Despite the neverending complaints that life isn’t fair, in reality it isn’t. Some of us are born into circumstances beyond our control and spend our life trying to catch up to where most start. Unfortunately, many don’t even get close. The truth is we never really know what anyone else is dealing with or where they are coming from. Although I have my own medical issues, I have always took comfort in knowing that I was largely intact and able to live a normal life with the support of my family and friends. For motivation, I always compared my situation to others that had it far worse but still managed to live an extraordinary life despite their personal challenges. Such was the case for Chris Hitchcock.
Chris lived next door to my parent’s in Corral De Tierra, a neighborhood halfway between Monterey and Salinas in California. He was born in 1958 with cerebral palsy in addition to other health issues. Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders affecting a person’s ability to move resulting from brain damage. It affects body movement, muscle control, coordination, tone, reflex, posture and balance. Many individuals with cerebral palsy also have visual, learning, hearing, speech, experience epilepsy and have intellectual impairments. It is estimated that some 500,000 children and adults in the United States have symptoms of cerebral palsy.
I knew Chris solely from a half-dozen meetings I had with him over a ten-year period. Despite being permanently wheelchair-bound and lacking control of his muscles, all he wanted to talk about was science. And talk we did: marine biology, new discoveries, physics, his interests were broad and deep. I soon learned he was a voracious reader and knew what was going on in the world, in many ways way more than I did. His mind was amazing and he had a vast knowledge of biology, including genetics, ecology and evolution. Once I had just returned from diving in a submersible in Carmel Canyon amongst schools of large Humboldt squid. As I told him the story he quickly asked for more details about their apperance, schooling behavior, and what it felt like to be underwater with the squid. There was no envy, no resentment, just curiosity, and joy at my experience
At first I had trouble reconciling Chris’s mind with his body but I soon came to realize he was simply an incredibly smart man trapped in a disabled body. But everything he had learned had been while he suffered from an illness that would have incapacitated most of us. The most amazing thing, which inspired me the most, was that he never complained about his condition, his situation in life, or how he was feeling. He had clearly accepted his fate, moved on, and was living life the best he could. His extraordinary perspective was a model for me.
I am compelled to write about Chris because he is not well-known outside of his close circle of friends and family in Salinas and Monterey Counties. But everyone that knew him came away changed by his outlook on life. Anyone who crossed paths with Chris became instant lifelong friends. For he had a heart of gold, and never forgot anyone’s birthday, anniversary, or a special occasion.
If Chris would have been born into a normal functioning body he would have become . . . well, we don’t know. . . and never will. But whatever he might have become he was an extraordinary human being. His indomitable spirit shone bright, challenging all of us to be better people and cherish the life we have. I feel very fortunate to have known Chris. My hope is that his memory will inspire others that didn’t have the opportunity to know him.
Equally amazing was the devotion of his family. His parent’s life was all about supporting Chris, which they did without reservation. His mother, Gerry, was especially committed to him and her life revolved around his. I have never seen such devotion.
Importantly, Chris had high points in his life (from his obituary):
Chris graduated from Palma High School in 1977, as 1 of 4 valedictorian’s, which was one of Chris’s shining moments in life. All of his classmates knew of his struggles, and health issues. Upon the announcement of his scholastic accomplishments, his entire class gave him a standing ovation, the rest of the auditorium followed which seemed to last forever. Chris was in the spotlight, and had a grin from ear to ear, and there was not a dry eye in the auditorium. Chris then pursued his studies at UC Davis, graduating with a BS degree in Zoology, and then a MS degree in Biological Sciences.
Knowing Chris has changed my life forever. I learned that my normal “everyday” life should never be taken for granted. Moreover, we can never know what another’s life is like. We just need to accept, not judge, and have compassion for each other. Life is precious and we need to make each day count. Chris knew and taught me that without saying a word.
Chris’s parents request that donations in his memory should be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, TN 38105.