On Saturday, we got the news that Ben Blair’s earliest friend, Christopher Clark, had died. Chris was an award-winning director, loving husband, father of five terrific kids, dedicated Anglophile, Shakespeare expert, concert pianist, Finnish-speaking, all around super-talented guy.
He was diagnosed with ALS almost five years ago, so his death wasn’t all that surprising, but at the same time has felt like a great shock. Chris has been so upbeat, positive, and hopeful throughout the steady decline of the last years — the loss of his legs and feet, then his arms and hands, his ability to speak, his ability to swallow — that I had started to think he was destined to be an ALS outlier. That he would live for another decade or more. That he would talk in his computer voice, and keep taking on theater projects, maybe write a book, continue leaving hilarious 5-star google reviews for random businesses.
I met Chris the same night I met Ben Blair. I was 20 years old. It was at a Bean Society Meeting. They were seated at a piano — Chris played and they sang a duet they had written: Beans on Valentine’s Day. They would later perform it at our wedding reception.
Chris married Lisa Valentine a few months before Ben and I married. We were all attending BYU. My memories of early adulthood and early marriage overlap with memories of Chris and Lisa. We had our first babies within a few months of each other. Made plans for graduate school. Worked on house projects. Tried to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up.
Chris and Ben are Provo natives and grew up around the block from one another. During our first few years of our marriage, when we were living in Provo, I ended up getting to know Chris’s parents and some of his siblings. I worked with his mom, Cindy, at church, teaching the teenage girls in our congregation and hosting activities for them. I remember meeting his then teenage sisters, Stephanie and Courtney, and a decade later, both of them spent a week writing Guest Mom posts here on Design Mom during the original blogging boom.
Chris and Lisa would host big parties at the Clark family cabin in Wahlsberg where I got to see the Clark family siblings shine. I come from a big family too, and their interactions and family dramas were familiar to me and mirrored my own family dramas. When Ben Blair talked about his childhood, it was always clear what an impact the larger-than-life Clark family had played in his life. Chris was a dear childhood friend. Ben and Chris were creative collaborators, constantly making movies, or coming up with projects, and making each other laugh.
I ended up finding a kindred spirit in Chris’s wife, Lisa. That doesn’t always happen. We don’t always like the friends of our spouse, and even if we do, we don’t always like the spouses of those friends. But I got really lucky. Lisa and I have a ton in common and I’ve ended up getting to know Lisa’s family too. I worked with Lisa’s older brother (also named Chris) on a textbook for an art professor, and got to know Lisa’s sister Gina when Lisa and I put on an Art Market. I got to meet Lisa’s younger brother James, a now world-famous guitarist, when he played a living room concert with Chris — he was on his way to L.A. where he hoped to make it big (and did make it big!). When I think of peers who I really respect and look to as a model, Lisa always comes to mind.
After college, we ended up living far away from Chris & Lisa, but would connect the way long-time friends connect whenever they are in the same town. I was grateful for social media. I could read Chris’s diaries from London, and Lisa’s thoughts on parenting. I could cheer as Chris established his career, and Lisa’s talent was shown to millions in the Chatbooks commercial.
Lately, my primary communication with Chris was through Instagram DMs. We shared nostalgic memories that were spurred on by his posts or mine. The other day I posted a story with music from The Man from Snowy River. I knew Chris would respond and he did. (That movie was very popular among Mormons and any piano-playing Mormon kid worth their salt could play those chords.)
I’m mourning for my husband today. Chris is his earliest and longest-lasting friendship. Chris was a consistent influence for good in Ben’s life, and Ben always imagined he would get to be an old man with Chris. I’m mourning for Chris’s parents, and his siblings — I feel like they’ve been asked to deal with more than their fair share of crummy stuff. I’m mourning for Lisa’s siblings, who have lost a dear friend and advocate. I’m mourning for Josh Bingham. You know Josh because he edits the Living With Kids home tours here on Design Mom. Chris was Josh’s best friend and of course Josh’s heart is broken.
I’m mourning for his five children. The youngest just finished elementary school. It is hard to lose a parent. My father was five years older than Chris when he died (Chris is 47, my father was 52). It was hard then, and is still hard now, to want advice or feedback from him and not be able to get it.
I think most of all I’m mourning for Lisa. What an honor it was to see Chris & Lisa build a truly beautiful life together. Twenty-five years of committed marriage. What an exceptional team they made.
And I’m mad about the the timing of all of this. Chris established the theater department at Utah Valley University. He was hugely influential in the community and he is beloved. There should be a massive Mormon funeral to celebrate Chris’s life. But currently gatherings in Utah are supposed to be kept to under a hundred people. That might sound like a lot, but if you combine just Chris & Lisa’s immediate family members it’s well over a hundred.
Mormon funerals are often quite wonderful. They are like massive, brief, family reunions. Very celebratory. Emotional and heart-breaking, but also truly hopeful and beautiful. One of the core Mormon beliefs is that relationships can last forever; that we’ll be reunited after death with family and friends; that there is a very thin veil between this life and the next life, and that those who have gone before us, are just on the other side of that veil, cheering us on and supporting us in ways we may not understand.
I don’t know what sort of memorial or funeral will be planned for Chris, but it’s an additional blow that it can’t be what it might have been pre-covid19. I’m grieving for all the people who have lost loved ones during this pandemic and who haven’t been able to mourn the way they wanted to or needed to.
Ben Blair wrote an Instagram post about Chris and said: I’m completely heartbroken for this family. Lisa has endured a devastating chapter with unfathomable grace. Their response to the initial diagnosis, and years on a path that only ever got worse, will forever be my example of how to respond to horror.
Ben is absolutely right. I’ve never seen anything like it. Chris & Lisa learned very quickly what they would be facing with this diagnosis, and they never wavered in approaching each day with arms wide open, pouring love out into the world.
Josh wrote: If anyone deserves to live to be an old man, it was Chris. He would have been the best 90 yr old man. I fully agree. Chris’s life was cut too short. And the world was robbed of the joy of seeing Chris grow old.
We are mourning deeply at the Blair house right now. Mourning for Chris, and mourning for all who love him who are in pain.
P.S. — Chris makes appearances in lots of movies, but his starring role in Stalking Santa might be my favorite. You can see Lisa in Show Offs, Random Acts, Pretty Darn Funny, that amazing viral Chatbooks commercial, and listen to her radio show.