank you for sharing that beautiful poignant story. Lucky girl, to have loved and shared with a boy who became a big part of your life, as I'm sure you became a big part of his life.

The Fullmer Family said...

Sure loved Merlin Russell!! Was definitely a Shumway to all of us! Thanks for sharing your memories. I loved reading it and thinking of Merlin!

Mary K Brennan said...

What an amazing story. How lucky were you to have such an amazing person cross your lifes path. Thanks for sharing.

JennyMac said...

What a beautiful post and thank you for taking us through these memories with you. So so so sorry that you lost someone so special.

LambAround said...

This is such a beautiful post for your brother. It actually made me cry (and I am NOT a crier!) It sounds like he was very lucky to be part of your family.

Krystal Trapnell said...

The first time I ever heard about Merlin was right after this happened. Jeff and I got married on August 19th, and of course Porter wasn't able to be there because he was bawling through songs at funerals. :)

I never knew him, but I was so sad. It really did bring me down off the euphoria of getting married a little to know that Jeff's best friend (and his family) was suffering. I'm so sorry for you all. But he sounds like an amazing person. We had many Navajo kids placed in families in St George, too, and most of them didn't turn out to be such great people.

DianD said...

Every time I read this, I cry. Just wondering how we can get a copy to Bernie! I think it would be a blessing to her and Megan and Cameron! Thanks so much for putting all our thoughts and feelings into words! Mom

Tara LaRue said...

I LOVED this post and I cried too. Merlin was SUCH a sweetheart and I was touched by your tribute to him.

lexlocilori said...

Thanks for sharing your sweet, beautiful and sad story. You have such a great memory for details.

Andrea said...

Wiping away the tears right now. I have not seen a picture of Merlin for years. When I saw his pictures floods of memories came to me. We really did have a great childhood growing up in Alma 4th ward. And he was so lucky to have been a part of your family.

Dana said...

mom told me yesterday that you were doing a post on Merlin and I checked the computer over and over waiting for it (and dreading it). It is interesting how the heart compartmentalizes things over time, but the emotion and love and feeling is really still there just waiting to be revisited. Oh how I love our Merlin and remember every detail of that day and the days that followed. I think often of our last big family reunion together in Northern Arizona and all the laughter. It's still hard, but thanks for sharing his story and helping me to pause 10 years later.

Jen West said...

Wow... it is a sweet thing that I wandered over to see this. Merlin was a good friend. I think of him often, and Bernie and the kids, although I only met them a couple of times. His memorial service was heartbreaking, but very nice. I still have the program in my drawer. He really did have a gift of a smile. He was a good, good man taken much too soon who will always be remembered by his friends and family. Thanks for the memories and sweet tribute. I can't believe it's been 10 years.

Steph said...

Beautiful post. I'm sorry for your loss. It's good to have good memories, and to take the time to think of them and feel it all sometimes, isn't it?

Cameron Russell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cameron Russell said...

Hello. I am Cameron C. Russell. I am 17 years old now. I am the daughter of Merlin Russell and Bernie. My Sister Megan and I love hearing about our dad. The stories. We are intrested in listening more about it. Im graduating this year. My father passed about 8 days before i was born. I never got the chance to meet him. But this article has given me so so much hope. Im in tears because thats my dad. I miss him. Thank you for this blog for me to read it has made me feel closer to him.