Dan Erwin: friendship

On Losing My Oldest, Best Friend

When it comes to things like death and dying, I tend to be a hard-nosed old guy and just go on living, reading, researching, writing, blogging and working out with my coach. When my beloved wife died of Alzheimer’s complications a dozen years ago, it was two weeks after the celebration of her life which was six weeks after her death, before I grieved and fell apart emotionally for just a few days. Perhaps it was the fact that any Alzheimer’s death is a good death. Who wants to go through all that horrible stuff for years and years of my beloved not knowing who her lover is?

But, a couple weeks ago I got an evening phone call from my best friend’s wife, like him, a practicing psychologist in Southern California. She said simply, Dan, John is dying. There were a couple more sentences from each of us and she hung up. And the tears welled up.

But when I heard, two days later, of my friend’s demise, it was a lot more than tears. It was a gut-punch. I called my middle and youngest daughters to tell them that John had died—and I was OK. But when I called my eldest daughter, I broke up into tears. She was silent on the phone for seemingly a long time, and then said, “I know. It’s very difficult.”

We had been close since our first year of seminary in 1959. We met at the new student picnic the weekend before classes started, introduced ourselves and our wives. We connected very quickly, and decided to explore the nearby mountains the very next. The drive from Denver into the mountains and over Berthod Pass the next day was unforgettable for us flat-country Midwesterners. I was driving in our beautiful, big, bi-color, 1957 Chevrolet sedan, today a collector’s car. Its huge windows meant John and his wife could see everything from the back seat. We were delighted by the huge September 1st snowfall that began half way up the pass. Although a lot of cars were turning back because of the snow, it never hindered the four of us. At the top of the pass, we parked, got out and ate the sandwiches at a snowy table, finished, checked the marvelous mountaintop views, and then threw snowballs for at least a half hour. Then we slowly traversed back down, slipping and sliding, the snow following us all the way back into Denver. Big tree branches were beginning to crack and break from the weight of the snow on the leaves that had yet to fall. By morning, the streets were almost impassable from the damage, but I finally got to seminary from Littleton, several hours late to the Cheesman Park location. John and I got together between classes to ooh and ahh over what we had seen the previous day. That was the first two days with a new friend, a relationship that would go on for more than sixty years.

But when the previous day, we got back from the trip to the mountains and to our small, temporary Littleton basement apartment, my wife commented that his wife was not well. Marilyn was very quick on picking up that stuff, and, as usual, she was correct. More than twenty years later, after John had finished his PhD in psych and their nineteen-year-old son had committed suicide, he finally divorced his first wife. In typical fashion, he was very good to her financially, making significant provision for her later years. She moved back to Michigan and he stayed in Southern California, where he continued to teach and practice. About ten years after that, he met a delightful woman, an older student in his graduate class, becoming a psychologist. They have had a very happy marriage. And I have had the happy experience on two lengthy occasions of getting to know Linda.

But back to seminary days. We usually sat next to each other, often critiquing what we thought were Fundamentalist inanities, sometimes asking questions the teachers didn’t like. Especially from the New Testament prof’s lectures. We stayed out of trouble in the New Testament class, and I was surprised by that professor, much to John’s laughter, to be asked to teach basic Greek in summer school.

We both thought the church history prof was a bit childish. One day, John passed a note to me, referring to the prof as “Dennis the Menace,” and saying Dennis must have had a bad night. “Perhaps, no sex?” I could barely keep from laughing, but obviously my red-face was visible to the young church history prof. He saw the note grabbed it, turned red, and dismissed the class, proving to us that he really was just a child. There was no rebuke afterward, but we noticed that Dennis kept his eye on John and me from then on.

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The church history mid-term featured a long multiple-choice and a required response to two of four subjects. I hadn’t studied for the test and received a C grade. . . missed several of the multiple choice. Dennis attached a note, saying he thought I was a history major. I was appropriately pissed, and so thereafter I never missed a thing, receiving 100s and the requisite A grade. I doubt Dennis got my message, even though I thought it was rather straightforward: an extended middle finger for a prof I thought was a poor teacher and a child. As usual, John quickly figured out what was going on inside me, paid a lot of attention to my feelings, and chided me for being careless about my GPA. (At the time I wasn’t planning more education, much less the PhD which I later received.) But I agreed with his diagnosis and changed my ways before the end of the first semester.

A year ago, John reminded me of the two of us, sitting in a large counseling class, listening to the President, the same one who had recruited us, who also happened to be a psychologist. Though he too had a seminary degree and had pastored in the East Coast, he had also gotten a PhD outside his theological field. But John had long since realized our seminary president much preferred traveling and recruiting, fundraising and church speaking more than teaching or going home to his family. Not atypically, John had clued me in on that.  It was a large elective class and John was taking extensive notes, but I had stopped my notetaking. After a few minutes I punched John and told him to stop taking notes. Our prof had just gotten in from a long trip, was bored and playing word games. I said “listen. He’s playing acrostic games, beginning each sentence with the next letter in the alphabet.” John put down his pencil and snickered, telling me he hadn’t noticed.

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