Today we celebrate the life of our departed Neil – Christopher Neil Harris for those who like his full name or are otherwise unaware. As a family a tradition has developed to share this day with loved ones with ice cream and an act of service. We decided this year to perform our service by fundraising for Operation Underground Railroad, a charity combined with Elizabeth Smart’s foundation to rescue children who are trafficked all around the world. However, I would also like to take a moment to remember Neil and his impact on our family and me personally.
Now to be clear, I have not been one to romanticize events or people, I find that in honestly portraying people and events we learn more and are able to truly appreciate them for how and what they are. Hopefully this provides insight into my insight, that in evaluating the impact this one individual had on me and my family I can help describe the good man he was and his genuine contribution to my life, and of course always the impact on my wife and children.
One of the first times I spent time with Neil, outside of a brief encounter with him (and Susan too) was a visit he made to Utah at the same time as his and Temma’s grandparents, Grandpa Whitey and Grandma DeeDee. They were kind enough to treat us to Red Robin. On the drive to the restaurant Neil reminisced of loves lost, one of the great experiences of single life I am sure many can understand. As we waited for our meals to arrive in walked one of the girls Neil had once dated and her new husband. It was a little odd, and Neil had to take respite in wandering the mall adjoined to the restaurant. This was the first of a little lesson Neil taught me, for all his bravado, his toughness, his shyness and his humor, the man loved deeply. This love was much greater for his family then an old girlfriend whose name I don’t remember and it developed on greater levels for the love of his life, Susan. But in all I remember of Neil is his deep love for people, the same people that at times made him incredibly anxious, he always had a way of making others feel loved.
Later I visited Temma’s family in Florida. She was good enough to arrange a canoe adventure on a little river somewhat near Gainesville. Neil drove and we were also accompanied by Kathleen and Wim, who were also dating at the time. This provided added adventure because as soon as we started down the river it became apparent that Wim and Kadee had much less experience with canoe navigation than Temma and me. Neil was a passenger on board their canoe as they meandered about the river. Nothing they did looked intentional and they struggled to synchronize. It was funny. What made it hilarious was Neil standing in the canoe giving directions in the voice of a Muppet (like Beaker, but intelligible) as if he were the captain of the blundering ship and all was intentional. Eventually he laughed, jumped out and swam to our canoe. I’m sure it was frustrating at the time for the novice canoers but his good humor is much appreciated in hindsight. Neil taught and lived good humor. Like a good brother he teased but also used it as a way to express his love.
Neil visited us a few more times while between various assignments in the armed services, I can still remember him after returning from Afghanistan. The impact was clear and indelible, yet he remained Neil, more experienced, having seen much more and experienced the spectrum of war. His companions spoke well of him at his funeral and his service, something we never heard of from his lips, he was never one to boast of his own good work (sometimes of his crazy cross fit work-outs).
The next visit with Neil I would like to highlight is one of the last times we saw him. We had just moved to Virginia to attend William & Mary, which was a few hours north of Neil’s assignment at Camp Lejeune. He took his free time and met us at our new apartment. After a two day search where we lived like nomads, we had finally found a habitable space within our budget and could leave our budget motel. He met us there, helped us unload, helped us clean (the place was filthy, the previous tenant had not cleaned and we opted to do so in order to move in right away) and spent quality time with us. He spent time with Jamie and our family. We didn’t do anything exciting, no sightseeing, just unpacking and cleaning. Neil was a true example of service.
Our final in-person visit with Neil was a good memory. We stopped by Camp Lejeune on our way to Florida. He held and played with Jamie, always the amazing Uncle. His impact on our only child at the time was so strong, that at Neil’s funeral Jamie saw Neil in his casket and started to ask repeatedly for “Uncle Neil.” It was a touching reminder of his impact on all his nieces and nephews. While giving us a tour of the base in his big Ford pickup he disclosed his desire to marry Susan. It struck me as a fantastic idea, you could tell that he was happy and comfortable in his decision even though it would be a major lifestyle change for him. He told us as much and expressed his concern about the change but had clearly made up his mind. Neil had struggled with commitment, but he had clearly loved Susan for some time and knew it required a change in him. What I saw as he revealed his desire to marry Susan was courage – courage to love and to change for love.
That was a great visit with Neil and will always be a cherished reminder of his final days.
In visits and in reviewing the photos of him and Susan getting hitched in Vegas, I had never seen him more content, happier or satisfied. A certain anxiety accompanied Neil for most the time I knew him, nothing ameliorated that anxiety more than his love for Susan and subsequent marriage. That decision changed part of his nature, made him better, strengthened his resolve and healed him emotionally.
As we all find ways to mourn and remember those we’ve lost, I hope we can remember the great benefit of our lost loved ones, and that the memorable iconic words that it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved ring undeniably true. My life is better from Neil’s impact, and I hope my memories may serve as a reminder why we love and the important part love and loss plays in our lives. I know for my sake and that of my family we are better because of Neil’s love and example.