Chris was an inspiring, joyful, loving man.
As a young adult, he taught high school English and joined the Peace Corps. Later, he studied nursing and became a nurse practitioner. Always continuing his education, he received a PhD in nursing one year before he died. Chris wrote beautiful poetry.
After Chris died, I found a term paper from his early RN studies. I had never seen this before and marveled at how much we were in synch, many years before we had even met. He wrote:
"One of my fundamental beliefs is that health in the absence of creativity is incomplete. If we gravitate toward creativity, we become more self-actualized...more whole. At its core, this wholeness is about creating our own circumstances, our own happiness, our own options, and our own successes, the culmination of which is creating our own health. Nursing's role is to assist each person with his or her creative process."
"Most of us believe things will fall apart without some sort of order. For the most part, we are comfortable in an environment based on precision, sound explanations, rationale, scientific proof, and balance. One of my fundamental beliefs is that we need to trust the beauty and potential of chaos and disorder. Carried one step further, our illness may be our cure. I believe that as a healer, I need to recognize that there are forces at work beyond my reach, and beyond my understanding. A poet once said, 'There is a self within us wiser than the mind, and deeper than all thought.' Hidden in chaos and disorder is the order of creativity, beauty, balance, harmony, and health. We must not only accept imbalance, chaos, imperfection, and illness, we must honor and respect them. In this time and in this place, all is sacred. There are no mistakes."
[I love Chris' words, "all is sacred." But I have yet to discover why Chris having to die so young was not a mistake. He saved peoples' lives.]
As a public health nurse practitioner, Chris was passionate in caring for people living with HIV and, in particular, individuals with concurrent diagnoses of HIV, mental illness, and substance abuse. He inspired his patients to thrive, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. Chris had also previously worked in our local Health Care for the Homeless program, and prior to that, provided care as an RN at a Correctional Center near our city.
The year he died, Chris finished his article: The Impact of Stigma on the Self-Care Behaviors of HIV-Positive Gay Men Striving for Normalcy, Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, Vol. 18, No. 3, May/June 2007, 23-32. I am so proud of his work and I'm sad that he didn't get to see it published.
The core of Chris' calling was his dedication to supporting and teaching people to rise above the stigma that society casts upon them, so that they may love themselves as a crucial part of healing. Chris did this as a master practitioner of the concept, whose words we all know well: unconditional positive regard. This is what allowed patients to view - and positively change - their lives and their health in holistic ways.
Several weeks after his death, I accepted for Chris an award for excellence in HIV medicine. I spoke with embellishment and gesture, to a chorus of warm laughter at times. Afterwards, his colleagues said they were astonished to see Chris in me. “You move like him,” they said, “it’s the amazing combination of New York Jew and French Catholic Rumford Mainer all rolled into one!” Yes, I thought, this is the beautiful result of devoting our lives to each other for 16 years.
Here are excerpts from the text I wrote:
Chris was my very dear, dear husband.
Four weeks ago, he died of pancreatic cancer. Tonight I am gratefully accepting this award on behalf of Chris to honor his dedication and expertise in HIV medicine and patient care. I would like to frame this as an award to Chris, the man, and to share with you a glimpse of his last days that I hope may inspire us all, because they were filled with wisdom, humor, and passion.
Shortly before he became unconscious, Chris gave himself an award. He said to me, “I lived a virtuous life, with integrity.” But it was an intense and emotionally painful journey before Chris was able to give himself these words.
“Don’t lie,” he said to me, “don’t tell people I had an easy death; tell them the truth.” “I promise,” I said. “I am suffering,” said Chris, “nobody told me dying would be this hard.” I asked him what might make it easier, and soon, he smiled. “Everything is going to be okay,” he said softly, “because you are with me.”
Now, Chris hated the phrase, “courageous battle with cancer,” and he asked me not to use it. So I won’t. Chris lived and died with great humility and grace. On his voyage towards death, there were raging storms, partly cloudy days, and at the end, sapphire blue skies.
The cancer meant that Chris was not able to eat. He stayed hungry and terribly thirsty until the end. He dreamed of food. “I swear to God,” he said, “if there’s no food where I’m going, I’m coming back.”
Chris felt overwhelming sadness. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” he said one day, “in the past I could articulate it: I could know I was crying out all the places in my heart and soul that hadn’t cried, that needed to, crying because I hadn’t been good to someone, to myself. How could I stand it, leaving you, missing you? I am in wonderment how the spirit is connected to the body and if it will remember. My name is Christian Thomas. Thomas was the doubter.”
Chris called it “doubt” – but, everyone who knew Chris knows it was born of commitment: the commitment to ask more questions, to passionately search for clarification, for ways to improve, to better help his patients, his students and colleagues, and all of you, and me.
And although he felt confusion and turbulence as he died, Chris took, as always, the opportunity to be fascinated. This is the Chris we all knew. “I could see myself doing this work,” he said one day, “hospice work, very rewarding – I could do it in retirement.”
In hindsight, Chris knew long before symptoms appeared that his physical life was coming to a close. “When I was at the pond last summer,” he said, and he cried, “I remember telling myself, it was my last time. It was a special time, with just me, and my mother.” This tells me that we already know a lot about ourselves, seemingly hidden, and perhaps…or perhaps not, there are ways to listen.
But he didn’t know just when he would die, and Chris was impatient. “I’ll be dying in a couple-three hours,” he would say, or “I won’t be waking up tomorrow.” So I spent a lot of time in bed, holding him, waiting and wondering. And in-between anti-anxiety sedatives, he shared many points of wisdom.
He taught me that forgiveness is one of the most important parts of peace; that if we are saturated with the present moment, as he and I were, we are not bound by the past.
One day, as we talked, “You look so peaceful now,” I said. Chris said he was surrounded by the most beautiful blue color he had ever seen: sapphire blue. Still, he said, “I know I was valuable to people, but I don’t feel valuable.
I wondered aloud that sapphires are beautiful, even when they’re not visible, deep in the ground. Then he said, “I lived a virtuous life, with integrity. And Chris used all his might to try and roll over me, to ask, “how do you feel?”
Chris meant the world to me, and I wrote a few words to him last night:
When I turned from a child, to a boy, to a man,
it was on a bed of nails,
not a bed of roses, or fresh greens, or down;
and tears could have been my oxygen – and my salvation,
had I been taught to feel tenderness, like the tenderness we shared
through our last days on earth together.
You have left me a new child, and this child I wish to remain:
it seems closer to the green of the trees
and the fantastic nonsense of living.
Chris thanks you deeply for this distinguished award tonight. He was an inspiration to us all.
© 2007 - 2018, Eliott Cherry, All Rights Reserved