When a young man passes away it is always tragic. When a young man, who is recently married and expecting his first child, passes away there are almost no words that can aptly describe such a tragedy. Heartbroken, distraught, tragic – these words all might fit, but don’t fully grasp the weight of the loss. This is my personal attempt to put words to what no words can describe and to honor the life of my dear friend Christopher Kaiser.
On the evening of Tuesday June 4th, 2019, I had just landed in Houston for a two-hour layover on a return flight to Austin. I had just finished watching a funny movie on the plane and my spirits were up, with a smile still lingering on my face. As most travelers do, I turned my phone on to see that I had dozens of unread text messages. This wasn’t too uncommon, as my on-going group chat with my friends from high school has been known to run up 72 unread text messages in a single hour.
This time was different. The first text message I saw was from my brother Andy, which simply said “call me”. For a simple two-word text message something felt off. We typically all use text messaging these days for day-to-day communications. Phone calls have now come to be reserved for serious events like really good news or in some cases bad news. I then saw texts from my wife and family members, “have you talked to Andy yet?” That two-word text message from my brother now sent a chill down my spine. I knew I was about to receive bad news.
Sitting there on the tarmac, as my plane taxied to the gate, I called my brother. There was hesitation in his voice. I could tell he was reluctant to share whatever news he had. He said, “oh, you are still on the plane? Maybe you should call me when you get off…” I calmly pressed, “no, it’s okay, just tell me what’s going on.” I was thoroughly unprepared for what I would hear next. He then said it, “Chris Kaiser passed away.” Those are four words I never expected to hear in my lifetime. Time stood still. I put my face in my hands and I wept on the plane, with my brother still on the phone, for the next five minutes straight. I attempted to ask the simple question “how?”, but I was unable to do so. We hung up, I grabbed my bag, and exited the plane. The next two hours and my layover at the Houston airport are a blur.
Chris Kaiser was a dear friend to me for over twenty years. He touched so many lives with his life. To attempt to fully capture his life in an article would be futile. It cannot be done. But this is my best effort to honor Chris through a condensed version of my personal story for how I came to know and love Chris.
I began high school at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. It was a great school, but also a bit of a cruel joke, considering it took over an hour to get there every morning, and I lived right across the street from Summit High School. During my sophomore year I pleaded with my parents to let me transfer to Summit High and they finally gave in. I started my junior year at Summit. I was clearly the transfer student. In a town like Summit, where everyone grew up together, went to grammar, middle, and high school together, I was the new guy. I had some friend relationships already, so I gravitated to the people I already knew, but it was still tough the first few months.
Then one night a bunch of us were hanging out and Chris Kaiser was there. It was the first time we met and we were driving around town in our mutual friend’s Jeep Wrangler. We were having fun, not getting into too much trouble, when some funny events transpired. I’ll leave these “funny events” for another story, but Chris and I were literally crying laughing as we were parked in the Magic Fountain parking lot for a moment. That was the spark of a relationship that would continue to grow and blossom over the next twenty years.
Through the remainder of high school we became inseparable, creating random traditions that we continued all throughout college. One of my fondest memories with Chris was our weekly “Sunday drive”. He’d pick me up in his mom’s 1990 BMW (may the car rest in peace) and we would head out to Bernardsville and the surrounding towns, where all the private school kids lived (which is how we described it). We’d make a new CD mix for each Sunday and we’d simply drive around the backroads of New Jersey, laughing about stories from the weekend and maybe grabbing a snack or lunch at a deli. This tradition was simply two friends enjoying each other’s company. Sometimes we would talk, other times we would just listen to music and not say a word. It didn’t matter. We were just enjoying our Sunday drive.
The summer heading into our senior year of high school we began a new tradition. I’m not sure we told many people about this, but it was our rebellious, but goodhearted, thing we did together. We had a mutual friend with a pool, and on the last day of summer we would sneak into her backyard, jump into her pool, do a quick lap with our clothes and shoes on, then run back to the car that was stealthily parked a block away. Because it felt like such a mischievous thing to do we would be laughing uncontrollably throughout the entire event. It was our punctuation mark on every summer and the way we came to say goodbye before heading back to college. On a couple of occasions, the basement lights turned on, and our friend’s dad came down to see what the noise was. By the time he made it to the backyard we were long gone, racing back to the car. So, Danielle Greenman, if you are reading this, the cat is out of the bag! It was me and Chris.
After high school we attended different colleges. I went to the University of Scranton and he went to the University of Hartford. We were both a little nervous and insecure leaving the comfort of Summit and our close friends, our brothers. Thanks to AOL Instant Messenger we talked all the time. He would share stories from his time at Hartford and I would share stories from my time at Scranton. And then began a new tradition, where we would visit each other at our colleges. We became such frequent visitors that his friends at Hartford became my friends and my friends at Scranton became his friends. We loved that.
One particular time I was visiting Chris at Hartford and his dad was visiting too. We were coming up for the lacrosse game and I got there a bit later than everyone and the game was already underway. For some context to this story, it’s important to note that I had a fairly preppy style of dress in high school and college. Pastel colored polo shirts and khakis were common attire for me. This was fine in Summit and Scranton, where everyone seemed to appreciate that preppy style. What Chris failed to inform me of was that Hartford was different. No one was preppy and pastel colored polo shirts were not appreciated, and as I found out, they were frowned upon.
I arrived at the lacrosse game wearing one of my favorite pink polo shirts. I called Chris on my flip phone and he told me where they were sitting in the stands, at the opposite end of the field, which I quickly learned to be very inconvenient for me. As I walked in front of the bleachers, and the entire student body of the University of Hartford, one bold voice stood up and pointed at me and yelled “hey, that kid is wearing a pink shirt!” What proceeded next was an orchestra of voices pointing at me and chanting “Pink shirt! Pink shirt! Pink shirt!” I did my best to play it cool, but at 19 years old, with an entire school pointing and laughing at you, the redness of my face quickly became brighter than my hair. I finally got to Chris and his dad who were sitting in the stands, and Chris is giggling, in his typical trademark giggle. The first thing I say is “please tell me you have an extra shirt I can borrow”. He and his dad erupt in laughter and from thenceforth I was known by the endearing nickname of “pink shirt” every time I visited Chris at Hartford.
After college we entered into a few year period where we saw each other less than at any other time in life. Nothing happened between us, but life just got in the way. He was living in Summit still and I was living and working in New York City. Our schedules and careers diverged and we just weren’t seeing each other as much. This was right around the time he met Sarah, and he made sure to tell me all about this new girl he had met at the Office. One night when I was back in Summit, and we were all hanging out, I remember it well. You could tell immediately how much he cared about Sarah. He wanted me to meet her, which was simple enough because Kaiser frequented the Office and Sarah worked there. I remember meeting her, ordering some things at the bar, and getting a receipt that only had $2 on it, after clearly spending upwards of $50. I jokingly showed him the bill and told him “Sarah is a keeper!”
A few years later, Phish announced their reunion and the life stuff that was getting in the way before, no longer got in the way. We all love the Phish and their reunion would start a new and fresh phase of our relationship. It seems like I have spent more time texting and talking to Chris, and spending time with him, in the last few years than ever before. I now live in Austin, TX, so that requires me to travel a lot to see everyone, but even with the distance I would talk to Chris daily in some form or fashion. A lot of the time that means he is just relentlessly pranking me and trolling me on social media. Chris had a gift for pranks. He knew how to get you every time. It was his way of showing love. The more he pranked you, the more he loved you. If anyone else tried half the pranks he pulled it would be considered annoying. But with Chris, it was so goodhearted that when he wasn’t pranking you it almost didn’t feel right.
Despite Chris being ever the jokester, he had a soft and sweet side to him. As we grew older, our motivations and things we talked about changed and matured. I personally went through a spiritual rebirth in my early twenties after graduating from college. I haven’t shared that with that many people from high school, but I shared it with Chris. This led to conversations about faith in God. He may not have been vocal about it publicly, but Chris had an authentic and real relationship with God. I know because he shared it with me. It was unique to him and it was his own. His faith was real and we talked about it at depth one time in particular on the train ride back to NJ after a Rangers game. I’ll never forget it.
As I try to rationalize and understand his passing, which cannot be done, and as the love and support from the countless lives that Chris touched continue to pour in, I better understand Chris’ own unique relationship with God. He carried the love of God with him into every relationship. He was not judgmental. He didn’t have a problem with anybody (except the badge checker at the Manasquan beach). And he genuinely cared for and deeply loved all the relationships in his life. These are the characteristics of a friend of God and part of why I believe everyone loved Chris so much. He was unique. He was different. He was special. And he was a friend to many.
My last phone call with Chris was on Saturday, June 1st, three days before he passed away. For those who know Chris, you know he never picked up his phone. He only text messaged. If you called him he would decline the call and then text you “what’s up?” He had just sent me a text message with the news that he was going to have a baby boy. Overjoyed, I immediately picked up the phone and called him with the hope that he would actually pick up and he did. He was too excited and happy to be a father to stick to his “no phone calls” personal policy. What followed was a ten minute conversation where all we talked about was how Chris was going to be a father. He was so excited and I was so happy for him.
If you know Chris, you know his entire life has been pointing to him being a father. He has always been great with kids. When a typical high school young man might have little interest in babies or kids, Chris would go out of his way to hold a baby and play with kids. I know because my parents had a newborn when we were juniors in high school. It was a little strange being seventeen and having a baby sister. I’ll admit that. My parents were young, so they made sure to keep us on our toes. While some high school friends poked fun at the age gap, not Chris. It was like he himself was the big brother. He was the only one of my friends who would go out of his way to pick up my baby sister and bounce her on his knee whenever he came over. This is who Chris was.
It feels like we were just celebrating his wedding to his beautiful bride Sarah, and then celebrating the news of his baby on the way, and now we are left grieving the loss of our dear friend. This doesn’t make sense and it is without question an injustice, but through relationship and community we are doing what we believe Chris would be doing – making sure that life and love are celebrated. We mourn the loss of our friend and our heart breaks for Sarah and his baby on the way. We know that he would be doing the same and rallying everyone if it were one of us.
In the midst of this tragedy I am struggling to find a hope that I can cling to. My primary source of hope in my life is my faith in God and relationship with Jesus Christ. Life can be unfair. Bad things do happen. But with hope in God any situation can be redeemed, no matter how tragic or despairing.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” – Psalm 34:18
In life, Chris was the glue that brought everyone together. He bridged the gaps of social groups and cliques. No one was an outsider to him. In his death, he is doing what he has always done – bringing people together. It is our commitment to Chris to continue his legacy of love by being fathers and mothers to his baby, and by caring for and supporting his wife, Sarah, and the family he has left behind.