In the story we tell of our family, the Fall 2019 chapter will be entitled “Haunted by Tragedy.” Three people close to us died unexpectedly in the span of four weeks. The past few months have been consumed with sorting belongings, planning memorials, and dealing with the aftermath of loss.
This weekend, we held a joyous and moving celebration for my friend Eric Dixon at one of the pubs where he played many winning games of trivia. This marks the last of the tangible tasks left to the living. The heart carries on with the intangibles. Here is what I shared at Eric’s service.
It is the music that finally does it. Sylvan Esso, “Funeral Singers.” It’s not the song’s particular connection that splits me open. It’s the fact of the music. That I can hear so much better, that I have learned to taste, appreciate and eventually love music that would have never existed for me if not for Eric. I’m guessing this is true for many of us here. How many of us can say — show of hands — that it’s because of Eric that we know King Crimson? I bet we all have lists of things we call our own now because Eric’s enthusiasm infected us. For me? It’s Galactic. Janelle Monáe. The author Katherine Dunn. The mathematician Martin Gardner… and that’s just the start of my list.
So while it’s not some particular connection to this Sylvan Esso song, what breaks me is that music is playing, and I want to share it with him, and he can’t hear it. I am standing in the kitchen and have to grab onto the counter as grief spins the room.
Writing this is hard. Words fall short. Which is absurd because with words? Eric would have found a way to get it down. Mercy, did the man love words. He could type 130 of them a minute without a single error. He read like a sea sponge on Adderall. He wrote constantly… professionally yes, and also in the spirit of inquiry and imagination: prolific, polymath compositions that filled the pages of blogs long before anyone called them blogs.
Words don’t fall short. Eric walks us to a mountain of words. Brings us to a surging river of words.
But he also brings us so much more.
He brings us his way of geeking out on music. Technology. Board games. Lynda Barry. David Lynch. The Coen Brothers. Richard Feynman. News and politics. Economic theory. French steampunk cinema. He brings us his way of tracking music festivals or midnight films or escape rooms or game tournaments, then gathering friends to go. He brings us his tendency to use every possible PTO day to hop on a plane to visit nieces and nephews, or feed an artistic or comic or scientific obsession.
He brings us his way of being a friend.
Did I mention Eric was my friend? Maybe even my best friend?
I met Eric at trivia. At Highline. That first night, we had a very agreeable disagreement about the release date of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” It was a Monday, one of the two evenings a week when my son, Eliot, is with his dad and I am free to go be social. Eric did not have kids of his own, but he almost instantly tuned into my parenting schedule. From that point on, Eric made sure to include me. Whatever performance, festival, or game night was coming up, he looked into the venue’s kid-friendliness or asked the hosts if my son could come. When Eliot had the rare pleasure of joining us for trivia, Eric made a place at the table and modified our team name to Popcorn and Fashion.
He picked up on the fact that my son is crazy about math, puzzles, crafts. When I fretted about managing a long winter weekend alone with Eliot, Eric sent a link to this awesome video from Vihart about making hexaflexagons. My son and I filled hours cutting paper and constructing these mathematically trippy shapes and showing them off to neighbors. Because of Eric.
Eric thought of me in ways that were truly about me and my life. This is what a best friend does.
But I want to say something about this. Eric knew a lot of people. You might say, Hell, a lot of people know a lot of people. What’s so special about that? But it turns out a lot of people may not really know all the people they know.
Eric knew a lot of people but he approached being a friend the way he approached ideas, gaming, music, film. He sort of geeked out on being a friend. He took the time to learn deeply about the people in his life. For a rather verbally and emotionally understated person, Eric was remarkably tuned into people. He paid attention to who was having a hard time in their relationships, who was struggling at their job, who had dietary restrictions or mobility issues, who had anxieties that could be mitigated by a change in venue or dynamic.
In his attention and his heart, Eric made room. For so many of us. And he showed up.
He showed up when Ashley tried her hand at being a trivia host. He used his very modest travel budget to fly across the country to celebrate Anna and Andy’s wedding. He helped out behind the scenes with the Scavenger Hunt on the National Mall even though he would have much preferred being a participant. Eric happily went along on an all-day outing to a cidery in Middle-of-Nowhere Virginia even though he doesn’t drink.
When Deb organized a white water tubing trip Eric joined even knowing it would be a challenge. He went to see music with Carolyn and Christian at their UU church despite his complicated relationship with religion. Eric’s excitement about starting a new chapter in Falls Church was palpable, and he was so eager to explore and make a place in that community with Hannah and Will.
Last year, Eric showed up for my first spoken word performance and brought a whole group of friends along. From then on, to almost every poetry night I hosted each month, he came, often alone, just to cheer on the poets and me quietly from his table at the back of the bar.
In one of the online appreciations, Eric’s friend Mary Fanning wrote this: “Eric was an accidental Best Man at our wedding. He showed up with so many ‘saves’ that weekend….from using a steam mop to delivering Travers’ shoes in the nick of time. Maybe there were no outer limits to Eric’s friendships.” No outer limits.
Many of us keep a small handful of friends close to our hearts. Maybe two or three, and if we have even that, we’re fortunate. Because it’s hard to hold other people. Stories are complicated. People’s fervor for their obsessions can make our eyes glaze over. Their quirks tire us out, their struggles or stuck places frustrate us. As much as we may long to get close, we protect ourselves from the obligations of closeness. We only make so much room in our lives.
But Eric made ample room.
No outer limits.
So while I will hold onto the precious knowledge that Eric was my best friend, I understand now how very many people hold the same sweet secret. That so many of you who knew Eric felt he saw you, he cherished you. Because he did. He loved each of his friends completely.
And now that he’s gone? This is where we try to wrap it up in a neat little bow. But there isn’t a way to do that. Because it’s not fair or right that he’s gone. Even though he immersed himself in more than most of us could fit into 10 lifetimes, Eric had just gotten started.
Since Eric died, one refrain I keep hearing from people is that something will grab our attention — a cool article, a piece of art, a random bit of knowledge — and the instant impulse is to share this with Eric. And the loss hits us all over again. Because now it’s just a conversation with his ghost.
My hope now that Eric is gone, is that we will keep letting the world encroach on our attention, keep letting the Sylvan Esso moments split us open. That we will stay awake enough to be enchanted, and to cultivate the kinds of friendships that welcome utter, geek-out fascination. Keep inviting each other into play and wonder.
And most of all, my wish is that while Eric is off exploring the whole big universe of marvels, that we let the traces of him and his spirit, push us past the outer limits on our friendships. That we hold our dear ones with the attention, the generosity, and of course the love with which Eric held each and every one of us.