On June 6th, 2014, my hero and dear friend, Dr. Eric McLaren, lost his four-year battle against ALS. I emailed, visited, or sent handwritten letters to Dr. McLaren every day since his diagnosis to make sure he would never have to fight this awful disease alone – he would always have me at his side for support. This is my final letter to Eric McLaren that reflects back on our friendship over the past few years.
Do you remember the very first time I walked into your office to meet you? I think it was in October or November of 2010. I was undoubtedly the craziest looking 14-year-old – colorful hair, braces with neon pink and green rubber bands, and sweatpants a size too big. You were not daunted. You smiled wide and before we knew it, we were talking and laughing like we had known each other for years.
One visit turned into the next and I was soon in your office every single day. With a huge grin on my face, I bounced off your office walls and talked until my throat was sore. In the spare moments of our busy lives, we discussed classes, my ALS work, family, food, and more. I was there to make sure you were okay. I wanted you to know you never had to fight this awful disease alone – you would always have me every day for love and support. I know I frightened you a bit with how much I talked and my excessive energy, but you never once pushed me away. I placed post-it notes with positive quotes around your office every day to give you strength, strength that pushed me to continue raising awareness of ALS and begin my own ALS research at local universities. As the weeks of my sophomore year quickly passed by, I watched sadly as the disease took over your arms, but never your spirit and your smile.
As our friendship continued to grow throughout the summer before my junior year, IMSA faculty began telling me how much the two of us were alike. They saw something in both of us – incredible perseverance and courage. As I wrestled the tough challenges of adolescence and IMSA, you battled a horrific monster that neither of us understood. We fought side by side and inspired each other. When I was crying on the floor of your office or did not know if I would get through a long night of homework, you never failed to comfort me and assure me everything would be alright. And every day I remained at your side, making sure I could bring laughter and happiness to your withering world.
There were many days during the first semester of junior year when I would pass by the windows of your office and catch a glimpse of your movements. You would bend all the way over just to put your glasses on or to take a bite of your sandwich. My heart grew so heavy for you every time I watched this happen. I desperately wanted your life to be pain-free and full of happiness. My heart wept, but I stayed strong for you. I continued to visit you every day and even when I was stuck at home with a severe concussion, I called to see how you were doing. No brain injury would get in my way of being there for you. You hung up my positive decorations on your office walls and kept a picture of us on your book shelf. You cheered for me at my volleyball games and when I was ready to give up during my half marathon, you ran beside me. Your body grew weaker and weaker, but our friendship remained strong. When you went into the hospital with a collapsed lung in 2012, I cried and cried. I worried about you every single day. I wrote you hilarious letters and sent you your absolute favorite Bugs Bunny stuffed animal to keep you company. When you got out of the hospital, you could only move your legs a little and could no longer eat or breathe without the use of machines. And so I remained at your side every day. We would get through this together.
College applications and ALS research filled up my senior year, but I continued to visit and email you as much as I could. You were on my mind every single day, even when I walked across the stage as a member of IMSA’s Class of 2013. Although we ended up hundreds of miles apart after I graduated, I still wanted to be there for you each day. I know I sent you too many emails and handwritten letters, but I hoped that for a few minutes, my words might take your mind off of the pain from ALS and bring you joy. Because the disease had spread to every part of your body, you could not always reply, but when you did, it helped me find the courage to overcome obstacles in college. I visited you as often as I could, and these visits always motivated me to continue leading the fight against ALS. I talked nonstop as I sat at your side, but you continued to let me in your world each time and eagerly listened to my every word. Even though you could not move, breathe, or eat on your own, you remained the best listener every day and never judged. I felt so comfortable telling you everything about my life. With tears in my eyes, I sat at your side until the end, so proud of the indelible mark you, my hero and favorite person, had made on the world.
Now that you are gone, there are so many things I miss. I miss when I would walk into your office screaming, “HEY DUDEEEE!” and you would swivel around in your chair with a huge grin on your face. I miss having dinner at your house with spinach stuck in my braces and your Christmas parties. I miss you cheering for me at my volleyball games and running beside me through the streets of Chicago for my half marathon. I miss your voice and your smile. I miss you. I am deeply saddened that I will never be at your side again, but I rejoice knowing you are no longer in pain. I feel blessed for the beautiful moments we shared. You will forever be in my heart as I continue to lead our battle against ALS. Over these past few years, you have inspired thousands of people around the world and will continue to inspire even more. But most importantly, you have inspired me. I will stay strong for you and never stop fighting for a cure for ALS. One day, this disgusting disease will be wiped from this Earth – for you.
Eric McLaren, thank you for being the most amazing friend, teacher, principal, and hero I could have ever asked for.
Miss you tons. Love you forever and ever. May you rest in peace.