I Wish You’d Known Chris

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I thought I’d be back up to speed with Emmett’s blogging/research this week, but it has been a difficult couple of days.

On Sunday, a dear friend of mine died.

You know that quote by Edna Buchanan: “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves?”  That’s what I felt about Chris: He was family.

My dear friend, Chris.

My dear friend, Chris.

I met Chris when I started attending AA meetings almost eight years ago. Right off the bat, I noticed he always seemed comfortable in his own skin, something I never was. He had this calm about him that I liked, and wanted to emulate. When you are new to sobriety, it is important to see others who are living their lives like one wearing a comfortable garment. I needed to see that in the early days; I needed to know the program worked for others, because at the time, nothing else was working for me.

One day, I went to a noon meeting, and there was Chris, in his usual place, in the front row. I was only a few weeks into the program, still feeling a little fried around the edges and uncomfortable with sobriety.

I took a seat a row behind him; he turned and said hello. I remember he asked me how I was doing. I said I didn’t know.

He said, “That’s good. Be honest. Unfailing honesty with yourself is how it works in here.”

I said I was unsure of how anything was working at that moment; I was only there because my sponsor was not taking any excuses for me missing a meeting.

He nodded kindly at me. He smiled and said, “Just keep coming back. Don’t give up before the miracle happens. Because it will.”

I remember at the end of the meeting, as we were leaving, Chris tapped me on the shoulder. “See you tomorrow?” he said. I hesitated. He noticed. “Remember. Don’t give up before the miracle happens.” He smiled and went on his way.

I came back the next day. I kept coming back. I believe it is because he reached out to me, a frazzled newcomer, that I was able to build up some time as a sober person. Eventually, we became friends.


Chris giving a talk at a local elementary school. He had a large collection of Civil War artifacts he liked to show during his talks. Source: Norwood

Chris giving a talk at a local elementary school. He had a large collection of Civil War artifacts he liked to show during his talks. Source: Norwood

Chris was an expert on the American Civil War and a Lincoln scholar. Among other things, he spent three years working with Ken Burns as an adviser for “The Civil War” series. He was also an adviser for the movie “Gettysburg.”  He held a Ph.D. in American History from Harvard. Chris absolutely loved history, and was an enthusiastic and engaging speaker at elementary schools and community events.  He knew all kinds of interesting and obscure facts and stories about the Civil War, and in his presentations, kids would get all fired up about history.

He loved teaching history so much that he used to take friends on day trips up to Gettysburg several times a year, and give them personal tours of the battlefield. I remember one friend who went with Chris on one of the trips telling me that Chris’ knowledge of the place, and the details he shared about the battle made it seem like the past was still alive, that the soldiers were just over the next hill, or standing quietly, just behind your shoulder.

I remember asking Chris if I could be a part of his next road trip to Gettysburg. He said, “Sure. Your kids will love it. My only request is that you buy me lunch.”

“You’ve got a deal,” I said, and we shook on it.

Unfortunately, not long after this conversation, Chris found out he had advanced stage cancer. He took the news with grace and dignity. He didn’t complain, although we knew he was in pain and feeling terrible, especially after the chemo treatments. He was saddened that he couldn’t make the trips to Gettysburg anymore; they were just too taxing at that point.

Still, he did what he could do. He kept coming to meetings. He kept up his routine almost up to the end, which included service work at the Latter Day Saints temple every Christmas.

Lights display at the Mormon Temple. Source: www.yelp.com

Lights display at the Mormon Temple. Source: http://www.yelp.com

For years, he’d dress as ‘Santa’s helper’ at the Temple’s holiday lights display. He was the first person you’d see, sitting outside regardless of cold, bundled up, wearing a Santa Claus hat with lights strung on it. His job was to greet visitors and give them general information about the holiday display. This was not a one-night gig every year; Chris was there almost every night, as long as the display was up, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. As soon as the sun set and the lights were lit,  Chris was there. He loved being ‘host’ to the best holiday light show in D.C.

My kids loved seeing him perched at the entrance to the display; they would run up and hug him and talk to him excitedly about the lights.

For me, Seeing Chris there every year, like seeing him at meetings regularly, was reassuring. I don’t know if he had any idea how stabilizing that was for me in early sobriety, but it made a difference. It showed me that something was working for him, and it would work for me, too, if I stuck with it long enough. If I didn’t give up, I, too, might experience a miracle.

This past Christmas, Chris was not at the Temple to greet visitors. And it wasn’t the same without Chris.


I had started Emmett’s research several months after Chris’ diagnosis. I told him about Emmett’s biography, and Emmett’s father’s Civil War experience. Chris was interested and encouraging, but I knew not to tax him too much with information and details, as he was exhausted all the time. I think he liked that someone else loved history as much as he did, though. He saw how much I loved the ‘treasure hunt’ of the research, and that the new information would add to the knowledge base, in some way.


On occasion, I realize that alcoholism is a gift. I don’t always think of it that way, but then, had I not acknowledged it, had I not ‘kept coming back,’ I would have missed out on the treasure of new friends and family members. I would have missed out on having Chris as my friend.

I have one final anecdote to share about Chris:

I believe that Chris lived his life at ease, at peace, even when things weren’t going well, because he appreciated his life for what it was, and accepted it for what it was. He recognized everyday life as a blessing, not an inconvenience or irritation.

Indeed, as long as I have known him, anytime anyone would ever ask Chris how he was doing he would always reply, simply: “I am blessed.”

In truth, we are the ones who are blessed for having known Chris.

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