It’s hard to know how much drinking will kill a person until it does.
In the early ’00s, Chris was in the Maine music industry. He was the baritone saxophonist for a screamo band called Animal Suit Driveby, which was later renamed The Killing Moon after the label requested a more serious name. But more importantly, he was part of the scene. “We were furious, we were furious, we had a good time,” he recalls. Later, when I look at the transcript of our interview, I realize that because of how often we talk about drinking, Chris tends to avoid the word itself.
That life – furious, furious, having fun – lasted until his thirties, even long after his moment in music was over.
Gemma had her concerns. Before he went out, she’d ask him tough questions that, in hindsight, were easy questions: Could he go out to dinner and not have six drinks on his own? Could he resist going to a bar afterwards? Was it even possible to imagine that he would limit himself to alone a drink?
So he got sober. It was difficult for all the obvious reasons; it was also difficult because sobriety was so boring.
“When you’re in your thirties, that’s all you’ve done in your formative adult years. You don’t have any real hobbies, and all you are is that party goer, and all your friends are those party goers,” he says. Quitting cold turkey — which is the only way for most people to do it — left him with existential questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is interesting for me? What do I find important?
Chris goes birdwatching for three, maybe four hours at a time. His favorite spot is near a sewage treatment plant in Rochester, New Hampshire. Chris prefers the solitude of birdwatching alone. He considers himself an introvert, at least since he stopped drinking. “I like being able to pick up and go anywhere, change direction and drive somewhere else, and not worry about anyone else,” he says, which is good because he was alone now anyway.
Two and a half years into their relationship, Gemma was offered a three-year contract with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, widely regarded as the best bird studies program in the world, in addition to creating eBird. The work was six hours west in upstate New York. Chris offered to pack up his life and move to Ithaca with her. Gemma said she was going alone.
Two weeks after Gemma left, Chris was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that attacks white blood cells. Oddly enough, he was good news/bad news about the whole thing. “First, Hodgkin is a major cancer,” he says, referring to treatability, “but stage 4 is never a great stage to be in.”
Even more ups and downs: Because the chemo had jacked Chris’ body full of steroids, he felt pretty great for a day or two afterward — the perfect opportunity to get outside. No walks of course, but short trips to the beach to stumble around and watch birds. Then, after the steroids wore off, Chris would feel like absolute death for the next week and a half.
He was stuck in this loop for six months: the brief climax of the treatment, followed by the long-lasting pain, all in the pursuit of staying alive long enough to expel the cancer from his body.
Even while he was being treated and filled with four types of chemo, he texted Gemma. They had remained friends and talked every day. “A lot of times I’d be like, ‘Look at this picture of this bird,’ things like that, as I sit, literally cooking from the inside,” he says, further describing himself as “a boiling, poisonous mess.”
“I don’t think there’s ever a time when I go out that I don’t think about the origin of this whole hobby and who brought it into my life,” he says.
The nice thing about going outside and birdwatching is that it reminded him of Gemma, but it also reminded him of Gemma.