When Vivian LeForge met Ed Brazill more than 30 years ago, it was the bouquet of intriguing coincidence that she couldn't ignore. Both were Falls Church residents, both married for the first time in Chicago, in 1946. Both lost their spouses in 1974, in the same week.
A mutual friend brought them together at a dance for widows and widowers. They hit it off, even though he misspelled her name in a couple of endearing early letters. Engaged at Christmas and married the next February, he was "Fast Eddie" to her kids. She was 50, he, 55.
"It was so wonderful to find a soul mate!" Vivian Brazill, a retired McLean home economics teacher, recalled.
Her soul mate, she soon realized, had a habit of caring for others -- a habit borne, perhaps, out of his experiences as a youngster helping care for a polio-stricken brother. That habit lasted a lifetime, until his death from prostate cancer Aug. 21 at Westminster at Lake Ridge. Brazill was 85.
A meticulous man, he left behind precise instructions for many things, including the care of his grown son, Jerry, who at 16 received a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
For Brazill, seeing to his son's future was the culmination of a decades-long battle against the illness, which has been characterized as "the cruelest of diseases."
When Jerry was born in 1950, Brazill was starting a successful career as a physicist and engineer that would lead to NASA headquarters in Washington and to work on the space shuttle, among other challenging projects.
Jerry, the younger of Brazill's two children, was, as sister Judy Maiden said, "a beautiful, intelligent little boy, just so special." Things began to change when he was about 14. Maiden recalls a family vacation to Toronto (in the family's new Oldsmobile Toronado), when her brother began to isolate himself from the family. He stopped going to school and turned truculent and angry.
"My mother and father were at their wits' end," Maiden recalled.
Eventually came the diagnosis of schizophrenia, a biologically based brain disorder characterized by an inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, to manage emotions, to relate to others and to make decisions. There is no cure, though drug advances have made the disorder more manageable.
Brazill, a soft-spoken man, became an outspoken activist on behalf of the mentally ill and their families. He quickly came to realize that mental hospitals often were mere warehouses for the mentally ill and that though "deinstitutionalization" was emptying hospitals in the 1970s, few community-based facilities existed to fill the need. Too often, the mentally ill wandered the streets or returned home, where overstressed family members struggled to cope.
Applying the problem-solving inclinations of an engineer, Brazill built advocacy organizations and support groups. Among the first was Pathways to Independence, a support group for family members that began in 1975 and initially met at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Falls Church.
In September 1979, Ed and Vivian Brazill joined more than 200 families meeting in Madison, Wis., to organize a Washington office of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Today, the alliance works with more than 15 million Americans who have mental illness, as well as with their families.
In 1980, Brazill co-founded Pathway Homes, a pioneering organization that provides housing and support services for some 300 Northern Virginia adults with serious mental illness.
Pathway housing runs the gamut from highly supportive to highly independent. And the housing is not time-limited, says Pathway Vice President Alyssa Ford Morel.
That's a great relief for Vivian Brazill and other aging parents who can rest assured that their adult children will continue to be cared for after they themselves die.
Over the years, Brazill tirelessly lobbied local governments and the Virginia Assembly; chaired family-support groups; handled a National Alliance for the Mentally Ill hotline at the group's Arlington headquarters; edited the Pathways to Independence newsletter; and founded other organizations. He retired from NASA in 1991 but worked on behalf of the mentally ill until a few weeks before his death.
"Ed Brazill was the heart and soul of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Northern Virginia," said Joe Henshaw, whose son has clinical depression and who drew strength from an early Pathways to Independence support group.
Jerry Brazill, now 55, has lived in a Pathway Homes condominium in Falls Church for the past 20 years. He's doing well, his sister says.
With their father gone, she and her brother and other relatives are doing their best to maintain family ties. Maiden believes that, even now, her father probably has something to do with that.