My Friend Drew

Drew liked to tell the story of how we met. My daughter had signed up for a winter event at Silver Lake Conference Center, and I had asked if I could volunteer with the other age group that weekend. Drew and Debby led the group I wanted to work with.

Although it’s always useful to have adult counselors at these events, Drew wasn’t at all sure he wanted to include this unknown “helicopter parent” who might both distract the other group and leave him without a fully engaged counselor. I assume he got enough reassurance from the camp directors because he and Debby welcomed me with no signs of his reluctance.

I confess that I brought my own hesitations. Drew set off all sorts of alarm bells going back to my teenage years. He was tall with a booming voice. He was an athlete. His hair was closely cropped. He led the event with an air of confident authority. He reminded me of too many people I’d had painful relationships with many years before.

And… he was tall. He had a booming voice. He was an athlete, winning a bronze medal in his age group at the US National Fencing Championships in 2016. He did change the length of his hair, but it was never very long. He did carry himself with confident authority.

That weekend also demonstrated the incredible depth of his heart and soul. Drew had trained to be a public school teacher because of his passion for teaching and inspiring young people. He left the classroom because the administrative overhead frustrated him more than he would accept (my father, who worked many years as a public school administrator and teacher, would have sympathized). He poured that commitment to teaching into coaching. He founded a fencing school in Willimantic, Sword in the Scroll, which offered both modern fencing and German broadsword.

When we met, one of the other counselors for the weekend, a college-age student, was nursing some bruises from a mistake in her guard. Drew the coach was both sympathetic, making certain that she wasn’t doing things that would delay her recovery, and also evaluative, helping her understand what she’d done so that she could do it better next time.

It was a good weekend.

I didn’t yet know I’d made a friend.

Some time later the Silver Lake directors asked me to consider becoming a dean for a week-long summer conference. “We’ll set you up with experienced deans,” they said. So in summer 2008 I joined Drew and Debby Page as the third wheel dean for “I Learned it All in Volleyball.” Volleyball, incidentally, is an enthusiasm Drew and I shared. Among the trio, Drew was known as the “alpha dean,” Debby as the “beta dean,” and I was the “omega dean.” It worked so well that we did it again the next summer (and my son Brendan came along as a counselor).

In the meantime, Drew and I had started to spend a lot more time together. At the end of 2008, we offered him the position of Media Assistant for the Connecticut Conference UCC. It was not an easy choice. We had some really solid candidates who offered very different sets of talents and skills. The position was new and none of us really knew what it would become. In the end we settled on Drew because he was not only skilled, he was constantly adding to his skills. He would do so throughout his work with the Connecticut Conference and the Southern New England Conference over the next 13 years.

Drew joined me in a large but rather noisy and visually chaotic office on the “Garden Level” (basement) of United Church Center in Hartford. Noisy? Drew’s desk sat next to three servers and other network appliances whose fan noise varied but never ceased. Visually chaotic? Shelves around the room contained computer equipment, reference manuals, and stacks of storage media. I had a habit of retaining the packing boxes of computers we’d recently purchased in case a defective unit needed to go back. And I had an, um, elastic notion of “recently purchased.”

Drew settled in to maintain mailing lists, postal and electronic. He assisted with feeding various databases. He was a solid copy editor, cleaning up my more awkward constructions (and I’d rather like him to read this piece right now). He took on writing projects for our printed and online publications. His first byline, as far as I can tell, appeared in spring 2009. He stepped behind a video camera at Conference events, and like his boss (me), carried a still camera on his shoulder.

He’d done some of these pieces in other parts of his life before, but he learned new things incredibly fast, as well as combining these skills in ways that really served the ministry we were doing. Drew’s ideas rose from a deep understanding of what we were trying to accomplish, what benefit we were trying to bring to the people of the conference. We didn’t try everything he thought of. Not everything we tried worked. A couple things that I thought worked well took more time than we had for them – I really regret the video reporting we couldn’t do.

We gave Drew more hours. Drew took those hours and turned them into precious gifts.

We shared an office. I remember one spring when we had a very heavy workload. We were preparing for a spring meeting of the Conference. We were also filming and editing 32 brief videos in which Silver Lake deans invited young people to their conferences. Each one lasted a minutes, but – there were 32 of them!

The two of us recorded them together during a gathering of the deans. He’d film one group while I filmed another. When we were back to the office, Drew sat down at his computer and forged through those recordings, reviewing each take (there was always more than one), adding transitions, fixing the audio as best he could, and putting in the titles. It was hours of work – and he did it so well that Silver Lake has continued to do much the same in the eight years since.

Sharing an office isn’t just about work. You learn things about office mates that you don’t learn about the folks who work down the hall. When Drew was preparing for competition at the national level (this was before 2016), he changed his diet and work habits – by which I mean, he made sure to move around more and avoid stiffening up at the desk. When he suffered increasing shoulder pain from an old injury – and when that injury was aggravated – I was one of his companions in the journey to heal.

And then we started going out to lunch.

I have… irregular meal habits. I frequently skip lunch entirely. Drew, a much more careful person around health and diet, did not. It might be light, but he made sure his body was being properly sustained.

But then once or twice a week we’d go out to lunch along with Emily (then Hale) McKenna (who may have got this started in the first place). There were several places we enjoyed in that immediate West End neighborhood. We’d take the opportunity of workers everywhere to gripe about our workloads (I was formally Drew’s boss, remember), but mostly we talked about the important things outside of the working life of the church. We talked about music and kids and dreams. We told stories about our pasts and imagined things for our future.

In the office we were partners and collaborators. At the table we were friends.

I can’t remember more than a fraction of the stories. I can’t remember more than a portion of the dreams. What I remember was the assurance of friendship, or companionship, of faith in one another as well as in God.

Friends at a table – Drew is just behind me.

When I left the Connecticut Conference and moved to Hawai’i, Drew told me that he’d committed to making only three phone calls to ask me about a problem. Those calls, by the way, were more than fair. I’d left a working system, but I’d left a system that, for the most part, I’d built. There were a lot of things that, despite my best efforts to document them as I was leaving, I was probably the only one who knew. I expected that Drew would have to make more than three calls despite his best efforts and intentions.

He only made two.

In February 2020 Drew received a diagnosis of colon cancer. He went through radiation and surgery, writing about them quite frankly in his blog, Drew’s 2 Cents – and he did it during a global pandemic. He had a reassuring season, but in January of this year learned that the cancer had spread to lungs and lymph nodes. Though there were treatment options, none would have much impact on the course of the disease, and all would reduce his ability to enjoy the life he had. He chose to enjoy that life.

“In otherwise,” he wrote, “dream of the things you want to do, enjoy the life right in front of you, and try like hell to be good to other people. If you have the skill, knowledge, or talent to impact other’s lives, do it. If you have the opportunity to witness something amazing, don’t hesitate. And don’t underestimate what can amaze.”

Last week I wrote a song for Drew, performing it during my weekly live stream. Its formal title is “To the Banks of the River Jordan,” but truthfully it’s Drew’s Song to me. About four hours after I sang it, Drew went from our care to God’s.

When I heard Drew had died, my prayers were not suitable for human ears. God may be excused for not listening for a while. They weren’t coherent. I was not blaming anyone, not God or a person or even that demon “Cancer.” I was just blistering the metaphorical air with my hurt.

It didn’t take too long for me to be mad at the world. “Why aren’t you stopping?” I shouted (silently). “My friend has died! Stop! Just STOP!”

Neither the world, nor I (to be honest), stopped. When has it? When, to be honest, have I?

Drew was far more than my experience of him. We were co-workers and friends. Drew was also a husband. It was a joy to witness his relationship with Debby. He was a father, and over the years the only thing that grew faster than Duncan and Dani was his love for them. He was a teacher and coach, and I had only a glimpse of that. He was a musician, and oddly enough the two of us didn’t make much music together, though we played the same gig once.

In the end, what can I say but this: He was my friend, and I have rarely made a better choice than to enter this friendship. Now he is gone, and I am deeply sad. The memories remain in their precious fragility, but more than that the love endures, and will endure beyond the end of time.

Song: To the Banks of the River Jordan

by Eric Anderson

July 26, 2022

[Verse 1]

First one leads, then one follows
One aids, and one seeks aid.
In the story of friendship
You and I have made.
But you’ve taken the lead this season
And I cannot keep pace
To the banks of the River Jordan,
To your crossing place.

[Chorus 1]

There’s a time for work and progress,
There’s a time for rest and play,
But this time to say farewell to you:
I’d have asked for a later day.

[Verse 2]

We shared in joys and sorrows.
We put our hands to the plow.
There were times of heartfelt sharing:
May they comfort us now.
As you walk to the bank of Jordan,
As you near your crossing time,
My tears flow with reason,
My grief has so many rhymes.

[Chorus 2]

There’s a time to plant and nourish,
There’s a time to harvest and store,
But I’m lost in this time of farewell.
I’d have asked for a little time more.

[Verse 3]

Bright days and thunder sounding,
Our minds at work to shape words
Telling others’ stories as sweetly
As ever a story was heard.
As you make your crossing of Jordan,
Don’t linger, my friend, for me.
You can lay aside life’s burden.
In the crossing, my friend, you’re free.

You can lay aside life’s burden.
In the crossing, be free.

[Chorus 3]

There’s a time to live and to flourish,
There’s a time to shed life’s shell.
Though I could have asked for later, my friend:
Aloha o’e – fare well.

Though I could have asked for later, my friend:

Aloha o’e – fare well.

© 2022 by Eric Anderson

Streamed live on July 27, 2022.