I started writing this post the day after my good friend Chris Royal passed from this life. (I’ve had editors tell me never to start an article or post in this manner, but in my zombie-fied, mind-blown state, I can’t find the emotion or sense to begin any other way.)
In our Highland County community, it seems we’ve recently (and in the past several years) endured many sudden tragedies.
With a hot blade, Death has sliced loved ones from our lives and our community leaving us seared with the shock and pain of an abruptly-opened wound.
Not a proverbial slap in the face. Oh, no. A punch. Directly on the nose or in the gut, whichever analogy you prefer.
Absolute, surreal, unbelievable, inconceivable, stupifying shock.
With each cataclysm, we all swear (and are correct in saying) “Our community will never be the same again.”
And, we’re right.
Whether it be Chris’s passing or the absolution of another equally-important life, it rocks you. It rocks us.
Why are these wonderful souls taken from us so quickly? Without any explanation?
Why do people like Chris, who was so full of goodness and happiness, leave this world too soon?
In only 36 years, I’ve experienced many losses. Some from death, and others from the perils of life.
The more I experience loss, the more I’m able to understand it. (Not that it always makes it easier. Though, sometimes, it does.)
Some of my passed loved ones experienced significant tragedy and struggling either in their life and/or in their final days. For those, while it’s not easy to say goodbye, it’s easier knowing they’re at peace.
For people like Chris… who were snatched from us in, literally, an instant… it leaves us in a state of shock. The kind that has you really believing, “This has to be a bad dream,” even days later. Even weeks later. This is the kind of shock that makes everything appear to be moving in slow motion. Rattling your soul to its depths. So much so, you can almost actually feel your heart break a little. Split. Crack.
Shock that leaves you wandering through the following days not knowing what to do, when to eat, what to think, or how to carry on.
It’s one step at a time.
And, the emotions come in waves.
An ebb and flow of sob and pause.
One minute, you’re thankful for having had their friendship. The next minute, you’re mad at God for taking someone so special and good. Especially, while there are people on this earth that are not.
It also makes you take notice… Friends and neighbors you see all the time, that you say “Hi,” to every day, but never consider they won’t be there tomorrow. A restaurant owner. A local teenager. A bank teller. Or the local pizza-lovin’ chef.
I know we’ve all considered this before, but take time to let this thought resonate – When we walk away from a friend, a neighbor, or a community member, there is no guarantee we will ever see them again.
It makes me think of staple figures, who have always been there, who I’ve never considered might not be there one day. Members of the community who, in a way, had a hand in raising me, in raising us.
I know we’ve all considered this before, in a moment, and after the sudden passing of someone, but really STOP and consider this…
Think of a person you saw today. Someone you may see in your routine errand-run around town…
Think of those faces, and let your heart crumble at the thought of something suddenly happening to any one of them.
When you leave people in a moment, and say “I’ll see you later,” there is no guarantee. We all know that. As humans, we’ve likely said it many times before. But, now, I urge you to remember it. Always.
The last time I saw Chris, we had pizza. (God love him.) He’d brought one of his creations, like he did many times before, to my cousin Erica’s house. Erica and I yummed and oogled over the pie while Chris told us the history and story behind his cookbook, “The Peaky Diners.” I chuckled as I read one of the recipes aloud. And, now, I find myself chuckling at the memory and ugly-crying at the same time.
I watched him walk out the door that night, like I had many nights before. I remember smiling after him and thinking “I love spending time with that guy. He just makes ya feel good!” But there was not enough time in the world to capture the magic that man was giving off. He was throwing it down faster than any of us could pick it up.
In a way, I took him for granted. I took his life for granted. Like I do so many others, and like we all do every day. That’s not to say any of us are bad or selfish. We just let that darn rush of everyday life get in the way.
When Chris was fixing his dinner that fateful evening, he never thought it would be his last. He never dreamed he’d never see his friends again, that he’d never have the opportunity to say “goodbye,” not “see you later.” Chris was planning to go to work the next morning at The Curly Maple and do what he loved – create pizzas.
I’m sure Chris had so many other goals for his life, though what he did accomplish in his time was amazing. He helped countless people and touched lives in more ways than he ever knew.
His friendship was warm and deep and true. And, anyone who knew him or stood for a second in his life could tell that immediately and without doubt. The love and humanity in his eyes were palpable.
So… what do we do now? How do we move on? How can we move on?
We cry. We remember. We laugh. And, we never ever forget.
We get up and move when we feel like it or when we have to. And, when we don’t, we cover our heads with a blanket and mourn.
We also remember how lucky we are to have had special people like Chris in our lives.
And, we remind ourselves how lucky we are to have people who are still here – the people we take for granted. The gas station attendant. The grocery store clerk. The construction worker. Et cetera.
We’re all guilty of getting caught up in seemingly-important issues and forgetting what the truest treasures are. And, when we take a second to really identify our priorities, we realize what’s really not important – events being canceled because of COVID, the latest town gossip, or who did what wrong. Criticism and discord become unquestionably minuscule and absolutely absurd.
Life’s truest treasure is lifting up your fellow man or woman. And, Chris truly made a daily habit of that. In small and large ways. Being completely selfless in almost every way possible. I swear, that man would carry burning hot coals in his bare hands to warm someone who was freezing. (Actually… being Chris, he’d likely MacGyver-together a better way to do it, but if he had to carry hot coals in bare hands to help a friend, he would.)
Chris Royal was, unequivocally, one of the best and most magical souls I’ve ever had the true honor and pleasure of knowing. (And, I mean that with every single bit of my heart.)
I told a friend, I believe when someone leaves this world, they hang around a bit to make sure everyone is okay. I feel Chris watching over Highland County, and he has joined the ranks of many other esteemed Highland County angels who have gone before him, who are still watching over us.
The best thing we can do to remember the people we love, Chris or otherwise, is carry on their good qualities. Instead of letting their magic pass with them, carry it on. Like a memorial beacon of their lives. Don’t let it get lost in the moving-on of day-to-day life.
Someone wrote on Facebook: “Maybe in honor of Chris, we can all do something nice for someone else this week.”
I agree. But let’s not stop with this week. In fact, let’s not stop. Chris never did.
And, you know, I guess this isn’t goodbye. It isn’t good-bye because I’m positive Chris is among the angels. And, I hope to be there, too, one day, so…
See you later, Christopher. It was a true honor of my life, dear one.
About the Author
Dorothy Stephenson grew up on her family's cattle operation in Meadowdale, located in the southwest corner of Highland County. When she wasn't on horseback helping her father gather and work cattle, you'd likely find her (still on horseback) jumping creeks in her family's nearby "Big Pasture." Today, though she doesn't ride horses much anymore, she has her own cattle, land, and expansion plans for a farm. Additionally, (and with the inherited, Stephenson, entrepreneurial spirit) she owns two small businesses in Highland County - Sundance Media & Design and Sundance Studio & Productions, which houses another of Dorothy's long-time loves - Clogging. Dorothy loves exploring new places, skills, and ideas, and she intends to live life to the fullest as long as it will let her. (Oh! And she LOVES Christmas!)