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Lessons from Chris – A Bias Towards Action

Posted by on May 5, 2014 in My Health Updates - 4 Comments

My friend died last summer. It still feels like it happened yesterday. As the weather warms in Alexandria, I think back often (maybe too often) to the muggy morning when I got a phone call telling me that Chris Battle was gone. Initially, I didn’t feel like I had a right to grieve. Chris’ wife, Dena, his two girls, his brother, his parents – they all knew him so much better than I ever could have. True grief was theirs alone. And yet, I was sad too, deeply distressed, immobilized. I tried – and failed – to ignore it.

The way we think about the people we lose really speaks more to how we view our own lives than to those whose lives are over. Everyone grieves differently. I have had family and other friends who have died, and for many reasons, my grieving for them was fairly short and not too troubling. Not so with Chris. For almost a year, I was unable to reconcile his absence with what it means for me. Our personalities and approach to writing were so similar that to admire and know Chris was almost to look at what my life could be a decade from now. And then he died.

Death always reminds us of our own mortality, which is a scary thought. It can be paralyzing. How much more severe is that paralysis when we view our own existence as in many ways mirroring the person who is gone? I became fatalistic in my thoughts, wondering whether anything was worth doing because it could all be snatched away unfairly and at a young age. This idea, that Chris’ fate would be my own, grew like an insidious weed in my mind, like a cancer consuming motivation and ambition. And the one guy I wanted to talk it through with was the one person I will never speak to again.

But I do know what Chris would say to this existential quagmire; he told me. It was back in December 2012. We were sitting in his home office, drinking tea, talking. He asked me, “So how is your writing going? Your personal writing?” We both saw non-work related writing as superior to and more righteous than the prose for which we were paid. Chris’ question was actually asking, are you working on being a writer or just being a pen for hire? Are you living or just existing?

My response was lame. I said, “I’m so exhausted from writing all day that when I have time to write for myself, I’d rather just watch TV. Plus, I don’t know, I feel like I have to live more before I have anything relevant to say.”

Chris immediately cut me off. “That’s nonsense. If you wait your whole life to write something meaningful, you’ll never write anything. Look at me. I’m trying to write as much for myself as I can, and I don’t know how much time I have to do it.”

Chris was acknowledging his own mortality, something he had not done with me before. I was shaken by it. He concluded that part of our conversation by saying: “Don’t waste your life. Write.”

Every day since Chris died, I thought of these words but could not escape the fatal view that I would die young. It was a vicious, impossible conflict. The mind cannot indefinitely remain in dissonance. It demands resolution. Once I allowed myself the freedom to grieve for Chris, I was able to break through the paralysis, and I reached a couple realizations that are helping me move forward, to follow Chris’ example rather than wallow in his absence. First, we are not the people we lose. All of us are individual beings with our own road to walk. Losing Chris was simply that; it was not foreshadowing my own demise. It seems obvious, but it took me a while to get there.

The second thing I realized was that respecting Chris’ friendship and teaching requires a bias towards action. The time to write, to aspire, to live is right now. We cannot assume tomorrow will come. In dwelling on these ideas, I came to see that the only thing more counterproductive than sitting around missing my friend was using it as an excuse for inaction.

Appropriately, Chris’ final words to me were in writing, an e-mail he sent while in hospice care. He wrote: “Having the family together here in Savannah has brightened up things significantly. If things go well I hope to return to Alexandria for a blow-out…Talk soon.”

Chris didn’t come back, but the rest of us are here. There will never be another day like the ones we enjoyed while Chris was alive, but that doesn’t preclude us from living. If anything, it should inspire us and motivate us to strive to be as good as Chris, as driven, as eloquent, as filled with life and focus and happiness. To truly see and embrace that is his parting gift, one we should accept because Chris gave his life to give it to us.

So what do I do now? What do any of us do? We keep moving ahead, we keep reaching high, and above all, we do not waste our lives. There isn’t much time for tears when there is so much life to live.

Chris and me drinking beer and playing video games in 2010. He was a natural at Guitar Hero. We both drank a little too much, for which I am forever grateful.

  • Connie Abel

    Justin, you were fortunate to know Chris personally.I, on the other hand, only knew him and Dena through his blogs.Their humor and ability to inspire have encouraged so many people, like myself and my husband who has kidney cancer.

    Thank you so much for this tribute to Chris.It speaks volumes about you. Keep on writing!

    Connie and Floyd Abel
    Macon, Ga

  • Wendy

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I, too tout myself as a “personal writer” and never seem to have the time for that after a full week of work. And I actually have a similar sense of mortality to Chris’s since I have stage IV kidney cancer, too. But I am fortunate to be living with a chronic version, and I believe that your and Chris’s words may have just changed what I find time to do….thank you both. And you, too, Dena, for so generously sharing Chris with us. xoxoxo, Wendy

  • Gina Savory

    Beautiful tribute, Justin. Reminds me so very much of this poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

    One Art

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master

    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

  • Sara Furlong

    Thanks for this post, Justin. I can relate on two levels: 1. frustratingly infrequent personal writing, and 2. the fatalism that can develop when you’re surrounded by illness and dying. Still trying to work my way through both.

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