Several years ago, some friends of mine were involved with running the school’s annual Relay For Life, which raises money for the American Cancer Society through pledges and donations. I looked forward to the event each year, though not for any particularly altruistic reasons; I just enjoyed the feel of the gymnasium, the camaraderie of the wee hours of the morning when most people were sleeping and we were still going strong in our circles. I enjoyed the sunrise I would otherwise never see. In the back of my mind I figured I also enjoyed feeling like I’d done something unselfish, but that wasn’t entirely true.
This particular year, my friends were also selling t-shirts, and one design caught my eye. In large letters, the thing most people see first, it said “WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING.” But above and below were more words, and the complete phrase on the shirt was actually “Whoever says “winning isn’t everything” obviously isn’t fighting cancer.”
At the time, cancer had touched my life but vaguely. I’d seen it, but not in a way which had ever caused me to stop and think about it. I just thought it was a clever shirt, and I ordered one, and later on I wore it and felt clever, but that was the extent of things.
When I came home from college, our church was in the process of beginning a thing called “Life Groups,” which was a new way of doing something so old that it is part of my earliest memories of home life: small church-driven Bible studies in folks’ homes, which facilitated both a deeper area understanding and a more personal, lasting relationship-building outlet for members and their families.
For the better part of a year, I attended a Life Group at the home of a family friend. It was a fairly small group, rarely exceeding eight members, but it was cozy and affirming and a great way to spend an evening each week. I’ve always been terrible with names and faces, and it took me a while to make sure I hadn’t accidentally mixed people up, but one person whose name I immediately remembered, whose charisma and quiet intelligence struck me from the first time he contributed to our discussion, was Chris Ryff.
It wasn’t long after having met Chris that I found out what everyone else in the room (and most people in the church, who hadn’t just returned from school) already knew: Chris was suffering from a particularly nasty form of cancer, and was already in the final battles of that particular war. It shocked me a little to hear, because although (as I said) he was quiet, there was a daunting life force behind his eyes. Yet I was told this man was dying.
I don’t think think I believed it then. I still don’t really believe it now. Chris’ pain — physical, emotional, psychological — would have crippled most people, but in all the time I’ve known him I never saw a hint of that. In time, it would manifest itself in a sort of unspoken sadness, but never anger, never resentment, never pity.
There was a break between Life Group sessions and last year, when sessions resumed, Chris was notably absent. At the church picnic I almost asked him where he’d been, wanted to tell him we’d missed him, but for reasons I cannot remember I procrastinated that conversation, got distracted, and it never happened. I never saw Chris at Life Group again, and my own attendance floundered and then failed, so I don’t know if he ever went back. I don’t think even now I can properly grapple with that thought, that a year ago Chris left “life group.” Perhaps had it been called something different…
What I do know is that life got harder, and that Chris’s was the sort of cancer where they throw things at the wall to see what sticks; the sort where all the proven methods have failed and they try the experimental ones, hoping for a breakthrough that will advance their understanding of the disease and save your life in the process. Despite its extraordinary potential to advance the medical field, such treatment is actually quite expensive to undergo, and the financial burden became more immediately apparent. Our church, Chris’s friends, and many who knew him rallied to raise the money that would make trying to save Chris’s life not come at the expense of Chris having a future livelihood.
We attended a benefit banquet near the tail end of that fundraising push, where lifelong friends, coworkers, bosses, and relatives spoke to Chris’s character and confirmed what anyone who met him immediately, wordlessly understood: he was an exception. And through this all he had carried the inexplicable burden of dying for no good reason with a humility and grace which few of us manifest in the face of far lesser trials. With wife and child by his side, he thanked everyone, and in that moment, even though he was standing there and even though we were all praying that he might be the breakthrough patient, there was still an uncanny sense that we had just attended a funeral. As joyous a funeral as one could have — after all, most of the folks in the room believed in heaven, and Chris was about as saintly as one could hope to be, quite clearly having put his fate in Christ’s hands long ago. But a funeral nonetheless.
After that, to my great regret, I have not seen Chris very much. He frequently was said to be undergoing treatment in a variety of places, and through the grapevine all I heard was that his condition was deteriorating. When I heard, while living in Massachusetts, that two other members of our congregation had recently lost their battles with cancer, my thoughts turned to Chris, and I wondered whether his story would be different.
For the last several weeks I’ve seen updates from Chris on Facebook, keeping us updated with his treatment, when he’d be in which hospital, for how long, when people might visit. He wanted people there with him. He routinely expressed this, and I can only hope that people went. For several weeks, I saw it, but there was always some hollow excuse not to go. The hollowest, the one which sticks in my mind now, was that I didn’t really know Chris; that our paths hadn’t crossed for terribly long, and I wasn’t the sort of person he hoped to see.
I realize now that that’s a chicken and egg scenario of the worst kind, because while I tried to judge my tendency to visit on the strength of my relationship, the strength of my relationship would have been increased with a visit; the only reason I wasn’t the right kind of visitor was because I wasn’t a visitor.
Yesterday, my mother told me that she hoped we, as a family, might visit him this weekend, before he went home in care of hospice. I didn’t really know how to internalize that, because despite the frequent hospital updates I still, in my head, believed that Chris was going to pull through. Hospice is such an innocuous word, it doesn’t really convey what it is, and if you don’t (as I didn’t) really think about it, you don’t have to deal with what it means.
And yet, last night, there it was: hospice.
Chris will be going home this weekend.
This morning, my mother knocked on my door to inform me that Chris had died.
Chris is home.
My mind reeled a bit, and as I pondered the various ways I wanted to react, it occurred to me that they were all a form of denial, coping mechanisms, a desire to channel the unthinkable into something I could control, something I had power over. But wearing a t-shirt, donating to a charity, heck, writing a blog about it — none of those things actually do anything. They do not explain cancer. They do not change Chris’s fate. They do not make it easier to rationalize how the outwardly smiling young man I saw a few weeks ago in passing, whose Facebook posts I read and “liked,” and went on with my life after “liking,” was hanging by a thread internally. They do not help me understand how I will never see that man again.
Those things don’t help, but we do them, I do them anyway. Today I am writing because writing is what I do, writing is how I cope. I am wearing my Relay for Life shirt today because it reminds me of a truth I never properly grasped, except in a flimsy and abstract way, but have been proclaiming with my clothing for years. I don’t feel clever. I feel empty. But I also feel a glimmer of something else: resolve. Because today I feel, I know, something I didn’t when I woke up. I know how it feels to lose.
That when it comes to cancer…
Winning is everything.
Chris, you have been loved by many, and now, after years of pain I cannot comprehend, your suffering is over. And your long-suffering, your dignity, your strength, and the compassion I saw every time I looked in your eyes, live on, to be remembered, to be celebrated, to inspire.
requiescat in pace