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Erik Non-Sibi Day

The following is a note from Mindy, a former colleague of Erik’s at Andover.

Erik just appeared in the common room of my dorm one day. I had no idea where he came from, but Heaven never crossed my mind. Here’s what I remember: he was gangly and goofy and shaggy haired, and he always wore dirty white sneakers and a Gonzaga jacket. Always. And he was way too tall to be in high school. I barely came up to his ribcage.

This was 1991, the last semester of my senior year, the last semester of his PG year. He lived in Stuart and I lived in Stimson, and suddenly there he was, every day, cutting through our common room to get to his dorm. He didn’t need to cut through our dorm, but he did it anyway. I think he liked being in the company of women. Meanwhile, I was distinctly uncomfortable in the company of men. I didn’t necessarily trust them—experience taught me they only wanted to make out with you, or make fun of you. They weren’t interested in being friends. But there was Erik, every day. I didn’t really want to be nice to him, but he was so nice that it was impossible not to be nice back. And he let me make fun of him. He let me make fun of him for being too tall, for liking girls who didn’t like him, for losing his backpack again.

Who knows how it happened, but suddenly we were friends, even though we shouldn’t have been. He was happy and easy-going at a time when I was not. He also had a distinctive willingness to make a fool of himself—like the time he tried to squeeze his 6’4” frame into a miniature dog crate and promptly got stuck—but that willingness meant he could get me to do things no one else could: play Frisbee. Attend Friday night dances in The Cage. Go to a Grateful Dead concert. Grateful Dead? Please. I didn’t want to see a jam band, I wanted to be dark and brooding and listen to The Cure. But there I was, singing along to “Driving that Train,” and I was happy. Because it was impossible not to be happy around Erik. He conjured up fun out of thin air, when to me, it seemed there wasn’t even any air to breathe.

I remember one moment in particular when Erik saved me from myself. We were sitting together in Cochran Chapel, witnessing the most outstanding members of our class receive various prizes. The Yale Bowl, the Faculty Prize, the Non-Sibi Award. I knew my name wouldn’t be called, and after two solid years of feeling below-average, I couldn’t find it in myself to be anything but mean-spirited about the entire event. Erik listened to my negative commentary, whispered during the applause, and at first he chuckled but then when I didn’t stop he looked vaguely horrified, and he released a string of adjectives: Maleficent. Malcontent. Malicious. “You are totally and completely Mal,” he said. And he called me Mal for the rest of his life. He was the only one who called me that, and I loved it because he saw who I was and he accepted it, but he also reminded me to be better.

Unexpectedly, we kept in touch after graduating, Erik and I. Growing up, I had moved so many times that letting friendships drift away seemed natural—almost expected. But Erik seemed to know better than I what was important. He wrote me long letters and I wrote him back. On paper, he was just as funny and irreverent as he was in life. Here’s one line, written in 1996 just after graduating from the Naval Academy.

“I am currently doing what we in the Navy refer to as: ‘Aw son of a bitch, I can’t go out tonight, I’ve got fucking duty.’ Yes, we seafaring types still use some fairly colorful language, even in this age of mild politeness and fearful courtesy. Duty means that your choices for the next 24 hours are:
A) Stay on the ship
B) Remain on the ship
C) Do not leave the ship for any reason.”

Here’s another line:

“Incredibly, you’re the easiest person in the world to write to, which contradicts what a battle it is to talk to you sometimes (though I thoroughly enjoy it).”

The following year, he made me a birthday card that read, in part, “I wanted to get you something extra nice, like a goat, or some Kung-Fu Fighters, but I went to the store, and they were all out.” He wrote those words on green construction paper, after pasting on pictures of a goat, and—what else?—Kung-Fu Fighters. Who cares that he sent the card a full two months after my birthday? Because here was a Naval Academy graduate fiddling around with construction paper and glue sticks in order to make me a birthday card. It remains both the ugliest and the most memorable birthday card I have ever received.

Erik signed his letters “Love Always,” and it turned out to be true. He was always there, appearing when I needed a friend the most, still calling me Mal, and still making me laugh even when I didn’t want to. He kept faithful track of me and showed up out of the blue when I was lonely and living alone for a summer in Charlottesville, he invited me to spend Christmas with his family at a time when I was many oceans away from home, he thought nothing of driving eight hours to see me for four, or spontaneously rearranging a complicated itinerary of international flights because he didn’t want me to be by myself on New Years Eve. And he never expected anything in return.

It wasn’t until his funeral that I realized he was a great cultivator of friends. So many people, countless people, a cavernous chapel full of people had stories like mine. A friend who was there always, who would travel great distances and overcome any obstacle to be there. For a moment that bitter high school student I’d been came back. I thought I was special, but I was just one friend out of many. And I had always thought of him as goofy and gentle, someone who loved words and language and books and ideas. What was I supposed to do with the photos I saw of a fierce warrior, yelling commands on a beach? I did not recognize that man. But then it became clear: his many-chambered heart was big and complicated, and it had room for us all. He had always known what I did not, that friendship—true, selfless friendship—accepts but it never expects. He has helped me make more room in my own malcontent heart for so many things, but most of all for friends. And that, I believe, was Erik’s greatest gift among many, his ability to always make room for one more friend.

I don’t really believe in Heaven, but I do believe that’s exactly where Erik came from.

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