This blog will be a short novel but honesty is healing medicine for the soul. Goodness, I’m crying already and I’m just getting started. Some awful things have happened since Father’s Day. Stunned, I abandoned my beloved 365 project. I only took pictures with my phone. Taking a picture with my 50mm felt like cheating because I enjoy it so much (I have also been frozen with writing). Below are pictures taken in the blur of the last several weeks.
There are also a few pictures peppered in of my brother and some of his work, the awesome portrait of Chris was taken by his brother-in-law.
While I was finishing the 365 blog on Father’s Day (it was still up on my screen being edited), I got a message to call my brother, Chris Neal’s mother-in-law, and my stomach instinctively twisted into knots. My husband was just going out the door for work and I hectically called out to him, “Come back! Something awful has happened to my brother.” I called her and she broke the news I somehow already knew. Chris had passed away.
Silence and loud noise at the same time. Every emotion at the same time.
All I can remember of this conversation is my sister-in-law’s mother saying, “I know you’re a strong woman.” The rest is a blur. I sure didn’t feel strong. A wave had just swept me off my feet and I was trying to save myself in the chaos and tears.
I was just with Chris three weeks earlier and we had more time together due to my flight delay (I should send a thank you note to SWA). We had never been to The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s plantation, located near Nashville. It was decided we would go. After confirming that Andrew Jackson was the seventh President, I asked Chris, “Wasn’t Andrew Jackson famous for something?” Chris replied, “Killing American Indians.” I shook my head, as if saying, “Fair enough”. He nodded his head and later we headed out the door, both turned off by how the Indians were treated. Two idealist bothered by how some people are mis-treated while others have an easier, and sometimes oblivious, life.
At The Hermitage, I bought a Christmas ornament there and held it up to Chris and said, “I’ve been collecting ornaments from all over and am buying this one. This way, no matter the miles between us, we will always be together at Christmas.” He said his sarcastic, “Awwwwwwww” but I saw the flash of sweetness and flattery. Now I’m kicking myself because I didn’t buy the nicest ornament but that reasoning would definitely make Chris roll his eyes and call me his favorite term: ‘batshit crazy’.
If I could let you in on the whole story of the last three-four weeks, you wouldn’t believe it if I wrote it with one hand on the Bible. In short, my brother died suddenly, my step-father fell and broke his neck and had to be life-flighted to the hospital and hung on for dear life, his brother was in the hospital about to have his leg amputated, my father fell, crushing bones and cracking ribs, I spent four nights crunched up in a hospital recliner and over 50 hours crunched up in a car, and I got criticized for getting a tattoo in my brother’s honor among other petty things, stayed in New Orleans (it’s on the way home, we drove) during a full moon before returning to Houston. My other brother, my father, my hubby and I decided it was time my dad move to Texas with us. The short-sale house we had a bid on fell through, we decided it was a sign to move to the country, bought a house on 2.5 acres so I can build a prayer garden and have a studio, and we will move in with dad by late summer. I have many details to prepare and I miss my brother every single day and have crying and reclusive spells.
Chris was an extremely talented writer and a brilliant thinker (typing that word ‘was’ just broke my heart again by the way). He was smart, enduring, shy, imaginative. At times he was hypersensitive, irritable and delicate, but his talent and brilliance left everyone in awe. Chris documented music in a way that, in my humble opinion, no other has. He was pre-internet and easily shifted to the age of world-wide information sharing, though it drastically changed the industry. His brilliance of words endured throughout the erosion of revenue. His words gleamed under any circumstance. Chris interviewed a wide variety of musicians, such as Marty Stuart, Stevie Nicks, Dave Grohl, Buddy Guy, Willie Nelson, Common, Roseanne Cash, Ozzy Osborne.
Chris simply got the big picture of music, and I applaud him for the documentation of an unfolding and evolving industry, through the eyes of artists.
I initiated a close friendship with Chris in 2000 when I was going through a tough time of my life. I was at the age where I was just naive enough to leave and too scared to stay. Chris wasn’t crazy about my idea of joining the military but encouraged me to spread my wings and get out of dodge. If Chris could progress from a Wal-Mart photographer to working at Country Weekly in Nashville, I too, could succeed. Chris gave me the gift of knowing life and cultures outside of my Appalachian bubble, and encouraging me to spread my wings and know life for myself.
I joined the military and traveled often. Chris and I wrote back and forth about the latest developments in our lives. We shared mistakes and described glorious moments- like when Chris told me that he had an office crush and I encouraged him not to be so shy. I was the best (wo)man at their wedding in 2008 and was so nervous to be in front of the crowd that I spaced when “Here Comes the Sun” echoed in the circular ceremony room at The Country Music Hall of Fame. The Beatles were Chris’ favorite band. He stood for what they stood for: equality. Chris knew more about The Beatles than, well, The Beatles. He was a music fiend. You could ask him who the drummer of a random band was in ANY year and he could tell you without going to Wikipedia.
Sometimes Chris had to suppress his vast knowledge of music and his facts about musicians. In more than one interview, Chris would name events and dates and the artist would swear Chris was wrong. I get my dates confused all the time, so I totally understood. Being empathic and professional, Chris would move on with the interview. He double-checked his work and found out that he was right, but those parts were cut from the interview to not offend the artist. In confidence, he told me about his interesting line of work and I would as well. These were the stories that we would share- the defining moments in our lives tying together the miles between us. I encouraged him to write a book about how the internet changed the music industry but he never fancied the idea. I suppose, to some degree, the subject was too sad to write about because it forced many people out of paying journalism jobs. Chris was so far ahead of his time that the current times took emotional tolls, but his work remained meticulous and beautiful.
Every time I took leave to visit home, I stopped in Nashville for a day or two to hang out with Chris and his wife (whom I consider my sister by the way, love her, love her, love her light). Chris could be awkward and anxious with people but somehow he could open up to me, and I could be frank with him without making him extremely mad. One of the first times I visited Nashville, Chris grabbed his guitar at midnight and played/sang Liz Phair’s Fucking Run on his back patio. I knew we were friends for a reason because he was quite good and I fucking love Liz Phair! On another visit, we ended up on a roof-top with random people. One guy asked me what I did for a living and I told him. Then I asked him what he did for a living. Fiddler for Brooks and Dunn, no big deal. Then he borrowed a guitar and serenaded us. The busy buzzing of downtown Nashville at 2 a.m. silenced. We all sat in awe as music wafted over the Cumberland river. And when that river flooded, I called to make sure Chris and his wife were alright and we expressed our sadness for the people and, of course, the fact that The Grand Ole Opry was a swimming pool.
We even talked of our battles with depression and deep empathy as the years progressed and more tragedy struck, both locally and globally. Chris found a safe haven with his wife and craft of writing but had a strong distaste for ineptitude in others. He could out-argue anyone, even himself and he was funny as hell. I use many of his lines today, like describing ‘those’ difficult people as flaming hemorrhoids that refuse to go away.Chris communicated best through words, not conversation. We have many texts and messages that now feel like gold to me. One of my favorite texts from him is, “You know what? You just might be one of my best friends.” Classic Chris. Sarcastic but underneath it all, sweet. A favorite text of mine was one that I sent to Chris during a dark period. It says, “I wish that one day you see yourself the way I see you.” No matter where Chris is now, I know without a doubt that he finally sees himself with my eyes and is finding comfort in that unconditional love.
The naysayers and corruption on Earth harm him no longer and in that, I find respite. And I’ve re-defined family. A true family is a group of people who love you as God does and can float you during the craziest of storms. I have SO many good friends, like my photography/bff Jason Talley (his brilliant work can be found by clicking here!), who told me that if I didn’t write this blog by tonight, he was personally driving to my house to kick my ass. Clearly, he doesn’t know my ninja skills but I appreciated that he lit a fire under my ass. Writing this is allowing me to get it all out so I can move forward. And my kindred Candace slept beside me in a recliner in the hospital and made my dad and I crack up when she jokingly said, “I bet the nurse (Tom the Bomb) has a nice naked butt,” FIRST thing in the morning. We thought my dad was sleeping but he disbelievingly said, “Whhhaaaaat??” We all cracked up in belly laughter. My father and I needed that laugh so badly.
Tons of friends and family have sat with me, written me, soothed me and loved me. The people who reached out to help are blessings and I am VERY blessed. It is in the pillow of prayers and positive thoughts of my loved ones that I rest my head at this very moment.
The following is something that I wrote Chris last week and was going to post on this blog. I thought I was ready but, I wasn’t. If I wrote the words, they would be true. Now I will put my truth on display. From last week, a poem and then a note directly to Chris:
Epitaph Discussion With Myself.
Earth’s lyrics of paradox do not die.
Dancing notes, scars and stars,
a call one night.
Bad news. Curve ball. Game changer.
Compulsively think, “what if”…
run the mind ragged like a level that can’t be beat.
The weeks pass by in Internet Land
but the news does not feel old to me.
This mourning period cracked the heart open—
it ran over my need for control.
There was nothing I could do to bring you back.
There was nothing I could do to fill your space.
Can’t fill my body with unhealthy habits,
Or fall back on frantic paces and places.
Still my whirring.
Be still and quiet the soul.
Be still, be whole.
Be still, even in the wildest of storms.
Be still, in chaos,
see content, not form.
Inhale, feel and accept.
Exhale, allow the peaceful decision to guide the way.
My real age is in the number of true breaths that I’ve taken—
all the rest is just what I attach to it.
Thank you for leading me to this place where I have learned to properly breathe. You taught me that it was possible to reach others, long before the Internet. I used to eagerly wait on the mail and if I saw your clean, neat writing on an envelope, I would get so excited. Your words were always so beautiful. Chris, the most mysterious and private individual I had ever met, wrote me. Not only did you write me, but you told me that I was talented. There were times you ripped my work to shreds but I know that you always appreciated my heart. Now I feel like I’ve lost my idol, so I will let your words fill my empty heart space and I promise to post pictures and write on the blank pages you left me. I’ll try not to be sappy, but you know me…. can’t make any promises. Love you best friend and brother. You know how much- I always let you know.
And I heard that you called me a brilliant photographer. I’ll never let it go as long as I am reaching other people with my art, just as you did in your own way. Thank you for giving the gift of understanding kick-ass music of all genres. My spectrum is wider because of your talent and love.
You played this song for me on the night you died and I knew it was a sign. You are at peace and happy but I sure do miss you.
My beautiful and supportive husband (I’m the luckiest wife in the world) designed this tattoo while I slept. It spells Chris as well as Christ. I added the second empty part because there was a before and after when my brother died. It’s up to me to fill in the rest with beauty, as long as I stay within the lines of acceptance and develop an understanding that some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved in this lifetime; it would just be too much to comprehend.
When I was told that I am strong, I didn’t believe it. I believe it now. You never know how much you can shine until that is the only option you have or everything will further fall apart.
You are strong too. We all have the spark, even if we’re just dancing in the dark.
(another tribute to Chris can be found CLICKING HERE!)