There were emails, phone calls, and voicemails resolving details that once were addressed only in person after being summoned home.
We have you doing a short reading from Micah which I think you will find suits Eric.
I staggered through those days feeling as though I’d lost a leg and was surprised I could still walk.
Life presents us with choices. If we pay attention to these choices we can consciously shape our future. One of the best decisions I ever made was to sit next to Eric Ching in the back row of the classroom at our first visit to Gunsite in May of 1986. Gunsite was a shooting school in the high desert near Prescott, Arizona we’d both long aspired to attend. I’d seen him around the gun club in the months preceding the trip and he seemed like an interesting guy. I was not disappointed, that week or over the next 21 years.
Eric, Greg Clemmer, Don Swanner, and I – “the Four Stooges” – made the road trip to Gunsite together for six years after our first visit. Back in San Jose we shot together in a weekly pistol league and then went out for supper. Over time we stopped shooting in the league but continued the tradition of dining together every week.
Eric was a man of many talents. He was wicked smart, something you’d expect from a man with two masters degrees from Stanford. We debated topics as varied as the path to nuclear disarmament, the merits of national health care, and my personal search for religious faith. He played the piano, something I didn’t know for many years. I handled Eric’s Japanese swords many times before noticing their stand was sitting upon a piano. Greg told me once Eric never “tried” anything. He immersed himself until he mastered it. In his forties Eric studied figure skating until he was actually good at it. Then he learned to ride a horse well.
Eric was fastidious. He kept a little bound book in the glove box of his car in which he noted the mileage, fuel purchased, and oil level every single time he filled up. The car he owned when I met him lasted a quarter million miles.
Eric was a connoisseur. When my doctor recommended I add a glass of red wine to my daily diet Eric hosted a “How low can you go?” wine tasting which proved you could find a decent $6 Cabernet but you needed to spend at least $12 to get a drinkable Zinfandel.
Eric loved books. His library was marvelous. You form ideas about a person from the books he or she chooses to keep, whether the books are well used, or whether they’ve been read at all. All of Eric’s books had been read. Eric liked mysteries. After writing to Sue Grafton to point out some technical errors in the first of her “Kinsey Millhone” mysteries Ms. Grafton invited him to visit her home in Santa Barbara to refine her knowledge of firearms. Her protagonist’s gun craft took a pronounced turn for the realistic in the very next novel, “B, for Burglar”. We usually exchanged hunting-related gifts for Christmas but one year I managed to surprise Eric with a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.
In 1995 Eric and Greg came to hunt whitetail with me at my cousins’ deer camp in northern Minnesota. It was only mid-November but winter was already in full force. Eric had grown up in Hawaii and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Even bundled up like blaze orange Michelin men “the guys from California” suffered horribly in the bitter cold. I’ve never seen the guys so eager to get back indoors at the end of the day.
The weather was nicer in 1997 when Eric, Rita Robinson, Greg, Bob Voss, and I went hunting in South Africa. We had a fine time and Eric proposed to Rita. Eric returned several times to Africa with Greg and others for more hunting.
When we moved our family back to Minnesota in 1999 the friendship didn’t miss a beat. We talked by phone from time to time, but exchanged email almost daily. We shared the details of our preparations for the November deer season, preparations that usually began in February. That fall Eric joined Greg and me to hunt on our family’s farm in North Dakota. Over the years he and Greg harvested much venison in and around Norway Township, especially in “The Woodlot”, which became our favorite place to hunt whitetail deer.
In August 2006 I was sitting at the desk in my hotel suite. A tedious business day completed, I checked my personal mail. My inbox contained a strange email from Eric that made no sense. It was a garbled report of something wrong with his brain. I read it again. My heart became a block of ice. I called Greg.
“What’s going on with Eric?”
“Maybe cancer, maybe a stroke. We’ll know more tomorrow.”
There was more to the conversation but I don’t remember it.
Within days we knew the truth. Gliomas – brain cancer tumors – were growing in and around his speech centers creating aphasia. The prospect of our friend – this man of words and ideas – rendered mute was offensive; it may have troubled me more that the idea of his death.
The surgeons removed the tumors except for one wrapped around an untouchable, irreplaceable artery. The tumor could not be removed and would not be killed by radiation or chemotherapy. The aphasia faded though. The gift of speech, to perceive it and create it, returned. Eric was changed though. His grammar was mundane. Word choices once second nature now came only after a brief search. Sometimes he spoke in metaphors because the correct word did not come at all. But he could talk to us, and we to him. It would do.
Eric did not hunt with us in November 2006. Shortly before the deer season I called him to say we’d miss him.
“I have that bottle of Silver Oak I’ve been saving for a special occasion. I thought we’d drink it this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our first trip to Gunsite, but let’s hold on to it until next year in case you can join us then.” Was that a lie? I didn’t care.
“Do you think it will keep?”
“Sure, it’s waited this long, another year won’t hurt.”
“That would be nice then. I’ll look forward to it. I really appreciate it.” Was that a lie? I didn’t care.
I visited Eric and Rita a couple times over the course of his illness. The first time was shortly after his radiation therapy. His hair was thin and the semicircle of scar behind his right ear was still proud. He and Greg and I had coffee. Then we went shooting. Eric did really well. “I didn’t know if I could still do it.” He said with a smile. We picked up Rita and drove to the coast, visited the tide pools, and ate seafood. It was a full day and it tired him. Rita took Greg and me aside. “Thank you for giving Eric a normal day.”
I flew to California again in the spring. Eric and Rita had agreed to stop the chemo. Eric had lost a lot of weight and was beginning to look a little frail. He took action more thoughtfully. He and Greg and I went out for coffee. He moved more carefully. We went out for a nice long lunch. Eric was too tired to go to the movie theater so we watched a DVD. Eric napped.
In late July 2007 I traveled to California to see Eric for what I knew would be the last time. He was very thin. He lay under a light blanket on a hospital bed installed in the master bedroom. Eric was sleeping most all of the day by then, but stirred briefly from time to time. I leaned close and read him Forgotten Stand from Sam Cook’s anthology Up North. Then I leaned closer and told my friend what I’d come to say.
“Eric, I know you’re tired, but I need to tell you a few things. I want you to know that it’s okay for you to go. We’ll miss you, but we’ll be okay. You don’t have to hold on for us. Greg and I will help Rita any way we can. Everyone at home, and in North Dakota, and in Greenbush, asks about you and wishes you well. You’ve been so good to me and my family I can’t begin to express it. Being your friend has been one of the great pleasures of my life. Thank you for being a brother to me. I love you.”
He whispered to me, “Okay.”
I flew home Thursday, July 26. Eric died two days later.
A Christian Burial
Readings – Burial Service – 3:00 p.m. August 4, 2007
A reading from the Book of Micah: (6:6-8)
Eric was not a church going man. He had a small RSV Bible bound in flexible red leather given to him by The Community Church of Honolulu. Rita has a strong and beautiful Christian faith, but Eric was not especially religious. He was intrigued by my search for answers to religious questions. He was amused by my eclectic mix of atheism, deism, panentheism, natural philosophy, and the idea that several tenets of my faith were drawn from science fiction. I told him that a line of dialogue from the television series Babylon Five unified much of my thinking on the subject, “We are star stuff. We are the universe made manifest trying to figure out itself.” He once asked me, “So, if salvation isn’t your goal and you don’t believe in the afterlife what is the objective of human existence?” My response was drawn largely from Frederick Pohl’s Heechee Saga. “We need to survive the heat death of the universe, transcend proton decay, and find the means to step into another universe or create another.” He smiled, “Oh, is that all?”
In the end, funerals are for the survivors. The passage from Micah was simple and solid, a testament to Rita’s humble faith that in no way would have compromised Eric’s sensibilities. Even though neither of us would have requested a Christian service he’d have done the same for me.
I hunted in our favorite deer woods the afternoon of Monday, December 31st, 2007. Greg didn’t hunt that afternoon but made the rugged little hike to join me in my Uncle's woodlot at the end of the day. The sun set and New Year's Eve was suddenly upon us. The snow was white under our lights, the northern sky was a dark gray shroud, and the trees were black shadows. We found a young tree at the spot where Eric preferred to wait for his deer. We took turns digging a small hole at the base of the tree. The ground was frozen and initially resisted our efforts but we persisted. In the hole we placed a compass - for what little guidance Eric might need, a knife for his time in the woods, a pencil with which to write, and a two dollar bill - the culmination of an inside joke between Eric and Greg. We opened our small packet of Eric's ashes and spread them over his tools. Then the three of us shared one last sip of the Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon I had planned to share on the 20th anniversary of our friendship in 2006. Our promises kept, we closed the hole and covered it with clean snow, knowing that from now on our friend will always be there when we arrived. I suppose this was an ancient and pagan ritual; one as old as humankind, simple, and satisfying. The walk out was long and quiet.
Many fine books from Eric’s library now grace our bookshelves. Rita asked that I take those which held meaning for me. I hope to have time to read them all. Among them is a used book in which I inscribed the following to Eric for Christmas in 2005:
When I find a nice old book like this on the shelf in the local used book store I am at first pleased with my good fortune. Then I am saddened at the thought that this well-used book came from the library of an elder and better who has left the field. Was he a hunter, a shooter, or an armchair adventurer? What other titles filled his library? Was he a man we would have otherwise liked? Did he have friends who were as good to him as you have been to me these past twenty years? We will never know, but we can return this volume to service and carry on where our anonymous benefactor cannot.