It’s been about a month since I learned that my old friend Ed Henderson died. In our hurry-up-post-it world, that might seem like a long time to wait to write about him, but the delay is apt. The long-term basis of our friendship was unusual for the late 20th century and especially the early 21st: letters that took days to reach their destinations. Paper letters and postcards, with a smaller component of email beginning only around 2000. Both of us liked to write, and liked receiving mail.
That meant that any correspondence we traded usually involved a delay. A letter detailing last month’s news. A postcard from a trip he took a while ago. Recollections of places I went some time back. Delay was part of the foundation of our friendship, maintained by an easy-going, when-you-get-around-to-it correspondence.
We did get around to it. Back in the 1990s, the pace was maybe a letter once a month for each of us. More recently, as middle age kicked in for me, and Ed’s health declined, we traded fewer letters, but always some. He sent me his last letter in March, and I sent him my last one without realizing it during the first week of June, when (as I found out later) he was very near the end. I don’t know if he ever saw it.
A number of times since I heard about his death, I’ve thought, that’s something I could put in a letter to Ed. Something remarkable seen on the road, some recollection about Japan, some example of mankind’s folly — all persistent themes in our letters, besides notes on what it’s like to be a professional writer, or recommendations about books to read, or music to enjoy, or destinations to consider. He had a lot of those for me; I had some for him. Then I catch myself and realize there will be no more letters to Ed. Such is the finality of death.
If I were half as observant or curious about the world as Ed, I’d be doing well. He’d say the same thing about me — he did so in article more than a decade ago — but he was being modest. He had an extraordinary gift for taking in his surroundings with an eye for detail and a deep appreciation of a place’s natural beauty, or the creatures that call it home, or how it fit into the tapestry of human history. His appetite for the world not only took him many, many places, it sustained him as illness ravaged him — and he continued to go many, many places.
Got a postcard from Ed today, I’d tell my family. Where is he now? Alaska. Germany. Italy. Bora-Bora. Yap. South Africa. Timbuktu.
Not only that, he had a facility with words. So he could translate his experiences into text, the better for the rest of us to glimpse what he saw. As such, he was a noted travel writer, under the professional name Edward Readicker-Henderson, a rare thing indeed, though his career unfolded slowly. He was a student, teacher, bookstore worker, and more before taking up writing full time. Early in his writing career, he and his wife at the time, Lynn, did travel guide books, including one that involved them riding a motorcycle all the way up the Alaska Highway. He never had much good to say about writing guide books, but that sounded like a corker of a trip to me.
Our actual time together was fairly limited over the years. We both had places to go and things to do. Having met because we worked at the same conversation school at the same time in Osaka, we hung out some in Japan in 1990 and ’91, and then he and Lynn left the country. He came back to visit Japan in ’92 and stayed with me a week or so while working on a book about Japanese pilgrimage sites (the concept of pilgrimage was of particular fascination for Ed; so were bears and bees and seeking the quietest place on Earth). Yuriko and I visited Ed and Lynn in ’97 in Phoenix, where they put us up for a few days. After that, I didn’t see Ed again until last August, at his home in the woods near Bellingham, Wash.
I don’t have many pictures of Ed. Here he is during our ’97 visit. The four of us had gone to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum outside Phoenix.
One more, published years ago at BTST: Ed in Antarctica in 2007, being pecked at by a penguin.
Ed was a good-natured person, and his fate cruel. He was tinged with melancholy, and for good reason. Health is one of the main ways life can be unfair, and Ed was dealt a crappy hand, ultimately dying at 53 after years of misery. Had his health been normal, or at least somewhat better, he could have been with us another 20 or 30 years, wandering the Earth and distilling his experience into his characteristically thoughtful dispatches.
Years ago he told me that the overarching diagnosis was Crohn’s disease, but I never knew whether that was a doctor’s opinion early in his chronic illness later superseded by other diagnoses, or exactly how such a condition would progress. He never mentioned it again. All I knew was that he suffered a series of awful, debilitating conditions. Yet he soldiered on, as perhaps best explained by Ed himself at his TEDx talk in late 2014.
He was fully aware that his time was short. RIP, Ed.