At 2:30 on this past Tuesday afternoon, Larry & I were in California, standing transfixed for almost an hour– looking out at the Pacific Ocean hurling itself against the rocks of Point Lobos, where Edward Weston took his beautiful black and white photos and the ancient Monterey Pines huddle in Hobbit-like resistance against the sea, fog, mist, and salt that assail them.
We were mesmerized by the ocean and waiting for the really big swells that would crash against the rocky shore, sending up huge plumes of spray. I was hoping for gigantic waves- the bigger and wilder, the better!
Meanwhile, thousands of miles south, that same Pacific Ocean was hurling itself against the shore of Dominical, Costa Rica, and catching up a beautiful young 20-year old named Erik Downes in its inexorable power, pulling him under, and eventually drowning him.
Erik is a student at Oglethorpe University where my husband is president. So when we got back to our friend’s house in Carmel about 4 pm, giddy with sun and salt spray and beauty, we got the call from Cassandra, one of the professors who was traveling with six OU kids over winter break studying eco-tourism – telling us that Erik was missing.
My husband had to call Erik’s mom that night and give her the worst news a parent can ever receive. She is a woman of great faith, so she held out hope that Erik would be found alive – all the way up until Friday, when his body was found in a nearby bay.
Oglethorpe is a small, close-knit college of 1,100 kids so the news about Erik spread fast. On Thursday evening, we held a candlelight vigil of hope and students showed up in tears, along with professors, trustees, staff, and alumni. People shared memories of Erik, some funny, some terribly poignant.
I didn’t talk but I was remembering the first time I saw Erik at the freshman dessert party – he was so distinctive, charismatic, and self-assured, he was just one of those kids who stand out. As I watched him over the years (he was a junior, an RA, Vice-President of Student Council, and involved in all aspects of life at the school) I always thought, “Wow, it’s going to be so interesting to see what he does with his life!”
Erik was ambitious, focused, articulate, and he took advantage of every opportunity college presented to him. And because of his intelligence, sensitivity, and work ethic, he had lots of chances to shine. At the Trustees dinner in October, Erik sat at my table, and in his own quiet way, charmed everybody around him.
One couple was from Ft. Meyers, his hometown, and they asked him to call them when he was home on the holidays. He did, and had lunch with them over Thanksgiving, talked about his close relationship with his mom, and told them of his plans to become a doctor, and his excitement about going to Costa Rica.
To lose a young person is always difficult – for my husband, it’s the worst part of being a college president. But to lose somebody like Erik is a particularly bitter blow, because you know his promise and potential for enriching the world– if only with his wide, dazzling and ever-inclusive smile. And you can only shudder to imagine his parents’ agony…we should all be as gnarled as Monterey Pines from the sadness of it.Oglethorpe University will be starting a scholarship fund in Erik Downes’ name and I’m sure I’ll be contributing to it.
But my overriding feeling right now, watching the kids at OU moving in stunned grief to cope with the loss of Erik, is the incredible preciousness of each one of those young people we have on campus. I hope they know how special and beloved they are.
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Thank you for the beautiful tribute to an amazing young man.
We loved Erik very much and were very lucky that our lives intersected.
It’s easy to be oblivious to the suffering that goes on, somewhere, every hour of every day. I suppose it’s not only easy, but necessary, or we’d lose our ability to function. But then it hits home and paralyzes us with grief.
I’m sure there’s a lot of hugging going on at Oglethorpe right now, and while It doesn’t take away the loss, that sharing of emotion is a great tribute to this young man. As is this essay you posted today.
It is the call that every parent never wants to get. I know it must have been incredibly difficult for Larry to make that call. Thank you for sharing Erik’s story, it was a true tribute to this awesome young man who left the world far too soon. What a terrible loss it must be for the students, faculty and administration of OU.
Sometimes there just aren’t the right words….I am so sorry for the loss of this young man. My mother’s heart cannot imagine how deeply his family grieves. So sorry for your loss…
Catherine — it’s something every mother dreads, and can scarcely comprehend. Thanks for your beautiful comment!
Betty, Thank you for the teaching in this post. Ask any parent and their greatest fear is loosing a child before they go. It is a great sadness that Erik Downes, age 20, has left us. Yet from your story of Erik I sense that he lived a fuller life and taught us more in 20 years than many do in 80, 90 or 100 years. I am thankful for Erik and that you told us his story. May we honor Eriks short life by being more present in our own. May all be happy and well. GT in NC
GT – that is so true! Erik was a builder of community and he always reached out to those around him … in the students’ comments on his “wall” it was remarkable how many of his friends talked about what an inspiration and healer he was… He certainly lived deeply and fully and compassionately – and what an example that is!
Betty, what a beautiful tribute to this young man: by yourself and everyone who attended the candlelight vigil.
I need to point out the obvious although I’m sure you’re aware of it, Erik has already lit up the world with who he is and that beauty will always remain in everyone’s memory. Even long after you forget what he looked like, you and everyone else will always have that warm feeling in your heart when you remember or talk about him.
And that I firmly believe was his purpose here as all other bright lights in our universe that are snuffed out too soon.
It is always so painful for those left behind, isn’t it.
Love it that you are still around 🙂
A happy abundant new year to you and yours!
Love that you’re still reading — thanks for the beautiful and sensitive note. Erik was a shining light — that was so obvious to everyone who knew him!
My heartfelt sympathy to Erik’s mom. She raised a wonderful man. I am so very sorry for her loss and unmeasurable pain. May his name be a blessing forever.
Amen to that, Laurie — I love that saying! xoxxo b
Every day we need to look in the mirror and vow to treat this day as if it were our last. Eric sounds like he did that. Thank you for sharing his life and dreams with the world, this is a better place because he lived. So sorry that his family and friends must now travel on without him. I pray the memories are all good ones. -jan-
so sorry for this huge loss for his family and his school family
Betty, the loss of Erik makes me weep. I cannot imagine his mother’s anguish. My thoughts and prayers are with you all. Thank you for the post.
Me too! He was an only child of a single mom and they were very, very close. I am so glad she has such a strong faith — I can’t think of anything else that could help you get through something like this!
Thanks, Betty, for writing so lovingly about someone whom the rest of us will never have the chance to know. His mom, family, and all of you are in my heart and prayers. Please keep us posted about the scholarship fund.
Will do! Many of the parents and alumni have expressed an interest – so we’re waiting to talk to Erik’s mom to see what she would like to do! Thanks, Cindy!!
So sad, Betty. My heart goes out to you, Larry, the family of Erik and all the students of OU. What a dismal way to start the new year.
amen to that, Lori…. but maybe it’ll all be uplifting from here!
Betty – Stu had told me this news – so very sad – have been thinking of you. I’ve been thinking for a while of the terrible fragility of life, and this incident underscores it all the more – hard to be a parent if you think about it too hard, and the weekend’s events sure don’t help.
Take care, will be thinking of all of you and the community there – best,
I’m so sorry for yours (and all of ours, really) loss of Erik.
My thoughts and prayers are with all of you that were close to him.
Thanks, Cheryl — It just breaks my heart to think of his mom — she did everything right raising him, and this just seems so hideously unfair!
I appreciate your kind words…