Jon Ehret, My Brother
Not that we’re back in eighth grade or anything, but in the couple of days that this thing has been sitting on my head, wanting to come out through my fingertips even as I had no idea how I would start it or where I would end it or what I would put in the middle of it—and, Jesus, now I’m quoting Seger, what to leave in, what to leave out—I’ve been thinking about a decidedly eighth-grade question:
Who’s your best friend?
Is it your spouse, the person you spend the most time with, the person who hears and tolerates and rides out all the stupid shit you say, the person who’s in bed with you, who knows every embarrassing thing, who shares all the same things with you, who knows where the hurts and the hopes and the hesitations are? That would be a good answer, your spouse. In most considerations, yes, that’s absolutely the answer for me.
Or is it your work confidant? Your childhood friend who has somehow endured? The high school classmate you didn’t know then but are connected with now and cannot imagine not knowing and loving? Your college roomie? Is it your neighbor, the person in the pew every Sunday at church, the father of your kid’s best friend?
Or, maybe, is it someone who has rippled through your life, like a pebble sending slow-moving water rings to the shore? You had something going for a while, then life and distance intervened, then you picked it up and it was just as good as before—no, no, it was better—and then you set it down again, and then it came back one more time and it stuck for good. It has survived decades and losses and different cities and different sensibilities and different marriages and different jobs, and it’s the same thing it always was and it’s also something new, something evolving, something surprising and cherished. Couldn’t the person with whom you share all that be your best friend? Shouldn’t the person with whom you share all that be your best friend?
Jon Ehret was my best friend.
Jon Ehret is gone.
How am I supposed to do this without him?
Before I get into the various specific times and qualities and shared experiences that made Jon my friend, I need to answer broadly the question of why it worked for us, why we latched onto this friendship in the last decade of the previous century and saw it through for thirty years. No offense intended, but I don’t need to answer that question for you. The world can go on spinning if you don’t understand it, and while the world certainly will go on spinning if I don’t answer for me, here’s the deal: In hindsight, I can see it, all of it, what we shared and why it mattered and why it stuck. And hindsight is all I have, now. The drive Elisa and I never made to see him and Laura in their new house in Santa Fe, that’s not happening. His invitation for me to head down and meet him in Utah, where he was picking up a rescue bird (there will be more on this), the one I turned aside with “damn, my work schedule” and “invite me on the next one”—there won’t be a next one, and thus there will be no invitation. The last time I was in Buffalo, N.Y., his hometown (there will certainly be more on this), and invited him to fly out and he turned me aside with “damn, I’ll be at a wedding in Texas.” Yeah, that’s not happening, either.
It’s all hindsight and memories and smart-ass ripostes on Facebook and a text thread on my phone that I will never erase, in hopes that I can someday bear to look at it again.
That’s all there is.
So here’s why it happened and why it mattered and why it stuck, and if this is too abstract, you’ll just have to trust me: Jon and I were the same but different, and this is the second time in a week I’ve used those words to describe the way I’m hard-bonded to someone. And because those bonds were so difficult for each of us to find with other people—there’s nothing like the unexpected death of your best friend to serve as a reminder that you make friends broadly but struggle to hold on to them deeply—we held tight to the fact that we found them with each other.
I think we always knew what it was, but we took a long time to acknowledge it with a nod and longer still to say it and put wind under the words. We did, though. For that, I’m grateful. I have that, too, and so does he, wherever he’s off to.
So, look, I should hope it doesn’t happen to you, but maybe it already has, and the longer you live, the greater the likelihood that it someday will. Your phone rings one bright day, and it’s Laura, and you know it when you hear her voice, because although you’ve known her for as long as you’ve known him, and you love her as much as you love him, he’s still the conduit by which the whole thing goes, and if she’s calling, that must mean Jon cannot, and so here it comes.
This all occurs to you in a whisper of a fraction of a second. It’s fucking insane how fast and final it all is.
Jon died at work, at the bird rescue center in New Mexico where he had found purpose in semi-retirement. He was in his joy, and then he was gone before his coworkers found him. Fifty-five years old. Heart attack, it would seem. No warning, no chance at intervention and another outcome. Gone. I spent the better part of a decade flat-out ignoring a condition that I knew would kill me if I let it. Jon had a lovely day with his wife, then went off to his birds, and never came home.
We’re the same but different.
Laura tells you all this, and you remember another phone call, 1993, Owensboro, Kentucky, to Buffalo, New York, and you were the one piercing the bright day and saying our friend, Brian, he’s dead, and Jon says, “Why?” And you realize that’s one hell of a good question, then and now, because it’s the only question you have:
Nobody fucking knows why.
And you bounce to another memory, Brian and Jon at the center of it, where you’re at work as a sports clerk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, couldn’t have been later than fall of 1991, and you’re making fun of your boss’ phone manner, because you’re 21 and a smartass, and you pick up a dead phone and say, “Staaaaar-TelegramsportsthisisEd,” because that’s how Ed says it, and all the editors on the desk are laughing, because you’re one funny sumbitch, and you don’t see Ed behind you and he says, “That’s pretty good. Good skill for your next job.”
And here’s Brian: “I just got a warm feeling.”
And here’s Jon: “That’s not a warm feeling. That’s Lancaster pissing himself.”
And here you are, missing them.
We met at the Star-Telegram. Jon was 24, and I was 20. He had a master’s degree from the University of Missouri in hand, and I was steadily on my way to bombing out of college for good.
The same but different.
He liked The Who and King Crimson. I liked Paul McCartney and R.E.M. I was making plans to move to Alaska (for the first time), and he thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I thought he was the smartest guy I knew, a brilliant layout man (we drew them in those days, kids) and someone worthy of emulation. We were big, lumbering guys, often more comfortable in our interior lives than we were on the outside. I covered up with a sort of zany bearing and kept a lot of my deeper thoughts to myself. Jon balanced anger and the most generous heart I've ever known.
The same but different.
Later, the connections went deeper. A weekend with the Ehrets after he and Laura moved to Buffalo, a day trip to Niagara Falls, an introduction to Newcastle Brown Ale, before it went all corporate. A snowy night, the last of the trip, when we ordered in and he urged me to get a cheeseburger sub and when I hesitated, he was all, “Man, it’s a cheeseburger on better bread. What’s the problem?” No problem at all. Delicious. And while we had surely eaten meals together before then, in my memories that’s the line of demarcation where shared food experiences became part of the deal: Jak’s in West Seattle, barbecue in Texas, seafood in Damariscotta, a legendary birthday meal at Walkers here in Billings on a minus-12-degree day, his urging me toward Ted’s Hot Dogs and Duff's in Buffalo, and my going to both, every time I'm there, even though we were never again there together, now much to my eternal regret.
“Buffalo is a great fatboy town.” I say it. I live it.
Jon said it first.
In 1996, I decided, after some consideration, to seek out my birthmother. I told Jon what I was doing, because I knew Jon would have both an appreciation and a point of view, as an adoptee himself. He didn’t tell me not to, but he presented every you-oughtta-be-careful-here he could think of. He said he couldn’t imagine doing it.
I did it anyway.
Many years later, when he could imagine such a thing, I could give him some on-the-ground intel. I could validate the things he got right, contradict the ones he got wrong, and throw up flags around the ones neither of us thought of.
He did it anyway.
And, our being the same but different, we had more to talk about, in conversations that had the width and breadth and depth of galaxies. The kind we had so much difficulty having with other people and yet never had trouble getting into together.
Another night of spotty sleep draws near, so let me just wrap it up this way:
I have four brothers in a family line that looks like a tangle of kudzu more than it does a tree. There’s the brother I inherited when my mother and my stepfather got together. We lost him four years ago. There’s another who was born to that union. And there are two half-brothers who came with the search for my birthmother, the one I pressed forward with despite Jon’s admonitions, just as he pressed forward later with his own quest and his own questions. Neither of us, I think, would turn aside the decision we made after it was done.
The same but different.
Then there’s the fifth brother, the one I chose, and the one who chose me. I know he’s my brother because he told me so, and because I told him so, and because he was the kind of guy who didn’t use words he didn’t intend, and he told me these a long time ago:
If you ever need anything at all, you tell me, OK?
I took him up on it, too, in ways that seemed picayune at the time and register even more inconsequentially now. I was lucky, I guess. I never needed anything substantial and life-changing. A kidney. A roof over my head. A slayer of the wolves at the door. You know, the biggies.
He filled mine. He broke it, too, just the other day. I’ll patch it up. He lives there now.
8/24/2021 08:30:24 am
Craig, I’m so sorry for your loss. Your anguish and regrets are so relatable. They comfort me a little in my own as I’ve reflected on “should haves” over the years when I’ve lost dear friends. But the end is the right one: they live on in our hearts and they change us forever, those friends.
8/24/2021 10:57:53 am
That was lovely, Craig. Savor memories.
8/24/2021 05:46:02 pm
Craig, there are no words that this lovely tribute didn't say far better than I could. So I will just say you filled in a bit of the Jon-shaped hole in my heart. And I thank you for that....
8/25/2021 08:55:07 am
We love you.
8/25/2021 10:07:58 am
My heart hurt as I read your words. When someone you love is snatched from life suddenly it feels like there is no way to have closure. I have experienced this too, and honestly it took a long time to accept.
8/25/2021 05:37:46 pm
Beautifully said, Craig. My church says, “may his memory be eternal” when someone passes. Your words and memories of Jon will keep him with you. 🕯
8/27/2021 04:10:21 pm
I just heard about Jon and read your post, Craig (with tears in my eyes). Jon spoke of you fondly and often, and especially whenever I was about to head through Montana to see the family back in North Dakota. We worked together at Seattle Times and MSN. Similar story: Always planned to get down to New Mexico and just never happened. I loved the man. He was a good friend and will be deeply missed. There hasn't been a week that goes by where I haven't thought "what would Jon say or do about this". Thank you for sharing your memories.
8/30/2021 03:12:38 pm
Oddly enough I heard about Jon's passing from Dad who's neighbor knew Jon. My Dad told me that a guy named Jon Erht(he didn't know how it was it spelled) had died in Santa Fe. I racked my brain trying to figure out who he talking about. Then my brain engaged, and I said Jon Ehret maybe? He said yes that sounds right. I was just thinking about him the other day, was going to try and find him on social media. Never got around to it. Was saddened to hear about his passing. He was a bear of a guy, this coming from another bear of a guy. I met Jon and Laura back in the mid 90s here in Dallas. They had just bought a house here in the M streets. Always had a wry smile on his face, always seemed skeptical. He was a yankee to me-from upstate New York but despite the difference in our geographical birthplaces we hit it off immediately and became friends. They moved away( I think) and we lost touch. He would periodically cross my mind, I'd wonder what he was up to or if he remembered me. Jon was a guy who his impression on you and it stayed with you. He will be sorely missed by his family and friends. I'm sorry I never got a chance to see him again. RIP Bud-fair winds and following seas.
8/30/2021 04:30:07 pm
Thank you for this, Carter. I'm so glad you got to know him and remember him.
Vicki L Friedman
9/2/2021 10:30:43 am
These are really beautiful words, the kind of writing that you really feel. I only knew Jon at Mizzou as a fellow grad student. I spent the summer there; he laid out the sports section most nights and I did the copyediting. There was lots of good-natured banter between us, and he gave me a ride home every night that I really appreciated. I was stunned to the news and am so very sorry to his family and you, his very best friend.
9/2/2021 11:36:21 am
Thank you so much, Vicki, for sharing your memories of him.
11/13/2021 08:16:53 am
Hi - I was a longtime friend of Jon’s sister Jen, and I just went to text him pictures of her grave (I clean it up every so often and put flowers on it) and they came back undeliverable. My heart sank and I did a quick Google search and found his obituary and this lovely tribute. I hadn’t spoken to him since early summer. I’d love to speak to Laura and pay my respects. I’m in Orchard Park NY and can be reached at Kjbcamacho@gmail.com
3/20/2022 07:17:16 am
How fortunate anyone is to have someone we love enough to call “brother” or “sister,” or anything that suggests the same bond. How fortunate we are to read work like this that reminds us of someone we held in the same regard, someone we lost or fear we might. I’m sorry for your loss, and thank you for writing this.
3/20/2022 04:40:03 pm
Beautiful tribute to Jon and all his different ways. I can still see him convincing me to buy a fedora in Canton. We bonded over a love of music and vinyl. And of course, sports. I learn a lot about lacrosse and hockey from Jon. I treasure those years in the sports department.
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Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
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