White to Black (Post Script)

Dear Readers,

This is Ilana, Chris’s wife. I hope that you are healthy and faring OK during this very tumultuous time for people around the world due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As Chris requested, I am writing the final post in this “White to Black” thread. Before I say more, I want to let you know that I intend to keep this blog active for the foreseeable future. Past posts will be available, and I have access to Chris’s files and have ideas for a few future posts with material that hasn’t been posted previously. Also, some of you know that a few months ago, Chris thought he had quite a bit more time left and ordered one new machine from Japan for our tiny basement shop, using some of the proceeds from selling his other machines. That machine, a Riken milling machine, is still coming even though Chris will sadly never see it or use it. But I bet that some of you would love to see the process as it unfolds. Stay tuned…

Oh, and I have been continuing to send out carpentry/TAJCD essays and materials to people who buy them! If you think I missed sending you a link for one that you purchased, just send an email to Chris’s email address. Please bear with me – I may be slow to respond to emails, comments, or other communications, but I am happy to hear from you.

Now to the sad news and my main reason for writing today: Chris passed away yesterday, April 7th, 2020. Today, April 8th, is his birthday.

Chris did not like posing for photos – he thought it was inauthentic to smile on cue. I managed to get a real smile and a chuckle out of him on this day by asking him to say “I have a very nice wifey!” He requested that I use this photo from January in the blog post announcing his death.

This blog post is not an obituary – I will post one soon. For now, I will tell you a bit about Chris’s last few weeks. I have been posting updates for my friends and family, so some of this is lifted from those updates (when I had more of a brain) and from emails sent to our friends and family as he declined.

As you can imagine, hospice during a pandemic is particularly challenging. Several of Chris’s good friends planned to visit and were not able to come due to the situation. Same with almost all of the in-person support I had set up prior to signing up for hospice. I ended up caring for Chris 24/7 with help from my mom, who was able to take care of Ryden for long periods each day since his preschool was closed. My sister and brother-in-law also helped out a lot with Ryden, which was also very helpful. But it was still utterly exhausting at times.

Fortunately, Chris’s mother and her partner were able to visit and get back into British Columbia just before the borders were closing. Like many of you, we found ways for Chris to connect with people he could not see in person via phone, email, and Facetime or Skype sessions.

The outpouring of love and support that he received online was truly amazing for both of us. We received messages from friends, blog readers, past colleagues, former clients, and fans of his work from every continent except Antarctica! A lovely email just came in last night from someone with photos of pieces he was working on and a thank you to Chris for showing him “a different and wonderful way to make furniture.” All of your messages and contributions have made a huge difference for us during a very difficult time.

During the hospice period, Chris declined steadily. He started out very lucid and was still working to organize the basement whenever he had enough energy. Soon he was in bed except to come down for an occasional meal and then was in bed all the time.

It was deeply frustrating and demoralizing for him to lose mental capacity and become more confused while also losing physical capabilities. But the parts of his brain that worked the longest, until the very last few days, were his sense of humor and his ability to love people. Below are a few examples of his moments of tenderness and humor during his final days.

A couple of weeks ago, he was already having trouble understanding simple commands and needed help eating and drinking, but he still made puns and spoke in metaphor a lot. He told me he was “the Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” – a reference to a song about a famous shipwreck. He also said when I brought him a smoothie that there should be a smoothie product with morphine called a “woozie.”

About a week ago, he was hardly talking anymore. One evening, he got very sad and told me he didn’t want to say goodbye. I said “to me? to Ryden?” and he said “to anyone.” We both cried for a little while, and then I told him that we all love him and don’t want to say goodbye either but that it’s OK for him to go – and that we will be OK. That seemed helpful for him.

One of the last funny things he said when he was still talking warrants a little story, and it will be helpful for you to know that there’s a town just to the north of us called Bernardston where we sometimes get pizza: Chris had started hallucinating a bit during the last few days he was talking, including seeing green, red, and blue writing that wasn’t there on the walls and ceiling. My mom and I both asked him if he could read what it said and he said “no.” When the hospice nurses visited and asked the same question, he was already rather out of it and not talking much at all, but with a glint in his eye, he whispered hoarsely, “It says, ‘Death to the people of Bernardston’. Just kidding!… Hillside Pizza in Bernardston is too greasy though.”  I think he knew we were wondering if the writing he saw was sinister, positive, etc. and decided to take us for a little ride! 

A couple of the other last things he said are “I love you”, and he also gestured on the last day he spoke and tried to say something about a poster we have with huge Sitka spruces on Vancouver Island. The nature in his home province of British Columbia was on his mind as well. He then fell back into a semi-conscious state. I made up an impromptu guided meditation, telling him to imagine that he was walking through the beautiful forest with the huge Sitka spruces on the poster (Carmanah Valley, where he and I went together years ago), this time with Ryden and me. I described the sun streaming through the canopy, the moss on the forest floor, the nurse logs with ferns and new trees growing out of them, the earthy scents, the birds singing, and him with a healthy body again, walking confidently on the path. He relaxed more and fell into what seemed like a calm sleep.

After that, he was nearly always unconscious. The hospice nurse was surprised that he lasted as long as he did, as he was unresponsive and could not take in any liquids for several days before he stopped breathing yesterday. He seemed peaceful at the end and was surrounded by people who loved him.

The two nights before Chris died, our neighbors lit luminaries in our backyard and created a path leading to our garden plot in the shared community garden. The final luminary lit up the wooden, joined garden beds that Chris built. It was a wonderful tribute to Chris. Here is a photo.

Chris opted for a green burial plus a regular headstone. After he died yesterday, the hospice nurse and I washed his body. Then we dressed him in what he wanted to wear, his usual attire of a t-shirt and work pants. I only saw him in a suit twice in the last seventeen years that we have known each other, so his choice of clothes felt right.

He will be buried in a handmade basket that was woven by a local craftsperson, using young willow branches, a sustainable, locally-sourced material. Here is the basket-casket, which Chris got a chance to see himself. It’s in our living room in this photo, with our son’s toys nearby. It was part of the house for a few days before friends picked it up and kept it safe for us until it was needed yesterday.

If all goes according to plan, Chris’s body will be buried on Friday at Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts. He picked out the plot on the day he started hospice, his last journey out of the house. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, Massachusetts does not allow gatherings of more than ten people, so the burial will be private. We do plan to have a public memorial service once social distancing and travel restrictions are over. I will post the date and information about the service on this blog with plenty of notice so that people from out of town will find it as easy as possible to attend. Thank you to all of you who knew Chris personally and have already said you would like to attend.

Once the headstone is done, you are also welcome to visit his gravesite at the cemetery. His friend Brian Holcombe, whom some of you know, will be creating a bench (which I’m sure will be amazing and outlast all of us) out of Chris’s remaining lignum vitae. The bench will be in a public place in the cemetery. Wildwood Cemetery is a beautiful spot, and I look forward to spending time there with Ryden in the future. It’s also a bird sanctuary and has walking trails, so I recommend a visit if you come to Western Massachusetts at any point in the future.

Thank you very much for your caring and your interest in Chris’s work and his life.
Let’s stay connected.

Chris and Ryden in the fall of 2019. Note: The table saw is not running in this photo!
Chris and Ryden by the ocean in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Summer, 2019.
Chris in front of the gate he built at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This photo was taken a few days after his first surgery for cancer treatment, in October, 2017, back when we thought the cancer was completely curable. The day we went for his surgery follow-up at Dana-Farber, he also did some maintenance work on the gate and he let me take a few photos.
With Chris a couple of months ago – I can’t seem to keep my eyes open in selfies.
Bye for now.

38 thoughts on “White to Black (Post Script)

  1. Some people’s brain, hand and heart are bigger than most, Chris will be remembered as a true Sensei, I’m thinking of you and Riley dearly in these hard times and send you my humble support from France.
    François

  2. Thank you for posting Ilana. I miss him and I am glad he’s no longer in pain. He’s an old friend from the way back time machine. I look forward to seeing you in person soon. Big love – Josh and Betsy

  3. Ilana, I am so sorry to read this. Please know you are in my thoughts. I have been reading Chris’s posts for quite a few years, his knowledge and skills were so, so far above my own, but he made everything so interesting to read and see photos of. Sending you love from Prince Edward Island.

  4. Dear Ilana,
    you seem as special and wonderful as Chris.
    Thank you for this uplifting post in such a difficult time.

  5. All our love and prayers. We will miss him. Please let us know how all of you are doing. It helps…

  6. Ilana;
    I agree with Tom. You sound as wonderful as Chris! I feel for you and your boy! He will be missed dearly. May he have peace! Best regards!
    J.T.

  7. Ileana, so sorry to hear of Chris’ passing. At least his pain is gone. Please keep me in the loop.

  8. I have spent hours and hours reading his blog and participating in the joinery projects. One of my most prized possessions is a pair of tool boxes made along with the study group. My skill level definitely went up several notches due to Chris’s writing.

  9. I typed this many times trying to put something in words trying to pass along our thoughts and feelings. I can only say how much I enjoyed his writings and emails. He will be missed in many ways. My family’s thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

  10. Dear Ilana,

    My condolences for your, and Ryden’s, loss. What a wonderful life Chris shared.

    Many of us shall visit the Wildwod Cemetery in the future to pay our respects, to sit on the lignum vitae bench and reminisce of the memories where Chris had an impact on our lives.

    In memory of Chris; his skill, his knowledge and his legacy shall live on, yet he will be sorely missed.

    Bon Voyage, my friend.

  11. Ilana,
    this post touched my heart in many ways.
    Thank you for letting us catch a glimpse of his last weeks.
    He will be missed, but never forgotten.

    All the best to you and your family.

    RIP Chris. You were a real gentleman.

    Marc

  12. Dear Ilana,

    I believe, the openness that Chirs and you have shown is an example of the best of what humanity can be.

    All the very best to you and your family.

    Herbert

  13. Dear Ilana

    I read this with sadness and a deepened respect for Chris, who I only knew from afar. I shall always remember the passion and integrity he brought to his writings, and remain inspired by his work. My deepest condolences from Perth, Australia, Derek.

  14. Ilana…Very touching post and greatly appreciated but was saddened by the final news about our sensei Chris. Wonderful to see him smiling in the first photo in your post,I am glad you are taking this with insight and wisdom and will be keeping the blog going.

  15. Ilana,
    This is the news that we’ve not wanted to hear but knew was coming. I have a heavy heart today and trust that you have the comforting friends, family and angels to support you during this time. I’m so glad that you two had the time to say goodbye and share your heart felt love. We will miss Chris’ wit and knowledge but are richer for having it.

  16. I am so sorry for your loss, Ilana. I enjoyed reading this blog post and learning more about Chris. My thoughts are with you and your family during this very difficult time.

  17. Ilana-
    Love & hugs to you and Ryden during this difficult time. I never knew Chris, but from what I can gather, he, like you, was a very special and phenomenal person. Please hold these beautiful memories close to your heart and keep writing, because in many years Ryden can read all of these touching posts about the wonderful man he called dad.
    Much love, thoughts, and light to you and yours.
    Sincerely,
    Erica

  18. Thank you for sharing this, Ilana. Your heartfelt postscript beautifully adds to Chris’ courageous, highly intelligent, and ultimately inspiring account. Though I never met Chris, it is clear that he was craftsmen not only of wood but of life. And thus, what he built will last. Most especially, Ryden will know what a fine man was his dad.

    Bless you, Ryden, and Chris.

    Rob Porcaro

  19. As someone who stumbled upon Chris’ blog a few years ago, I was drawn to his talent and fascinating projects. When he fell ill it became apparent that he possessed a courage and serenity than eclipsed his woodworking skills.

    Nothing I can say can heal the pain but Chris’ love for his family came through in his writings. I am sorry for your loss.

  20. Ilana,

    My sincere condolences. Reading and seeing the work that Chris accomplished has been very inspiring for me. Thank you for informing us of the sad news, and I am very sorry for your loss. All the very best to you and Ryden.

    Pascal, from British Columbia’s west coast.

  21. Sad but beautiful post. Remembering Chris and sending you and your family our love.

    – Siavosh & fam.

  22. Sincerest condolences Ilana, I had hoped for you and family Chris could have prevailed against the odds. It is admirable you are able to add to the blog in your time of loss. All the best.

  23. Ilana, you and Ryden have my deepest condolences. Chris was a dear friend, I will miss him. I am honored to build the bench he requested. I wrote this on Sawmillcreek and so I thought I’d post it here as well.

    Chris was a great friend and wonderful mentor. He will be sorely missed.

    Chris had a wonderful sense of humor, and worked to stay in good spirits often in spite of his circumstance. I was amazed at his strength of will, when I visited last summer he was still making efforts to work. Up early, he would prepare for a day in the shop, drive 1/2 hour and work until exhaustion (which was around noon) then drive back. He did this until completing the cabinet he was working on. The piece he was making at the time must have must have seemed an insurmountable task but still he continued forward.

    Chris’ work was a challenge of perseverance for a healthy person, it must have been like climbing sheer granite cliff face in his condition, still he managed and did work of the highest quality in precious wood.

    Never one to give up, given his new set of circumstances he decided to build a workshop in his basement with aims to begin making tools, hence the reason for his milling machine purchase. He was a quick study, having an impressive knowledge base on milling machines in short order and he began applying the same thought process to lathes as well. Ultimately he decided to outfit the shop for his son, should he chose to take up interest in it in some years.

    Chris was also very practiced in Ju Jitsu, having taken his training to an exceptionally high level.

  24. I’m so sorry to hear of his passing. I very much enjoyed his blogs and the beautiful work he made. I lost my great aunt (like a grandma to me) a few weeks ago as well. Covid-19 restrictions prevented my ability to attend her funeral as well. Your family is my prayers.

  25. Hello Ilana,

    I’m so sorry to hear of the loss to you and your family, especially for Ryden. I am yet another person who was inspired and impressed with everything Chris did and shared from afar. His example of excellence in craft, family and facing illness will remain an inspiration.

    Best,
    Chris

  26. My sincerest condolences from Brussels, Belgium
    I have been reading this blog for many years with great interest.
    Sylvain

  27. Hello Ilana –

    We are so sorry to hear of your loss and what a tribute to your life together. May your memories be a blessing during this transformative period.

    Wishing peace, comfort,

    Deb

  28. I too, can only say how sorry I am to hear of Chris’ passing and express my condolences. Thank you for sharing these few moments in this difficult time.

    Steve

  29. Thank you all for your wonderful, caring, thoughtful, inspiring comments. It truly makes a difference. ~Ilana

  30. Dear Ilana.

    I am really shocked by this. First let me send you my deepest condolences, I am so sorry to know the sad news, God bless you and Ryden.
    I can not say I had the honor to meet Chris-sensei in person, but I feel honored to have speak with him many years ago. I remembered with much love when I first asked Chris advise on japanese handtools, I clearly remember he told me several blacksmith, but three very good he pointed out: Kiyohisa, Funahiro and Yamahiro. I still keep his emails. Since then I grew up as carpenter so as my workshop, which now is the only one original japanese carpentry in Spain, where I am writing from. Chris will laught if he would know after all those years I finally visited not long ago the forge of Funahiro himself in Japan, I am blessed to own a complete set of Kiyohisa and Funahiro chisels. Now on I will honor those tools with my work remembering all the knowledge and great advises Chris gave us.
    There are no words enough to express the grace of Chris, he is and will be one, if not the most, admired craftsman on japanese carpentry of the West. It goes without saying I love his work, specially the joinery. But there´s no doubt he is a wonderful and beautiful person too. He is a teacher and big inspiration to many of us. I started following his amazing blog when it was of Blogger, I used to write a Blogger blog too around 10 years ago. I stopped reading and writing on blogs since social media steal the time (bad habit)
    I just want to say, this is that sort of things that takes time to assimilate. I thank you very much for sharing with this online woodworking community the painful time you are passing through, I can not imagine how hard is even more with the horrible situation in planet because of pandemic.
    Please stay safe, I send you my honest and humble support from Spain.

    Julio

  31. It’s quite something, shedding a tear over someone you never met, but your family has had an impact on a lot of people you’ll never know. Thanks for sharing Chris with all of us.

Anything to add?