The word came in an email even before another simmering hot August workday here in Arkansas had really begun. The message had been expected for some time, but that didn't make it any easier to take. Chris Battle had died. His long struggle with cancer was over, thank the Lord. But we didn't feel thankful. You never really do when the news first arrives. Maybe you know you should, but it's all abstract that first day, maybe that first year. Before the flood of healing memory has a chance to cover you, and wash away the immediate pain.
His obituary would be headed Chris Battle, 1968-2013. He'd been a young editorial writer here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette years ago, and was still young (to some of us) when he died. Passed, as black folks say. Though it doesn't sound right for someone so young in spirit.
In my mind, Chris was still the same Chris he'd been when he was just starting to write editorials. A beautiful boy, a Georgia peach of a boy, and yet already more knowing than his age would indicate, though he kept his knowing way well-hidden, well-mannered young man that he was.
Chris spoke -- and wrote -- in the measured phrases of those who enjoy their craft, delight in it, play with it, turn it this way and that till it might even become an art. Which was his goal. Yes, his speech was as well-measured as his editorials. Yet you couldn't help but feel that he was really measuring you, though he did his best to conceal it, being so polite. Did I mention that he was a Southerner?
Not that Chris was one of those professional Southerners with hokey accent to match. Scarcely a trace. But there was something about his natural diffidence, his undifferentiated deference to all, that let you know where he was from. He listened. Made a point of it. He was an asset to the paper, and a promise. We hated to see him go. But you can't hold young people back. And shouldn't.