It brings me great pain and sadness to type these words, but my dear brother Ed Lunnen passed on from this earth on Monday evening (May 8, 2017). I am still incredibly raw and in the midst of processing everything, but I felt compelled to put together this summary of Ed’s beautiful life:
Some of you knew Ed as a talented beach volleyball player with a mean spike, others as a charismatic restaurant server who was cherished by regulars and co-workers alike, and still others as a dear friend whose sense of humor and positivity was legendary. He was my big brother.
Born on June 10, 1977, Edmund Ryan Merrill Lunnen was something of an anomaly from the beginning. He had unusually long fingers and toes, which prompted the doctor to remark “you’re going to have a tall son!” Throw dark hair and tan skin into the mix and you have just the right ingredients for a champion beach volleyball player – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a young boy, Ed practically owned the block. He was notorious for “rounding up” the bikes and hot-cycles of the local neighborhood kids, which he proudly displayed on our front lawn as a badge of honor. If you were to ask any of the locals who the coolest kid in town was, I’m confident that nearly all of them would blurt out Ed’s name. Do the same some 30 years later, and I still think you’d get the same answer. Sometimes he had to fight for his turf, and that meant having the occasional pot of spaghetti dumped onto his head from over the wooden fence by the local neighbor boys. I can’t be sure, but that may be the precise moment that he became known as Eddie Spaghetti.
Growing up together, I remember taking trips to the local card shop while perched atop the handlebars of Ed’s Huffy bicycle. It was as a young child that he developed his love for collecting sports cards – a love that he held onto into adulthood, even during his final days. I’ll never forget his uncanny ability to rehearse statistics such as batting averages or rookie years for virtually any card that I flashed in front of him.
Ed was a complex character in many ways. He had a maturity and an inherent wisdom about him – particularly after being shaped and chiseled by four years of battling cancer – and yet that maturity and wisdom was wrapped in child like innocence. During his last couple of months while he was staying with my mom, I asked him if I could bring any of his possessions to him and one of the few things that he requested was his wooden chest filled with sports cards.
As a teenager, Ed was as popular as they come. It was an era of oversized basketball shorts, XXL Fila and Adidas t-shirts, and bleached hair tips; and it was an era that Ed ruled well. His chariot was a white 1990 Chevy Lumina, an unwieldy boat of a car which Ed managed to pilot from the passenger seat using his unusually long arms and legs. It was a trick that mystified the occupants of nearby vehicles who probably thought they were witnessing the world’s first “self driving car”. It never failed to bring hearty laughter to all who witnessed it.
It was also as a teenager that Ed cultivated his love for volleyball. In fact, while Ed was staying with my wife and I this past winter, I heard a knock at the door one evening and was surprised to learn that it was Ed’s high school volleyball coach. Even after more than two decades had passed, the impression that Ed had made on this man was still as tangible as it was in 1996. In the coach’s own words: “Out of the thousands of students and players that I worked with, there was none quite like Ed.”
After waiting tables at JB’s restaurant in Salt Lake for a time, Ed embarked on an LDS mission to Argentina, but his time there was cut short after learning that our oldest sister Lisa had been diagnosed with brain cancer and didn’t have much time left. Tragically, less than two years from Lisa’s passing, our sister Doree was also taken by cancer. Not long after that, Ed’s dad passed away.
To say that Ed’s world had been turned upside down would be an understatement; and yet because of the person that he was, he managed to pick up the shattered pieces. He loaded his car with only a handful of possessions and drove west to California in order pursue his dream of playing professional beach volleyball.
While pursuing his dreams of volleyball by day, Ed waited tables at night at a restaurant called BJ’s – which was ironic considering that the restaurant that he had worked at prior to that was called JB’s. BJ’s was a place where he met some of his dearest friends, and legend has it that he met a few girls there as well – but I have a feeling he would jokingly deny all such allegations.
Ed spent a decade chasing, jumping, and diving after his dreams there on the sands of Huntington Beach, and though he never made it to the Olympics, he played alongside and was respected by Olympians. Though he never made a fortune playing volleyball, I’ll never forget the excitement and pride in his voice when he called to tell me about a bit of money that he had won in a tournament. I responded with equal excitement, stating that “whenever something good like this happens to you, I feel like it’s happening to me too!” As brothers, we shared that special bond.
How many of us can say that we spent a decade of our lives relentlessly pursuing our dreams, even if it meant living a humble life of simplicity, interspersed with periods of public transit, shopping at thrift stores, and eating leftovers at work?
How many of us would jump right back into that life, just months after completing a grueling six month course of soul-sucking chemotherapy; all because your drive and hunger to succeed at your life’s passion was THAT strong?
I can’t even begin tell you how much I admired that about my big brother.
Sadly, less than two years after being declared to be in remission, Ed’s cancer returned with a vengeance and this brought him from the sandy beaches of California, back to the mountainous hills of Utah.
In a trip that Ed himself deemed to be “legendary”, Ed and I hopped into a pickup truck and made the trek from Utah to California in order to gather together Ed’s humble collection of belongings. The drive there and back consisted of precious hours of talking, playing our favorite songs for one another (Ed always wanted to be a DJ), and stopping at a handful of gas stations and fast food joints along the way. Oh, and an overnight stay at ‘Whiskey Pete’s’ – a hotel and casino located near the California & Nevada border. What I wouldn’t give to have just one more night at that 2-star hotel with my brother, talking until three in the morning, with the A/C rattling on in the background.
One of the first stops that we made once we hit civilization in California was In-N-Out Burger, which was one of Ed’s all-time favorite places to eat. About two hours later we made it to Ed’s apartment in Huntington Beach, and for the first time in many years, I got to see Ed’s life in California.
I can’t really explain why, but walking into his bedroom for the first time nearly brought tears to my eyes. Somehow it helped paint a more complete picture of my brother, connecting the dots between “California Ed” and “Utah Ed”. As you might expect, virtually all of Ed’s possessions managed to fit inside that small room, and consisted of a TV that our family had given him for Christmas some years ago, an older laptop which was covered in Jack’s Surfboard stickers, an old Xbox 360 which he watched Netflix on, a wooden chest full of sports cards, a water jug partially filled with coins, a dresser filled almost exclusively with board shorts, boxer shorts, and t-shirts – and finally, Ed’s most prized possession of all – a California King bed that he picked up for a hundred bucks at an estate sale. He loved that bed so much that he insisted on strapping it to the pickup truck and hauling it back to Utah.
We spent a few days there in Huntington Beach, and I continued to learn more about “California Ed”. He took me to one of his favorite places – 24 Hour Fitness – which he treated as if it was his own private castle. He walked me through his workout routine (you would never believe that he had Stage 4 cancer based on the way he pushed through those preacher curl sets), then we soaked in the jacuzzi, and finally, we made a dash for the steam room, where Ed emptied out nearly an entire bottle of Eucalyptus Oil into the steam vent – as was his custom.
After the gym, he took me to what he called a real health food store – Whole Foods – and showed me his favorite way to load up a plate at the buffet there. All throughout that trip, I felt as though I was a young student following the master sensei around, soaking up his way of life. I’ve always looked up to my brother and have viewed him as a role model, and even into adulthood that never changed. I would venture to say that a man is nearly as influenced by his older brother as he is by his father, and I pray that Ed lives on through me now that he’s no longer walking this earth.
I rejoice in the fact that he’s no longer bound to a hospital bed, but the realization that Ed is no longer physically here among us is still too raw and painful to wrap my mind around. Part of me refuses to believe that the man who drove countless miles with the gas light on was captured by death’s snare. How did the luck of the man who somehow always managed to be the last one to board an airplane, somehow run out?
Perhaps the reason that I can’t fully accept my brother’s death as being true, is that in some sense it’s not true. Consider this quote from Lord of the Rings, of all places:
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
I choose to believe that one day Ed’s death will come untrue, and that I’ll find myself wrapped in his tanned, sand sprinkled arms again someday. Maybe, for the first time in history, he’ll accuse someone else of being late to an event. I believe that Ed is sitting at the feet of Jesus, along with our sisters Lisa and Doree, reminiscing about all the great memories that they had together here on earth; just as myself, my mom, our sister Angie, and Ed had done while huddled together in his hospital room less than two weeks before his passing.
Ed wasn’t an overtly religious man, but he had a very powerful, childlike love for God. More often than not, Ed spoke his faith through his actions and how he lived his life, rather than through words. Not once did I hear him curse God during his battle with cancer, and when I asked Ed if he was upset with God, he promptly responded “Of course not, it’s just part of the deal of being on this earth.” Watching Ed handle cancer with the grace and the nobility that he did was both humbling and inspiring.
Cancer may have cut short Ed’s life here on this earth, but he lived more during his 39 brief years than many people who live for 99 years. He truly lived out his philosophy of being poor on material things, while being rich on life. Ed’s legacy will continue to live on through the hundreds – or dare I say thousands – of us who were blessed to have known him well enough to realize just what a treasure he was. We’ll continue to tell stories about his big heart, his love for his friends and family, his hilarious antics, his hard earned volleyball skills, and his relentless hope and optimism which persevered until the very end.
“I see you player.” And I can’t wait to see you again.
Quick facts about Ed:
Favorite Foods and Drinks: Thai Food (especially Tom kha), Sumatra Coffee, In-N-Out Burger, Nielsen’s Frozen Custard, Cafe Rio, Del Taco, Scrambled Eggs and Toast.
Vehicles: Chevy Lumina, Suzuki Sidekick, Volkswagen Jetta, Jeep Wrangler, Honda CRX, Toyota Tundra, Old School Cadillac, Hyundai Genesis, CTA Buses, and a Mountain Bike.
Passions: Beach Volleyball, Hip Hop, Mixtapes, Working Out, Collecting Sports Cards, Sports, ESPN, Car Audio Systems, Epsom Salt Baths.
Quotes: “Okay player”, “I see you player”, “Son!”, “You ain’t ready!”, “I’m on the way, I’ll be there in five minutes” (said from the comfort of a bathtub located 30 minutes away from the destination), “Du-du-du-dude”, “Dudesons”, “Noiiice!”.
For those of you who wish you could have visited Ed during the final months of his life:
As Ed’s cancer began to overtake his body during the final months of his life, he became increasingly adamant about not allowing people to come and visit him. I am convinced that this was for three reasons.
First, I believe that Ed found the prospect of saying goodbye to so many that he loved to simply be more than he could bear. One of the things that he told my mom is that “If people don’t already know how I feel about them, then they aren’t going to know by visiting me one last time.” Ed wasn’t a fan of goodbyes. In fact, we never said goodbye to one another. The last words that we spoke were “I love you bro” and “See you in a few days”.
Second, I believe that Ed wanted people to remember him as he was before he was sick.
Finally, I believe that it was Ed’s way of protecting those whom he held so dear from having to witness the suffering that he endured during the final stretch of his life. Is this any surprise, considering the size of Ed’s heart and how he so often placed others ahead of himself?
Finally, if you find yourself deeply wounded by Ed’s passing (and who isn’t?) and are questioning how a supposedly loving God could allow such a terrible thing as cancer to exist, I would encourage you to read this blog that I wrote, titled “Why Does God Allow Cancer to Exist?”