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.
Chris would go onto become a political aide, then political consultant and all the high-powered rest. It's called rising in the world even if it's falling. It happens to some of the best of us and Chris was certainly one of the best. Naturally he could tell a good story. It comes with the (Southern) territory. But they were never stories about himself. That would come too close to self-promotion. The stories were always on himself. Self-deprecating is the too-well-worn term for it, one he would never use. He hated the pat phrase. Of course he wrote long, being in love with words, real words, the kind that have depth and layers and an invitation to exploration, especially of oneself. Yes, he could tell a good story and, even better, listen and remember when he heard one. One day he told me a story I'll remember as long as I'm in this line of work. Because it pretty well sums up what this whole editorializing business is about.
It was a story about going fishing with his grandfather somewhere outside Savannah. He'd just started writing editorials and -- did I mention he was a young man? -- he was pretty darned impressed with himself, his new title, and the whole business of Shaping Public Opinion and so droningly on. He was telling the old man how important and responsible and all that his job (and therefore he himself) was. You see, he explained, deciding what stand to take on the Crucial Issues of the Day wasn't just a matter of making simple decisions, but carefully weighing all the pros and cons before taking a -- what do they call muddying the issues now? -- a sophisticated, nuanced position. Because, don't you know, it's not a question of just choosing between right and wrong, and making simplistic black-and-white distinctions. There are so many shades of gray in between, and a newspaper has to take them all into account before delivering its solomonic judgment, don't you know?
The old man just made another cast. He didn't say anything. For a while. Then all he said was, "Son, there's always a right and wrong. You just have to find what it is."
Yep, that about sums it up. And young as he was, and would ever be, Chris Battle knew wisdom when he heard it.
That was Chris Battle, a Jack Burden right out of "All the King's Men," now come home to Burden's Landing at last. After a long, harrowing journey through the night. "Chris died this morning at 8:00 a.m.," the email from Dena said. "His mom, dad and I were all with him when he passed. We're grateful that he's no longer in pain."
Home is the fisherman, home from the river, his four-year fight over. "In lieu of flowers," said the email, "we ask that donations be made toward kidney cancer research at Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center: www.hopkinscancerresearch.org. If you specify that the donation is in honor of Chris Battle, they will know to direct funds toward Dr. Hans Hammers' kidney cancer research."
The story isn't all sad. Not at all. It ends in hope. It ends with his two little girls, who must be big girls by now. How old can they be -- 9 and 4? Their presence shimmers even at this distance, the way their father's does even after all the years and youth that have passed since he was here. He is unchanged. For nothing good is ever lost. Like Chris, it just goes on.