Your life is what you make it, but even more so, your life is what makes you.
If that really is the case, and I firmly believe that it is, a large chunk of my life is made up of Chris.
I have written before about our early friendship, I have also written about his battle with alcoholism, a demon which he laid to rest some months ago with a strength of character I believe surprised even himself.
But now I have to write a post that holds none of the happy nostalgia or new hope that fueled those earlier installments, instead it has come time to write the final chapter and to say goodbye.
If ever there was someone I considered a permanent fixture in my life, it was Chris.
He and I clicked almost immediately, back in the far-off days of our teenage wild years, spent in his mum and dad’s large family home or one of my many bed-sits, (and before too long, the shared apartments, houses and flats of various friends, along with the many pubs and clubs in and around the leafy Sussex commuter belt town of Crowborough where we “grew up”, for want of a better term) and once we’d got to know each other, I don’t think there was any doubt we’d always be friends.
Although, from an outsider’s point of view, I’m sure that it was often hard to tell we were friends at all, for all the time we spent bickering and arguing.
Our debates, disagreements and differences of opinion took on something of a legendary status, to the point that people would stop what they were doing to come and spectate.
Yet we never actually fell out, or got into a serious fight over anything, there was always that underlying connection that protected our friendship from any lasting damage, that indefinable bond which we forge with our oldest friends, the one we don’t always name, but we all know is love.
So many of our cultural preferences are formed in those tumultuous, late-teenage years; music, literature and other, um, “recreational” activities, and Chris and I eagerly devoured each other’s record and book collections, so much so that I (at the time a staunch metal and prog rock fan) quickly developed a liking for Alien Sex Fiend and The Cure, whereas Chris started to appreciate the value of double concept albums and the five minute guitar solo. (to the extent that he recently told me he’d like “Sheep” by Pink Floyd to be played at his funeral)
And we both hated Genesis.
He is also largely responsible for my interest in reading science fiction and in particular the extraordinary Illuminatus! trilogy and the psychedelia-charged work of Philip K Dick and long-time Hawkwind collaborator, Michael Moorcock.
Despite the fact that we were out of contact for several years after I moved to Devon, when we met up again it seemed like no time had passed between us, the way it is with the strongest of relationships, we picked up where we left off as though the intervening years had been on fast-forward.
I’d like to think I was of some assistance to my old friend, helping him combat the illness that ultimately laid waste to so much of the life he had built for himself, even if it was only to apply my own brand of tough love, refusing to fall into the trap of reinforcing his behaviour or pandering to any denial of his problem.
But I cannot state strongly enough how Chris’s own willpower and desire to overcome his problems transformed him into someone I have recently heard described as “a hero” and “an extraordinarily strong person” by members of the many online support groups he joined as a part of his recovery.
Because the terrible irony that makes Chris’s story so tragic is that, as he pulled himself out of the dark place that drinking had taken him, it was only to be told that the effects had only been masking a more insidious enemy.
Chris was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer last summer.
It was a phone conversation I doubt I’ll ever forget.
He was remarkably matter-of-fact about it, saying; “I expect you know what I’m going to say don’t you?” after only the most casual of hellos, almost as if I should have been waiting for his call.
That phone call marked the start of Chris v2.0 as far as I was concerned:
The Chris who became so popular at some of his alcohol support groups (he once told me laughingly; “Hey, I’m an alcoholic AND I’ve got cancer, I’m practically a superstar!”) that he got requests to act as counsellor for whole sessions. His self-deprecating humour and lack of self-pity was obviously of great inspiration to his fellow sufferers.
The Chris who took phone calls from new group members at three o’clock in the morning when they needed advice and support.
The Chris who, only a few short years ago, would have scoffed at the thought that people from online forums from all around the world (both for sufferers of alcoholism and cancer) would be thanking him for helping them turn their lives around and for providing the foundation for personal strength and recovery.
The same Chris who, as I recently discovered, has been a source of enormous comfort and inspiration for a great many people affected by the terrible disease that has touched so many lives.
This is the spirit of the Chris I always knew, the core personality of the happy-go-lucky and generous friend I shared so many of my most important years with and the one I will always remember with love and affection, not to mention the fact that, with all we went through together, maybe I was just the lucky one.
A few weeks ago Chris was admitted to the hospice at Exeter hospital, where he was looked after wonderfully by the dedicated and cheerful staff, all of whom had obviously been affected by his unique charm and humour in the face of adversity.
I visited him a few times, once in the company of another old mate from Sussex and that day we were able to reminisce about old times and take him for a spin around the gardens and he was in pretty good spirits, if woozy from the painkillers.
Even then it was obvious he was moved by each new message from his “fans” on the internet that I passed on, but right up until the last time I saw him it seemed to escape him as to why so many people felt that connection with him.
He just didn’t get what it was about him that meant so much and endeared him to so many people.
To me, he was my friend.
It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.
Chris, my friend, died peacefully this Easter weekend, just as the world begins to come back to life.
It was chaotic, hilarious, frustrating, embarrassing, messy, loud, annoying, sometimes painful, (usually for him) childish and ridiculous for most of the time we spent together, (mainly for other people) even when we had supposedly grown up….
And this is the point at which I’m supposed to say;
“…and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Except of course, I’d rather have it any way that meant Chris was still here.
Because, just think, if all these people who had only just met Chris v2.0, if they all loved him as much as they so obviously did, just think how much more good he could have done.
I think if he really knew how much he had touched us all…
…Oh alright, he would have told us we were all talking bollocks.
But we know.
Goodbye Chris, I love you mate.
I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have made the journey with.