The champagne bottle was tilted, half-full, and waiting to be sipped. It looked as if it were about to spill at any moment, causing a tragic trickle all over Lauren’s sparkly red shirt. Regardless, she held it close to her chest. Her blissful smile and half-closed, glassy eyes indicated she had probably finished a bottle or two before this one; even if a trickle had occurred, she probably wouldn’t have minded much at that point. It was New Year’s Eve, after all—spillage of champagne was inevitable, if not mandatory. Eric’s arm hung loosely next to her, his smile radiating an air of celebration. It was the carefree, drunken smile of youth, of happy times full of laughs, drinks, and good friends.
A photograph on my dressing table provides a constant reminder of Eric’s presence. Two of my best friends from high school stare back at me with my own reflection every time I look in the mirror. I had known Eric throughout high school, and we formed a bond through many nights of drinking forties and cheap vodka at our friend Derek’s weekend basement parties. Our friendship evolved passed the superficial, albeit fun, alcohol-fueled nights of high school, and grew into something genuine, even as we went our separate ways to our respective universities. Come school breaks, we would spend many a reunited night rehashing our college experiences, including all of its comedies and tragedies—heartbreaks, intoxicated nights, and new beginnings.
After a life-altering semester abroad in Barcelona, I came back to my suburban hometown to idle away my summer vacation sleeping in, staying up late yearning for my blissful Mediterranean city, and hanging out with my high school friends whose presence in my life was becoming slighter as the years flitted by. Eric was one of those few friends that I adored consistently. He was that guy anyone would want as a best friend, a comrade, a partner in crime; he had one of those wise, old souls that radiated awareness beyond his twenty-one years. He was so down to earth that it could never be taken as conceit; rather something inherent in him that I was lucky and observant enough to notice. He was my go-to guy friend for boy advice, not because he had a plethora of relationship experience under his belt, but because he knew the exact way to comfort me and make me laugh like no one else.
That summer Eric got a tattoo—a black tribal design on his forearm to counterpart the ones he already had on his leg and back. He sauntered up the stairs to my parent’s house after he got it, clad in a leather jacket, his long hair and trademark beard (its size and shape changed monthly) a matted mess from riding his new, red motorcycle that he loved, and his parents hated. He walked proudly up the stairs, then tripped and fell—his badass appearance shattered in an instant, bringing him back to his goofy, light-hearted self.
A few weeks later, Eric started feeling sick. He came down with something he thought was the flu. My sister and I went to his house during the day and brought him orange-flavored popsicles and chicken soup. Everyone thought it was your usual, run-of-the-mill cold; it wasn’t until later that we were shocked with the dire truth. Eventually his flu got so bad, he had to check himself into the hospital. A few days later, I got a call from Eric’s mother. He had passed away in the hospital; I never got to say goodbye. They found out the flu-like symptoms were actually complications with his recent tattoo. He had a heart murmur that required him to take medication before dental visits, but he never took it before getting tattooed. The bacterial infection affected his heart and lungs, and eventually took his life.
I had—and still have—so much guilt about the last weeks of his life. I was one of the last of his friends to see him and there are so many times I replay the last moments I spent with him and wish I could redo them, put them on rewind, and rerecord new ones. I wish I had spent more time with him and taken his sickness more seriously, instead of brushing it off as the flu. I wish I had told him I loved him. I wish I could have told him I was sorry for all the times I was a bad friend and thanked him for all the times he was a good one. I wish I had visited him in the hospital, and I wish, at the very least, I could have given him a huge hug. Regret is something that tugs at my heart and, I think, will remain with me for the rest of my life. I know that I couldn’t have done anything to prevent his death, and that everyone feels remorse when someone so loved passes away. Regardless of these reassurances, whenever I think of those last few weeks, my heart breaks a little and I feel an aching sadness, a guilt, deep in my gut.
I thought about Eric daily, especially in the first months after his death. I missed his advice, his robust laugh that echoed for miles, and the way he brought everyone together. When Eric died, our group of friends from high school became closer than we had ever been; we relied on each other to get through the grieving process and reminisced together about all the comical, the fun, and the touching moments we spent with Eric throughout the years. Our experiences with him were plentiful. From boys’ weekend in Tahoe, New Year’s in Santa Cruz, road trips to Davis, and hours spent at midnight views in the Oakland Hills … we all had our unique treasured memories with him.
One night, months after he passed, I awoke in tears, my heart beating so fast I thought it was going to break through my chest. I had a vivid dream about Eric. In it, we were in an obscure water park, I was at the bottom of a water slide and I heard Eric’s laugh. He slid down the water slide in an inner tube, his hearty chuckle radiating, as it always did in my mind. When I saw him, I was confused and excited. It was that excitement you feel when you haven’t seen an old friend in a long time, but this time it was as if I knew he was just visiting from somewhere unknown. I ran up to him and asked him, “What are you doing here? Where have you been?” I don’t recall what he said, but he appeared happier than I had ever seen him. He kept on laughing. I didn’t see any pain in his eyes, no sadness, just a clarity I had never seen before, and a wide smile. I gave him a huge hug, and I didn’t want to let go; I was painfully aware that this was my chance to say goodbye. I hugged him tight, and in that instant I woke up sobbing, tears already forming salty puddles on my cotton pillow.
Many people brush dreams off as sporadic and random brain movements that are meaningless, but I believe they hold spiritual significance and are powerful glimpses into the unknown. I know that Eric wanted me to know he is okay. To me, it was anything but trivial, and I will always cherish that final farewell.
I believe that Eric wanted to give me that last goodbye that I yearned for. Perhaps he wanted me to know that I don’t need to regret the things I didn’t say and the things I didn’t do, because in the end he was my friend and he loved me regardless. He gave me the hug I always wanted and the farewell I always needed to feel at peace with his death. I haven’t dreamt about him since, but I will always remember that dream, his laughter glowing in the sky as he slid down an indistinct water slide in a beautiful place. I am grateful for getting one last chance to see him, to see his smile, to hear his voice, and to have one last opportunity to be connected to him, to touch him, and to say farewell to an amazing friend.