My writing group will meet tonight, and one seat will be empty. It’s been empty off and on for the past few months, as the ravages of cancer and cancer treatments slowly overtook him. It started with what was surely the worst case of bronchitis ever—some thanks for quitting smoking!—and revealed itself as stage IV lung cancer, followed by three years of innovative treatments, surgeries, humorous recoveries—the time he swelled up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon because a slipped stitch allowed air to build up under the skin—the apparent success, the small set backs, the portable oxygen bottle, the come-back of his always thin brown hair but the gradual loss of focus, the lack of notice when the tube fell out of his nose, the inability to follow his own writing as he tried to read to us, still, a diary of his journey.
Last Wednesday, Eric Sutherlin, 61. native of Iowa, reluctant graduate of Exeter, nostalgic alum of DePauw, passed peacefully in his sleep. He was a good friend to me, two hours a week, for more than fifteen years. Once, shortly after his diagnosis, we had lunch. Eric was single; he joked at the time that there was nothing like illness to bring out women wanting to take care of him. (He had the courage, throughout, to look on the bright side.)
We also exchanged manuscripts outside of the workshop setting, and I’ve had the privilege of reading all of his short novels—all vaguely roman a clef about his college crowd, their creative success and failures, their broken hearts. His writing was witty, urbane, intelligent, insightful, and unassuming. I got to know him through his writing, and his writing embodied who he was as a man. He cared deeply about the craft and about the characters who populated his books. He cared about integrity and loyalty and art and living a good life. He liked a contemplative scotch or one with friends. I will miss him, but I am grateful that some of his writing is available, on my Kindle. The four parts of his novel, each section self-contained, are available on amazon.com: Hawk Mountain, A Hero of Our time, Melissa and My Most Desired Health. His characters remain with us to inspire and urge us on, to make our own better for having known his.