Dec. 17, 2019
Last Friday evening, I took our 12-year-old to softball practice at the indoor batting cages in Portland.
I was reading a book in the car when I got a text from Sarah, my wife.
“Can you come home right after practice? Someone is at our house who wants to see you. I’ve been sworn to secrecy about who.”
So we got home, walked through the door, and boom — out jumps this mountain of a man, arms outstretched for a huge bro hug.
It was my college roommate, Erik Ingbretson. He had flown to Maine from Chicago, without any heads-up. We had seen each other only a handful of times in the past 20 years. Turns out I’m not great at long distance friendships.
So here was Erik, standing in the middle of our kitchen, holding a stocking full of gifts for our entire family.
About a month ago, Erik learned about my stage IV colon cancer.
His wife, Ali, who went to college with us, had read one of my blog posts. Right away, Erik knew what he had to do. He was going to surprise me with a holiday Hallmark moment, bro style. He booked a flight, rental car, and hotel (in case, you know, we weren’t home). He swore people to secrecy, and gave his mission a hilarious and perfectly Erik code name: “Operation Christmas Lobster.”
There are a few things you need to know about Erik.
First, the exterior. Barrel chested. Broad shouldered. Jaw made of granite. At the University of Iowa, he earned a walk-on spot on the football team. He used to benchpress the couch in our apartment — with Sarah and I sitting on it.
For the most part, Erik enjoyed playing the role of midwestern jock. In high school in Illinois, he was nicknamed The Norwegian Nightmare, thanks to his ferocity on the football field and basketball court. At Iowa, he was known to chug beer from an oversized glass stein.
But beneath that exterior, Erik has always been complex. He’s a sensitive soul with a big heart, a strong desire to learn, and more hobbies than anyone I know.
Erik is passionate about family, woodworking, metalworking, fishing, cooking, games, history, folklore, ancestry, psychology, and probably much more.
Every year, Erik orchestrates a Halloween party for 200 guests in the backyard. For months in advance, the neighborhood kids come over to his house and work with him to engineer and build spooky, automated attractions.
When Erik showed up last week, we picked up right where we had left off in Iowa, except it was even sweeter.
We’ve matured, thank God.
Now we can share our experiences as men, with the wisdom time imparts. Late into the night, our conversations flowed from the serious (cancer, life changes, responsibilities, what it’s like to be a man in today’s world) to the hilarious (quoting classic movies, remembering the Halloween we dressed up as Canadian basketball players from the 1970s, with headbands, wigs, and tight shorts).
By the time Erik departed on Sunday, my face hurt from smiling. If there’s a medicine for the soul, this was it.
Erik didn’t come to Maine to say goodbye to me. He fully expects me to survive this cancer, and he hammered that point home many times. No, he came to Maine for kinship. Even though we haven’t been in touch, Erik and I are family.
If your gut is telling you to visit an old friend, no matter if they have cancer or not, now is the time.
If you have a list of excuses for why you can’t, write them down on a piece of paper and then burn it in symbolic rebellion. Life can change on a dime. You might not get another chance to spend time together.
So book that ticket, get on that plane, show up at that doorstep (you can also call ahead, if that’s your style). Bring your whole self to the experience.
Thank you, Erik.
“Operation Christmas Lobster,” fully accomplished, can take its rightful place in Norwegian lore.