John 1.5 | John 8.12 | 1 John 1.7

“Remember in the Bible where Jesus saw Nathanael, when he said, ‘Behold, here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile?”

“Um, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry? Yeah.”

“Well, that’s what I thought about Chris first time I met him. Here’s a man in whom there is no guile.”

My wife and I were on the way home from Chris’ memorial service. “Yes, I can see that,” she said. “He was certainly an original.”

“He was that.”

“How’re you doing?”

“Mm. Sad. Hopeful. Joyful, maybe a little. Glad Chris’s ordeal is finally over, his suffering’s done.”

“Alzheimer’s is such a dreadful disease.”

We had first met Chris and Carole ten or twelve years earlier when we joined their six-member Bible study group. Carole was the organizer and facilitator; Chris, the encourager-supporter-contributor.

I remember entering their home, a two-story Tudor fronted by a monster pine tree that must have been a sprig when Father Junipero Serra trekked through the area in 1760-something. Chris welcomed us in. We were immediately embraced by his warmth. As the evening progressed, it was a delight to watch him interact with the others in the group and I realized that here was a man who is completely comfortable in his own skin. Affable, happy, genuinely sincere in his concern for others, Chris’s grace was as refreshing as ice cream on a Spring day. Here was a man who had no vestige of doubt that he was loved and accepted by God, his wife, his family and his friends. Chris had but one item on his agenda – to faithfully serve God, family, friends and anyone in need.

On one of our evenings together, less than a year later, Chris informed us that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As if that wasn’t enough, he let us know that he’d been ‘retired.’ Approaching age 65, the timing was right; the result wasn’t. Chris loved his job as an employment counselor because it involved helping people in need. In a nutshell, that was what he was about. His job would end the next week, abruptly.

Although he was saddened by his mandatory retirement, his downheartedness didn’t last long. A life-long athlete, outgoing and gregarious, Chris never lacked for friends and partners for tennis, basketball, or pickleball.

But Alzheimer’s onslaught began to take its toll. Chris’s short-term memory showed Swiss-cheese gaps. Words became hard to find. Frustration lived close to the surface. More and more, he shared childhood reminiscences, repeating fond memories like, “Did I tell you how my Dad and I used to play catch? Did I tell you about my friend Jimmy when we were kids?”

About that same time I had taken on the directorship of our church’s Stephen Ministry program. For those unfamiliar with Stephen Ministry, it is an international program that trains and equips mature Christians to provide one-to-one Christ-centered care to congregation members who are going through difficult and trying times. With my experience in pastoral counseling, human resources and retail management, it was a jigsaw puzzle fit.

Carole privately let it be known that Chris’s struggle with the disease was becoming more evident. No longer able to work at a meaningful job, being cooped up at home now manifested as restlessness and exasperation. Walking the dog and gardening were good, but not enough. Chris needed to do something.

He heard about a local organization that provided food for seniors. Good idea! Faithfully, rain or shine, Chris and loaded his pickup with boxes and bags of groceries and delivered them. Delivering food was not nearly as significant to him as chatting with his clients, asking them about their lives. “Do you need anything? Is there something I can do for you?”

Serving as his Stephen Minister companion-caregiver might just be the final piece of the jigsaw. I went to Chris and Carole with this proposal: Chris, tell me things you like to do. I’ll come pick you up every Thursday and we’ll do some of those things.

In that my knees had surrendered to age and abuse, tennis and basketball and pickleball weren’t on my menu. Instead, we settled on hikes and movies. Somewhere in the mix, we’d make time for lunch, maybe even breakfast. We began on the following Thursday. We continued our sojourns for five years.

As I came to know more about Chris, my initial impression was affirmed. He was truly a man comfortable in himself, a man with only a singular agenda: to love God and others, to be of service to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. His hallmark Bible verse? 1 Thessalonians 5:16: ‘Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.’ With an enviable consistency, Chris emphasized the ‘in all circumstances.’ I never met anyone as capable of finding things to be thankful for as Chris. Discovering opportunities to ask strangers if they knew Jesus was like mining an ore field rich with nuggets.

After graduating from college, Chris joined the Peace Corps and, with a co-worker, spent two years in Kerala, India training indigenous farmers in new and productive agriculture techniques. At the close of his tour of duty, he visited the Mount Everest Base Camp, which he called his ‘frosting on the cake.’ Chris showed me a photo of him in village garb, a once-white outfit of achkan top and lungi bottom complete with a taquiya cap. With his deeply tanned face and a rascally beard, he could be mistaken for a native … all except for the smiling blue eyes.

Back in the U.S., he refreshed his romance-by-mail with Carole, whom he had met just prior to the Peace Corps junket. It wasn’t long before they were married and living happily but frugally as Chris pursued his master’s degree. Long story short, they became parents of three sons and a daughter. At Chris’s memorial, the now-adult kids shared a wonderful slide show, a paean of family gladness and joy. In each picture, grace and love spilled out in abundance.

We hiked a lot, the two of us. Because I was born and raised here in our town, Chris often asked that we go to places I had enjoyed in my youth. Driving north, we would explore windswept beaches. One creekside locale was a favorite, as it offered a variety of woodland trails on one side of the highway and a wild, broad beach on the other. A heavily forested state park waited for us on the other end of the county, where we often walked and talked and once, were saved from getting lost when Chris glimpsed bike riders through the trees; the main trail was less than a hundred yards away. I asked him, “Remember that old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees?” He laughed and said, “Yeah. That’s us, isn’t it.”

Between woods and beach, Chris loved the woods the most, He felt very much at home there and often gave thanks to God for the forest and the peace that dwelled therein.

As for movies, that was a learning experience. Because Chris liked the James Bond flicks, I thought he’d like the Marvel super-heroes, too. Not so. “Too mujch action,” he said. “And do they really expect us to believe the women can keep their makeup on when they’re fighting?” Instead, he was charmed and replenished by stories of kindness and thoughtfulness – especially if they featured a dog. As we left the theater after seeing I Can Only Imagine, Chris was so elated, I thought he might just pull a present-day Elijah feat and ascend right to Heaven.

Never reticent, Chris saw opportunities to share his faith in much the same way he gave thanks. One afternoon, we stopped for lunch at an open-air restaurant. Two women sat an adjacent table and we overheard them talking about religion. Bright-eyed, Chris leaned over and said, “’Scuse me, but are you Christians?” One of the women said yes. The other said, “Well, no. My friend here was just telling me about her faith in Jesus. Has Jesus made a difference in your life?”

Talk about a divine appointment! Chris was in his glory as he spoke simply and convincingly about his lifelong journey with Jesus.

On another occasion, we had stopped for a late breakfast on our way to somewhere. There was only one other patron in the restaurant and our young, enthusiastic waitress met us with “Salaam aleikum.” Chris wanted to know, “What does that mean?”

“That means peace be with you.”

Chris’s question was predictable. “Oh, are you a Christian?”

“Why, no, I’m a Muslim.”

“I don’t know anything about Islam. Do you believe in Jesus.”

Between bites, Chris engaged yet another happy conversation about his Lord, this time learning how Jesus was viewed from a wholly different perspective. As we left the restaurant, he made a point to tell the waitress, “I enjoyed meeting you. Thank you for telling us about your faith.”

It was inevitable, of course, that the disease would take its toll. There came a time when Chris parked his dependable old pickup truck, couldn’t remember where then filled the afternoon with worry. It wasn’t long before a fender-bender ended his ability to drive. Retrieval of short-term memories morphed into daily challenges. When we revisited venues for our hikes, he would ask, “Have we been here before?”

And, of course, there came a time when our Thursday excursions came to an end – but not because of Chris’s disorder. Instead, it was my own health issues that brought our time together to a close. While I was saddened by this, I’m not sure it made too much of a difference to Chris. Another close friend, Don, who had witnessed Chris’s decline, came alongside with weekly outings.

Carole continued to bring Chris to our weekly Bible studies. Our group of eight always welcomed him with grace and patience as he repeated “Did I tell you …” stories, sometimes four and five times in an evening. The last time Chris came to our home, he gave me a sideways look, wrinkled his brow and asked, “Are you Jim?”

I gave him a hug and told him my name. I knew Jim to have been a boyhood friend from Chris’s childhood.

By the time Chris required more care than Carole was able to provide, an advanced care facility was found close to their daughter’s home. This was a lovely provision, for Heather could visit frequently, complete with grandchildren in tow. Within a year, Chris no longer knew his wife’s name; each time she came to visit, she would remind him, “I’m your wife, Chris. I’m Carole.” That always made him smile and laugh.

Later, Heather became a stranger to him and while the grandchildren made him smile, he no longer knew who they were. That wasn’t as much a loss as one might think: he was always delighted to see them.

A year went by. Carole brought us weekly reports, how her husband was beloved by the facility staff and other residents. “He’s always so thoughtful and kind and courteous, even though he doesn’t know our names,” they said. He blessed the other residents with friendliness and consideration, “Here, let me help you with that  … here, I’ll hold the door … after you, please … would you like my dessert?”

Heather was thrilled to learn that when the facility hosted hymn sings, Chris knew all the words. Day to day, he was a beacon of love and kindness to all. His was a light Alzheimer’s relentless assault could not extinguish.

Two, maybe three days before Chris slipped into a terminal coma, Heather brought the kids and their dog for a visit. Chris greeted everyone by name, even remembered the dog’s name. He showed a personal interest in his daughter’s life, how is your husband doing, kids, how are things going for you? For a while, the old Chris, the happy, friendly, encouraging daddy Heather had always known, showed up to say, ‘hey, remember me?’

Somewhere in the early days of our outings together, I asked Chris if he knew what his name meant.

“Sure. Christopher means Christ-bearer.”

“Did you know that the Greek spinoff of your name, Christopheros, is related?”

“Nope. Didn’t know that. What does that mean?”

“Light-bearer. It means light-bearer.”

“Cool. I like that.”

I was glad to know Chris liked that. He also lived it.