Eric Brown: Memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead
Last week’s show was all about friendship, and, as some of you know, that’s because I was heading to Minnesota to be with my friend Eric (pictured, left) as he reached the end of his life.
As I posted on Facebook, I told Eric that I was there with many many other people in spirit, hovering behind me. The stuff below (posted with Lisa’s permission) is largely for those hoverers, to try to help them know more about the end of Eric’s remarkable life, but it’s also a way to share with more people the amazing life of an amazing man. His obituary tells much more about his professional life, helping countless veterans, and you should read that too.
I’m starting this document on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. I’ll be getting on a plane at a stupidly early time tomorrow to go up to Minnesota; Eric will be taken off of his ventilator on Thursday afternoon. He will probably die before I leave on Friday. I don’t know if I’m going to do anything with this, but I wanted to get some thoughts down.
I told Ella last night that I think Eric’s dying is to me something like what my dad’s dying was like to her. (She was 10 when he died.) When my dad died, it was shocking and awful and devastating to me, but at some level, it wasn’t surprising. He was 73 and, while I hoped he’d be around a lot longer, and he certainly had more good things to do and good thoughts to think, nobody looks shocked when a 73-year-old dies.
Except that’s not true for grandkids. His death came out of nowhere for them, and Ella, being the oldest of the grandkids, might have been immediately impacted more through sheer awareness. It just wasn’t fair, or right, or sensible that her Granddaddy was dying.
Eric’s my age. He’s got kids younger than my kids. And so, even though we’ve known that this was coming for Eric for a couple of years, it still feels like the rug is being pulled out from under Eric, and Lisa, and the kids, and us all. It isn’t fair, or right, or sensible that he’s dying, any more than it was when David Banigan-White died.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dirge Without Music)
I suppose quoting that poem is on par with reading the “Love is patient” Corinthians verses and having the Pachelbel Canon at your wedding. (We did both. Go ahead, judge.) But there it is, saying what I want to say, better than I can say it.
• • • • •
Eric told me when I was visiting a couple of months ago that he sometimes worried that his girls wouldn’t remember him. He knew rationally that they would, but the fear would sneak up on him. I asked if I could write to them about him, and this is what I sent to him to pass along to them.
Dear Vica & Kaia:
I’ve been thinking a lot about your dad lately. He mentioned that it’d be okay for me to write some of that down and send it along to y’all. (I live in Texas now, so I get to use the word “y’all.” You probably shouldn’t unless you want your Minnesotan friends to look at you funny.)
I’ve known Eric since I guess 10th grade. (That makes it almost thirty years now.) He played French horn in the full orchestra (I played violin), and we crossed paths in various nerdy activities (this probably doesn’t surprise you). Among other things, we both took tests well so we ended up as National Merit semifinalists:
We hung out a fair amount in high school — Eric played in a band that played in the Battle of the Bands that I helped run, and we just ended up in many of the same places, classes, etc.
Eric started off at Hamline University for college, as you might know, and then took some time off for health reasons. After that, he lived in my parents’ house for a while — I don’t actually remember how long, but maybe a month or so? Right around that same time, I decided to take the second semester off of my first year and so I had to move off campus. And that was when Eric was looking to move back into St. Paul. So, in January of 1990, we both moved into 1598 Dayton Avenue in St. Paul, in the far right apartment on the first floor:
It was…an adventure. The apartment itself was nice enough, though we had some neighbors with, uh, sanitation problems, leading to there being perhaps more roaches than you’d want. The back porch had bright green astroturf on the floor, for indeterminate reasons. And it had no dishwasher, but it did have a trash compactor for reasons that pass understanding. But it had a couple of bedrooms, everything worked, the landlords were nice, and it was cheap.
We got a cat (Trillian, pictured below, along with us and Rogers, in Rhiannon’s room), and another cat (Ione). Trillian was smart and mildly sociopathic; Ione was very sweet. Rocket scientist? No. But sweet.
That summer, I worked in Tennessee and our friend Rhiannon (whom I was then dating) lived in the apartment over the summer. I think some other people might have been living there too. In any event, your dad and Rhiannon looked to see if they could find a bigger place, unsuccessfully, so that fall we also took over the neighboring apartment, converting its living room into a bedroom. We added more people at that point – Jim & Kim, Rogers at some point, maybe others.
That fall, we initially thought we were going to rent the house at 1650 Dayton Avenue, just down the street, and then it turned out that the potential landlord was not successful at buying it, so my mom and I did and we all moved down the street one very cold day. (The cold, it turns out, was a good thing, as we could leave all of our stuff outside overnight and kill the cockroaches, other than one über-cockroach that we found a good while later.)
I’m honestly pretty bad at remembering specific things; Rhiannon is better at that and I bet she’s doing something like this too. But we lived in that house, with that core group, from late 1990 through sometime in 1994 (when Dena and I got married and the various roommates moved out). People who lived there for various times: me, Eric, Rogers, Rhiannon, Jim, Kim, Dena, Scott Keever, Steve Bucheck, Britta Gustavson, Tom Flood, Judah something-or-other, and I’m sure some other people I can’t think of.
Some things I remember:
- We got your dad a piano. He was really good at it, and even though it was a pretty cruddy piano, it delighted me to no end to hear him playing it.
- We had bands play in the basement from time to time. It was college, so that was almost required. Some of them were better than others.
- We had one rotating roommate slot where people would move in, I think be befuddled by us, and move out. One of them almost certainly either stole or arranged for the theft of a pretty nice TV. But I digress.
- We lived pretty cooperatively. I think we all wanted a feeling of family and we got it. Not that we didn’t have a feeling of family from our, you know, families. But we seemed to want something like that there too. We ate together pretty often, we went grocery shopping together, we hung out.
- We had a “grill night” most Tuesday nights. We’d be out on the second floor porch (no railing, amazing nobody ever fell off) with a grill (also amazing we never set anything on fire), we’d grill, we’d talk, we’d drink beer, we’d laugh. It wasn’t mostly where Big Things happened (though, walking Dena home from Grill Night on November 19, 1991, I asked her out), but it was a place where dozens or hundreds of small good moments happened.
That last thing is key for me. If you see the movie Boyhood, it makes the point way better than I can, that life is a series of moments, most of them seemingly unimportant at the time, that add up to something. The thing that makes me know that there was something pretty special as a result of all of those moments is how immediately and completely we can settle back into comfortable and loving togetherness any time we get any subset of that group together. And your dad was the foundation of all of it; the creamy nougat center, if you will. That’s from those small moments.
I’m sure I have more to say about your dad, and I always will. But I’ve been puttering along on this for several weeks and I think I’ll send it off now. I’m sending it to your dad (hi, Eric!) to pass along to you whenever it seems appropriate.
I know you know this, but I want to say it again for emphasis: your dad is the best. He’s the kindest guy I know, he’s wicked funny and crazy smart and caring beyond measure. (Your mom is all of those things too, but I never lived with her, so I’m not writing about her.) I’m so glad I have known him for as many years as I have.
(As Rhiannon reminded me, we also all sang in the Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church choir, often walking down to rehearsals. Those walks, and those Sundays, were weekly touchpoints that I honestly had forgotten about, and of which I am glad to be reminded.)
• • • • •
In Eric’s last post on Caring Bridge, in which he shared his decision to remove the ventilator, he wrote:
I will miss my life and the opportunities the I would have had without this disease. More time with family, more friendship, more meaningful work, watching my kids grow and loving them and being a part of that, growing old together with Lisa. I’m sad about losing all of that, all the love that has been part of my life. I will miss it greatly.
I am so glad to have been part of Eric’s remarkable life. I am so angry and sad about what he, and we, will miss because of ALS. I was looking forward to being an old man, hanging out with Eric, alternately making poop jokes and talking about significance testing in epidemiology. I don’t know anyone else who can do both of those things nearly as well as Eric.
When my kids were in elementary school, the years often ended with teachers declaring something that I think was attributed to Dr. Seuss – “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” That was never particularly effective with our kids, especially Ella, who was bitterly angry any time she didn’t get to go to school, and it’s not very effective for me right now either. I think I’ll stick with crying for a while.
But I do hope and expect we’ll eventually get to the smiling part. Eric’s life was too filled with, and too much the source of, joy, for the smiling not to happen. Not today, not tomorrow, but sometime.
• • • • •
March 13, 2015
Eric died last night, just about two hours after his ventilator was removed. I don’t feel any need to go through the details of the day, since they don’t really relate much to what his life was about. But there are a couple of things that bear mentioning.
The day had a lot of laughter. Eric was drowsy, but conscious pretty often throughout the day, and had a chance to talk with everyone who was there. I also learned how good Lisa was at understanding what he was saying, even from behind the cumbersome mask. I’d hear something that sounded like the grown-ups in the old Peanuts cartoons, and Lisa would know he was asking for us to start up his mix CD again.
Sometime during the morning, I got to talk with him a bit, and I made sure he knew that a lot of his friends were thinking of me as sort of their representative. I told him to picture them hovering behind me, if that wasn’t too creepy. He didn’t think it was creepy, and I hope he pictured so many friends hovering around him in a non-creepy way. (More like Harry Potter’s moving pictures, as Rhiannon suggested.)
Eric’s death was peaceful and comfortable. As my friend Aran pointed out last night, no matter how much we tell ourselves things like that and things like “it’s a blessing,” it still hurts. Well, yes. That is painfully true. But there is some small measure of comfort in the relatively quiet way he died.
But the way he died was also much of how he lived: gently, with dignity, and with generosity. I think he knew that starting the final process the way he did was the way that had the greatest chance of making it so he could have genuine time with his loved ones right up until the end, with him aware of it all. And he did; we each got to give him a real goodbye.
Others’ goodbyes are their stories to tell or not tell, but I will tell mine.
My goodbye was right before he took off his ventilator mask. They’d already been slowing down the frequency with which the ventilator was forcing him to breathe, and increasing the sedatives, but he was awake, alert, and entirely Eric. His eyes were clear and bright, his smile his, his humor intact. He was him.
I gave him a hug and told him I loved him. He said, muffled, “I love you too.” I pointed out that I could understand him, even with the mask – no Peanuts grown-ups issues that time. And he laughed at the cartoon reference. It wasn’t one of those head-back belly laughs that I’m going to miss (he was too weak for that), but it was still that sense of delight, of joy, of love. It was Eric.
Then he held my eye contact, completely steady, for at least 30 seconds, and just nodded, as I think he did to others in the room. It was, I expect, part of his way to confirm what I knew: this was his decision, he was good with his decision, and he was ready. And I think that message was not just to me but to all the hoverers – the friends and loved ones who were with him, even if not in person.
• • • • •
Sometime during the day, Eric asked to hear the mix CD that some of his psychiatrist colleagues had put together for his retirement, and it ended up playing on repeat throughout the day. Right around when the hospice nurses and the ALS doctor started the sedative process, we turned it off. I am pretty sure the last song he heard was the Beatles’ “Two of Us.”
You and I have memories
Longer than the road that stretches out ahead
• • • • •
So: I still do not approve, and I still am not resigned. But I am glad for the fact that he got to give his family one final gift, the gift of being with him – with an aware, engaged, loving Eric – at the very end. And, as he wanted, he got to be aware of his passing from life into death: one final bit of scientific curiosity about what happens next.
Goodbye, Eric. I love you.
 Fuck ALS.
 See id.; also aneurysms can go to hell.
 See id.
 See id.
 I am glad the last song he heard was not the South Park song that also appears on the CD.
 See supra notes 1-4.