A couple of homeless men discovered Edward Brandenburg’s body on a cold March day in 2008. He was lying on the ground, a few feet from his blue two-man tent pitched in the woods near the Chattanooga Airport.
His fire pit was still warm, and underwear and socks hung on the clothesline.
Brother Ron Fender showed up after police had removed the body. He knew his old friend’s camp well, and everything seemed to be in place. He went into the tent to see what Brandenburg had left behind.
Fender lay down in the tent for a few minutes, allowing the first waves of grief to wash over him. Then he set about gathering a tree saw, a pair of pliers, a flathead screwdriver, a pocketknife and a little leather pouch filled with wheat pennies.
“I wanted to gather something, anything, in the off chance that I might find his family someday,” Fender said later.
Many times, there’s nothing to hold onto after homeless people die. If they die in the hospital with no next of kin, whatever they went into the hospital with is usually thrown away. If they die on the street or in their camps, other homeless usually rush to claim what is still useful.
But when Fender is able to retrieve the items that belonged to a dead homeless person, he keeps them — hanging onto the hope that the grubby clothes, the old wallet, the one spoon — will mean something to whoever may come looking for that person some day.
Josh Brandenburg was 13 years old the last time he saw his father.
In Waterford, Mich., Edward Brandenburg drove forklifts at a number of workshops. Folks in town knew him to be handy with cars and a gifted artist. He sketched cars and nature, deer and birds.
He was also an alcoholic.
“The barkeepers would call my mom time after time saying, ‘Ed’s drunk again.’ He smashed the family car. On weekends he’d go on 72-hour benders. But he never went to work drunk,” Josh, now 31, said in a phone interview from West Bloomfield, Mich.
Old photos show Edward and Josh playing in the snow, riding a bike, pretending to have a boxing match. All smiles.
Josh was 3 when his parents divorced. The boy saw his father on weekends, usually at a different home every few months.
His father disappeared twice when Josh was a child.
The first time was between the time Josh was 4 and 9, and the second was when he was 10 to 12.
Edward’s mother, Martha D’Andrea, got letters postmarked from Indiana and Kentucky. He wrote from a rehab facility in Iowa at one point.
“He kept writing things like, ‘Until I stop drinking, I don’t want to be an embarrassment to the family,’” D’Andrea said.
Both times, Edward came back sober, calling his ex-wife, Jackie, from the Greyhound bus station in Royal Oak, Mich., to ask if she could pick him up.
“He had a military duffle bag, and he looked haggard,” Josh remembers. “I saw him, and I just wanted to squeeze him and hold him.”
Josh’s mother said Edward could stay with the family only if he refused to drink. And both times, Edward did well. He got a good job. He got his driver’s license and a car. He rekindled his relationship with Jackie. He went to his son’s hockey games.
“I just kept thinking, ‘We’re a family again,’” Josh recalls.
But though Edward enrolled in rehab programs and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the need for drink always surged back.
Edward had been sober for a whole year. Then one morning, Josh found him passed out in his car in front of the house.
A few days later, Josh came home from class to find his father loading his things into a taxi.
“I’m sorry,” Edward said to his bewildered son. “I’ll always love you.”
Then he got in the cab and pulled away.
“And he was just gone,” Josh said. “I screamed and cried then. But now I realize that was him realizing that he would never be able to conquer this demon. He was tired of letting his family down.”
He was gone for a year. But the next December, Josh’s mother told him that Edward had come back for Christmas. Edward was staying with his mother, and Jackie went shopping with him so he could buy Josh a gift.
But just before Christmas Day, Edward was gone again. He had headed to Indiana, telling his mother, “I have a demon. If I ever get rid of it, I’ll see you again. If I don’t, I won’t see you again.”
Edward left behind a Christmas gift for his son: a pair of new work boots and a card. “Merry Christmas. I love you,” it read.
And for 16 years, that was all Josh had.
Fender doesn’t know why Edward Brandenburg drifted into Chattanooga, or where he came from. They never talked about it.
In 2005, Fender was wandering through the woods along Chickamauga Creek near the airport, looking for homeless camps that may have been set up recently. He spotted a path through the woods to a new campsite, and met Brandenburg.
His camp was startlingly tidy. He had pitched a tent, dug a fire pit, strung a clothesline. He stacked books neatly in his tent and kept his clothes folded. He said he fed corn to the deer and wild turkeys in the woods.
Over the next three years, the two men forged a close friendship. They read the paper and talked about what was going on in the world. Fender talked about his childhood, and Brandenburg told a few stories about a son — “My boy plays hockey,” he would say.
Brandenburg only occasionally rode his bike to the Community Kitchen. Fender would deliver food to the campsite. Often, Brandenburg would hide when Fender arrived.
“That was when he was drunk. He never wanted me to see him drunk,” said Fender.
Brandenburg was charged with public intoxication 30 times between 2005 and 2008, Hamilton County court records show. He often was ordered to perform community service, which he sometimes would work under Fender’s supervision.
Around Thanksgiving 2006, Brandenburg decided he wanted to go back to Michigan to see his family. Fender bought him a bus ticket and dropped him off at the station. But just before the bus pulled out, he hopped off.
He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t face his family, he told Fender later.
On Christmas morning in 2007, Brandenburg biked nine bitterly cold miles from the airport to bring Fender a box of Whitman’s Sampler Chocolates. It was 5 a.m.
Tears filled Fender’s eyes as he looked at the box. Brandenburg assured him, “Don’t worry, I didn’t steal it — I collected cans. Don’t you like it?”
The Hamilton County medical examiner ruled that Brandenburg drank himself to death.
Fender hastily searched for Brandenburg’s son, that boy who played hockey. But he had no names, no numbers, no luck.
He petitioned the court to allow him to cremate Brandenburg’s body so he could give the ashes to his family if they ever were found, but the petition was denied.
Ten people were at Cofer Cemetery for Brandenburg’s ceremony, along with the prisoners who dug his grave.
Afterward the group walked amid the graves, recognizing the names of some homeless people they didn’t even know had died.
“We were depressed because so few of us were there to celebrate Edward’s life,” remembers Jens Christensen, assistant director of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. “Then we realized that there were all these people who died and no one even knew.”
Despite growing up without his father, Josh Brandenburg thrived. He went to college and got a degree in emergency medical technology. Working as a firefighter, he fell in love with a woman who was a paramedic. He bought a house.
But something was always lacking. In 2006, Josh started searching for his dad on the Internet.
“I just wanted to know was he dead, was he alive, was he in jail. I just needed to know,” he said.
After several searches, he found out his dad had checked into a rehab center in Iowa. When Josh called, Edward was gone. Josh found arrest records in Iowa, but because the police could not verify who Josh was, they refused to give him information.
He checked online only a few times after that.
“I felt there was no hope to ever find him again,” he said.
But in March 2009, Josh decided to try again. He Googled his father’s name and something new flickered on the screen: a notice that a death certificate had been filed for Edward D. Brandenburg, 50, in Chattanooga. The date of death was almost exactly one year before.
Warily, Josh refined his search. Up popped a page from the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, a bulletin for an annual service held there to commemorate homeless people who have died. His father’s name was listed.
When he phoned Fender the next day, the voice on the other end was gentle.
“Josh,” Fender said, “I am so happy to finally talk to you.”
That spring, Edward Brandenburg’s mother drove the 600 miles to Chattanooga with Edward’s brother to see her son’s grave.
“I wanted to know where he had been living,” D’Andrea said. “I know it had to be a lonely life for Eddie. Sometimes it’s better not to know because you can’t change it and it just hurts. But I wanted to know where Eddie was at the end.”
Josh, his mother and his girlfriend drove down in May. It was pouring rain as they reached East Tennessee. They first pulled in to the Community Kitchen, where Fender was sitting at the front desk.
“I remember seeing them through the glass doors, and I knew at once it was Edward’s son,” Fender recalled.
The two embraced and started talking, sharing memories of Edward, piecing together the man’s fragmented history.
“I hadn’t heard anything from him for 16 years, and this was my only way to know about him,” Josh said.
Together they drove to Cofer Cemetery. As Josh walked up the hill to his father’s grave, he shed the firefighter, the paramedic, the grown-up. As he knelt at his father’s grave, he was a kid who had always missed his dad.
“I thought it had been so long that I was numb to my dad being dead. But no — it was like your parent who you’d seen every day suddenly passed away.”
For half an hour, he stayed at the grave, weeping, talking to his father — asking him why, telling him he loved him, telling him he had missed him.
“I wish I could have told him, ‘I’m doing fine, I’m doing good. I don’t hate you at all. I love you. … I wish I could have understood.’”
Before the day was over, Fender handed Josh his inheritance: Edward’s saw, pliers, screwdriver, knife and pennies. Josh cradled them in his hands.
Relief, grief and awe stirred Fender as he stepped back.
“Edward had held these things and now Josh was holding these things,” Fender said. “... It was all I had of his father to give him. That and the love — the assurance that his father wasn’t friendless when he died.”
For Josh, a long-unfinished chapter was finally closed.
“To hold something my father held …” he pauses for a long moment as he remembers. “I’m not a huge religious man. But in a strange way, I had a moment with him. It was like we were able to meet again.”