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.