Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Professor Vlad's memories

I received this very touching message from Vlad, one of Chris' Russian Studies professors.

I was Chris' professor of Russian and Comparative Literature in the 1990s. In fact he was in the very first class that I taught at UWO in 1991 (first-year Russian). He then took all the Russian classes we had to offer and went on exchange to Minsk about which he surely told you. He came back from Minsk able to converse in Russian and I recall how amazing it was to actually carry on a conversation with him!

Chris was the most memorable student I ever had and I've been here for 15 years. His keen expression will stay in my mind for as long as I live. He always tried to learn. Russian is a very difficult language but Chris was never put off by that. The amused look on Chris' face whenever he struggled to get his tongue around a difficult passage of Russian prose or when he had to figure out the right verb ending from an endless array of inflections seemingly invented by a sadistic academic always meant that even the most challenging exercise was pure enjoyment for him.

From the very start Chris told me about his renal condition. Sometimes he had to miss classes because of his health. Once I even pointed out his frequent absences to him and quickly bit my tongue when he explained why he hadn't been coming. I was so happy for him when he had his first transplant and it seemed that all his troubles were over. That's why I was so shocked to learn when I met him recently that things hadn't turned out the right way for him.

Chris was part of a group that acted as guinea pigs for my language teaching method involving music. The method was eventually translated into a textbook published in 1996 in the US: Listening to Okudzhava: Twenty-Three Aural Comprehension Exercises in Russian. Chris' name is in the dedication – in first place. That should tell you how much I valued his input. The book was reissued with corrections in 2000 and a new set of student names appeared in the dedication after a course I had taught at Indiana University. But Chris' name was still first. It will always be first in my mind. I suspect the book is still part of Chris' possessions and you may have seen it.

Chris house-sat for us and took care of our dog one summer. He came over for dinner a few times and even brought a present to my son Alex. Alex still remembers that Nerf gun. And when Alex was still inside my wife's pregnant belly, Chris met us at Gibbons Park and was amazed to see "his professor" in such an unprofessorial state. He was very young then (recently out of high school) and probably thought (sort of) that professors somehow lived only in their offices and could not possibly appear unshaven, wearing shorts and accompanied by a very pregnant wife.

Chris and I met for lunch a year ago when he looked me up after his return from Ottawa. He looked great, told me about you and about his Ph.D. plans. He sounded so positive that I could not be happier for him. Now I kick myself for not contacting him after that lunch. Life just takes us into its whirlwind and when we wake up we often find that we've neglected to do the really important things. Seeing Chris again would have been such a thing. Chris was important.

Chris was one of the most tolerant people I've ever known. He always had an ear for any opinion, giving everyone the chance to expresses him or herself. And the sparkle in his eye seemed to say: "Maybe, maybe, why not..."

I would like to close by saying that Larissa (my wife) and I can't stop thinking about Chris. We grieve with you. We feel a sense of loss. We see his face in our mind's eye. It is always a smiling face though and that makes all the difference. It is hard to cry when you see a smile. You can't help but take a deep breath and smile back even through tears. And then you think: that smile has marked me and I feel better for it. To quote my favourite Russian author, Sasha Sokolov (whose prose Chris read in my class), Chris has left his footprints in my soul.

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