By Gavin Hart
"You gotta tie it over the handle," he said as he gently pulled the strap from my hand. "Like this."
I watched as he threaded a short length of paracord through the strap and around a handle on the side of our food pack. With a tug of the rope, the pack rose and disappeared into a canopy of autumn leaves, far enough from any wandering animals that might wish to steal from it. That was the first thing Eric taught me that week at summer camp. He was a quiet eight-year-old Inuit kid, the same age as me.
It wasn’t until the third day that I decided to approach him while he was eating lunch alone. I asked him several questions, to which he responded politely, but he didn’t make any attempt at eye contact until I asked him what his parents did for work.
"I don’t know. I’m adopted," he said, this time looking straight at me. "They’re somewhere in Nunavut. But I’ve never met them."
Little me wanted to console him, but all I could muster was a half-cocked "oh."
The next day Eric found me by the stables talking to the horses through the fence, which we were told explicitly not to do.
"Hey, want to play Frisbee?"
"Me?" I asked through a curtain of disbelief.
"Yeah, let’s go out to the fields."
Third-grade me had never been asked to play. I was used to doing my own thing on the school yard, so it felt a bit unnatural to be throwing a Frisbee around and talking to a complete stranger, but that’s what we did all morning, pausing only for sliced apples and Kool-Aid.
Eric told me that he was adopted from Whale Cove, Nunavut, when he was two. His mother was unable to support him, and was happy to hand him over to his forever parents, Gale and Peter. Hearing such a complex life-story made me feel guilty for having such a standard upbringing.
"Yeah, I was born in Parry Sound, but we moved to Bracebridge and now my parents own a motel," I explained.
There were only a few more days of camp left, but Eric and I spent every remaining day together, playing and goofing off as children do. I remember the day we stole and ate an entire jar of cake icing from the kitchen. We both got incredibly sick and slept it off behind an old outbuilding.
On the last day of camp, we said our goodbyes, hugged, and parted ways. I still remember Eric as the first friend I ever made. I never expected to see him again, let alone live with him.
I imagine our lives became very similar at some point in the eight years that we were apart. I imagine that Eric also had difficulty making friends, paying attention in class, and feeling happy like kids should. He probably grew into his depression like a pair of hand-me-down pants, just as I did. It’s not hard to imagine him smoking joints and stealing his dad’s beer by age 13. My point is, Eric and I were failing some very basic requirements for having a successful youth.
From the stories he told me later, I gather that Eric started out with alcohol, but later graduated to opiates when he stole a bottle of his grandfather’s hydrocodone. This began a fast track to heroin, homelessness, and a broken family.
One morning, Eric’s father found him unconscious on the front doorstep. Eric had evidently tried coming home one night after being missing for over a week, but in his delirious state couldn’t figure out how to use the door. He gave up and fell asleep on the porch. He was rushed to the hospital where they pumped his stomach, and concluded that alcohol poisoning and heroin had almost killed him. For Gale and Peter, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and placed Eric on the road to recovery.
In a separate corner of the province, I was in a similar rut. At 16, I had moved out of my parent’s house and was becoming heavily involved in an ever-expanding drug culture. I wasn’t speaking to my family, and I was failing my studies. I suffered a drug-induced breakdown one night in March of 2013 and called my father for the first time in months.
"I’ll go. Please come pick me up and I’ll go," I told him.
That night, I found myself in room number eight of my parent’s motel because I wasn’t trusted inside the house. I stayed up all night, afraid of what I had gotten myself into. At six in the morning, I got in the truck with my parents and was driven to the middle of nowhere. I was ushered into a cube van and driven to what can loosely be called a wilderness detox program.
The program was structured in two sections: eight weeks of rough camping in the backwoods of Sunridge, Ontario gave your body time to sweat out the drugs, and then you were transported to a school-like facility where you went through the rest of your treatment. Unknown to me was that Eric had started the program ten weeks before I had, so he had already done his time and had been transported to the school.
The weeks I spent in the woods program were the hardest of my life. The withdrawals, the isolation, and the homesickness breaks you down after a while. Once my eight weeks were up, I was transported in the same old cube van to the school.
I didn’t recognize Eric at first, but I remember seeing him in the dining hall and noticing that he stood out. The boys were split up into two teams. I was on team one and Eric was on team two, so I wasn’t formally introduced until about a month later when we had “community day.” This was a day held once a month when the two boys’ teams were allowed to mix together to play sports, and the like. We were picking teams when one of the captains yelled out his name.
"… and I’ll take… Eric Aylik."
The memories of my first friend came flooding back to me. I approached him halfway through our game.
"Hey, did you ever go to ***** for summer camp?"
"Yeah, I did."
"Do you remember me?"
There was a pause, and then a smile of recognition followed by a hug.
"No way! That’s crazy," he exclaimed as people began to gather around us.
"We used to go to summer camp together!" I said.
"No way! You guys know each other?" One guy asked.
"That’s crazy!" Another exclaimed, and it really was. Our program accepted children and adults from all over the world, and it was rather expensive to be admitted and looked after. The fact that both Eric and I had been sent to the same treatment program in the same window of time was remarkable.
From that day on, we were firm friends. We gave each other nicknames; he called me Doc and I called him the Pelican, because man, did he ever have a beak on him. The quiet kid I knew was no more.
We were on opposite teams, but we still saw each other every day in the dormitory. We enjoyed our evening chats for about 13 months, until July of 2014 when Eric was finally done treatment and ready to graduate. He was moving to Ottawa to pursue a career in bio-technology, and I was beyond happy for him. I watched him grow up a considerable amount that year, and I was sad to see him go. I remember hugging him and hearing him say "you’re gonna do great, Doc."
Fast forward about three months, and it was finally my turn to leave. Packing up all of my things and saying my goodbyes felt strange. That was the most bitter-sweet day of my life thus far. I was excited for the future for the first time in my life. I was moving to Ottawa for college and I couldn’t be more excited, but most of all I was excited to see my pal, Eric again.
School and work ate up most of my time at first. I didn’t have much time to socialize, but that was part of the aftercare system, after all. They made sure that when you left treatment, you would be keeping busy so as not to fall into old habits. We chatted online or texted each other sometimes, always making plans, but never seeing them through due to our conflicting schedules.
I had made plans to go have a couple of drinks at my classmate’s residence. I was sitting on the bus, listening to music with a general feeling of excitement. This would be my first night of drinking in almost two years, and you better believe I was excited. I was almost on campus when my phone buzzed. It was Jenna, a friend from treatment.
"Hi, Gavin. I’m not sure if anybody has told you yet, but Eric passed away this morning. He died in his sleep."
What a way to find out. It felt like a shotgun shell to the chest. I felt like panicking, screaming, or hitting something, but I didn’t. I went to my friend’s residence, drank beer and pretended everything was fine.
I later found out that Eric died of a sudden heart arrhythmia that was likely caused by alcohol, but given Eric’s history, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were drugs involved and it was kept a secret by the family.
Three months later, I was having serious doubts about my humanity. One of my best friends had just died and I still hadn’t cried. Not while I was alone, not at the funeral, nothing. The strange thing was that I felt completely fine. I had a new girlfriend, my studies were going okay, I had gotten back into martial arts, and while I was definitely feeling a great amount of sadness and stress, I hadn’t cried once, and I’m generally an emotional guy.
A few weeks had passed and it was a Saturday night with my always-drunk girlfriend, so naturally we were at the dive bar down the block from her apartment. I was starting to feel quite drunk when a lump in my throat formed.
"Let’s go home. I’m drunk," I slurred.
On the way back to her apartment, I noticed something wasn’t right. I’ve never had a heart attack, but after having this experience, I knew what having one would feel like. We burst through the door and I collapsed on her bed, where I proceeded to sob like an idiot. Eric was dead and here I was getting loaded and wasting my life with a girl I didn’t care for. I fell asleep.
In the morning, I finally had time to think. I came to the conclusion that I was back on the wrong track. I was wasting time and I knew that if I had died in my sleep that evening, the same way Eric had, it would have been with a mountain of regret. Something needed to change.
We had moved to the same city, but we had never gotten together. That will bother me for the rest of my life. However, I remain optimistic, because a friend once told me that I will do great. Though he’s gone, the pelican still teaches me, and I can’t wait for my next lesson