Last week the internet reminded me that it’s been eight years since Chris Hondros was killed in Libya. Here is a little essay I wrote, mourning him in the weeks after his death.
As I was making my first pot of morning coffee I was interrupted by polite vibrating in the next room. I had just moved to Portland weeks before, and there were not many people to call me yet. I skated in my slippers over the wood floor to my buzzing phone I saw the screen blinking “Unknown Caller — Palmdale Area.” That meant it was my best friend Elizabeth calling on Skype. I was days away from a trip to London to visit her and meet her new baby, so it was expected she should call to make some last minute plans. It turns out one cannot get Swiffer refills in the UK, so she was probably checking to make sure I had picked up a few industrial sized boxes for her.
“Hi girly! What’s up?” I said in in my best I’m-so-glad-its-you-chirpy voice. Just three more sleeps! “
“Hi there” Elizabeth replied in a no nonsense voice, uncharacteristic of someone who is a great lover of nonsense. “I just wanted to let you know about something before you saw it on the internet” She said, earnestly with segue, no small talk, diving right in. “Its just a rumor, but I’m afraid there’s something to it.” She paused a long pause that was short too, then more clearly than she had ever said anything in her life, she said “Natalie, I am so sorry to tell you this, but it seems that Chris had been killed in Misrata,.”
Chris had been my post-divorce, long-distance, other love of my life. We’d met through our work as photojournalists in hotspots and coldspots and spent years chasing each other around the world. My sometimes boyfriend, he would arrange to meet me for holidays in places like in Paris, and Petra, usually before or after he finished an assignment in Iraq. I convinced myself that the twelve hour flight from my home in Beijing to New York was easy — It’s direct! I would visit him in Brooklyn, where I spent many jet lagged nights awake, my head on his chest, listening to the metronome of his wild heart.
We were drawn to one another through our occasionally overlapping careers and similar experiences. Loving him and talking with him was the easiest thing. But there was a trail of other woman’s earrings, a used packet of jasmine shampoo in the shower, a wet foreign toothbrush. So he was also an ex-boyfriend, but one with an indelible claim on my heart.
While Elizabeth was talking, I was looking at the crumbs on a brown check table cloth, the new leaves were shivering on the tree outside the window. The world was quiet, waiting for me to say something into the phone. I was waiting too, waiting, for my brain to generate some words to push out of my mouth.
Nothing. Not a thing.
My heart may have been racing, but perhaps it was calm, I don’t recall now. Elizabeth was anticipating some kind of noise to indicate that I had heard her. All I could manage to squeak out was “I’m so shocked, I don’t know what to say” which for some reason I proceeded to repeat over and over maybe a dozen times. My voice rose at the end, making it sound more like a question. Looking back on it now, I was speechless because I couldn’t say anything like “how did it happen?” or dissolve in to a crying heap because that would have made it true. It would have been disloyal, to give up on his life so easily over a simple phone call.
She went on to tell me the information came from her husband, a TV producer for Al-Jazeera who was on assignment in Benghazi. He was working in a hotel that had been converted into a newsroom, which often happens in war-zones. There had been a report that two photographers were killed, two wounded, but information was still sketchy.
“Thanks for calling me, I just can’t think of anything to say” I yelped yet again. Elizabeth went on describe what she heard. It had happened when they became trapped between rebels and government fighters. As they were running for cover something happened, supposedly it was a head injury, possibly from a sniper. Would a sniper shoot a photographer? Of course they would.
My brain felt paralysed, scrambling to grasp a rapidly fraying rope of denial. I’d spent years of my career covering wars and disasters in third world countries and I knew better than to believe rumors emerging from the chaos of front lines. I was imagining the scene: Arab men, hyped up on the adrenaline of killing and shooting things, keffiyahs wrapped around their heads , yelling over one another about what happened to the foreign journalists: totally unreliable. Bullets whistling and snapping as they met their unfortunate targets under a clear blue Mediterranean sky. Reporters crouched over satellite phones, calling their editors, wearing blue bullet proof vests that say TV in gaffer tape on the back and front, repeating what the yelling Arab men said, added a thick glaring layer of inaccuracy for faulty translation. “ Don’t panic, Chris could easily just be the wounded one,” I consoled myself.
There had to be a logical answer that made this unbelievable news untrue. Maybe it was their driver who got killed. Because that happens a lot.
Chris didn’t feel dead. The email he sent me the day before scientifically proved that he was out there. We were making plans to meet up when I was in London. He knew I was visiting Elizabeth and he was going to pass through at the same time.
Intuitively, I knew I was absolutely going to see him soon.
But just like that, while I was looking at crumbs on a table cloth, tethered to the wall by a phone charger, next to an unopened electric bill, morning light pouring in to my spare apartment filling with the smell of brewing coffee. The phone rang and a man I loved went from being out there in the world to not being part of us.
For the next few hours I sat at my computer refreshing sites that seconds before had been refreshed like Twitter, and the New York Times. At 9 am he was alive. One newspaper said he suffered from “devastating brain trauma” another said he was in “grave condition.” He was breathing on his own, his lips were still sucking in air, he had life in him still, maybe he will be ok?
By noon some one had uploaded a video to You-Tube of him and the other wounded journalists receiving treatment in a triage tent. I watched it mesmerized a dozen times times scanning the grainy video for any clue of a positive outcome. The camera zoomed in on Chris’s face, his eyelids looked bruised and swollen. A large white bandage was wrapped around his head, that lay lifeless and waxy on a blood splattered pillow. His lips were the same expressionless color of his cheeks. The next scene showed a doctor’s hands in latex gloves inflating a manual breathing apparatus, the air tube hanging from Chris’s slack mouth. He looked bad. The casual body language of the doctor did not help. At least he was still getting oxygen into his blood-stream, in to his fingers that played the piano.
The video then backed up and showed the whole room, the disorder of a field hospital was apparent. In the last clip, a nurse moved forward and began to cut away his clothing, including a mustard-colored t-shirt. I recognized it as a shirt we bought together at Banana Republic after having espressos at Café Reggio, his favorite, the year before. The audio consisted of a few cavalier comments the Libyan doctors made to one another, and the erratic, urgent bleeping of unseen medical machines, which I assume, each beep confirmed that he was still alive.
It turned out that while photographing fighting on the front lines of a war of a ridiculous country that I’m certain he didn’t care about at all, a rocket propelled grenade landed nearby and exploded. I saw photos of the spot it hit afterward and it looked familiar to me, a ragged chunk of concrete missing from the middle and hundreds of little chips in concentric circles around it. One of the little chips was where a piece of shrapnel bounced off and with great force met the back of his skull. He was obviously turned away. Maybe he was running, maybe it happened so fast he never felt a thing.
Sometime in the late afternoon, late at night in Libya, I saw a report the news agency he worked for issued confirming he had died. The word “obituary” was swirling around next to his name. There was also photo of him taken by another photographer the evening before. The last night of his life. He was in his prime, standing in a field, a jacket pulled tight over a Kevlar vest. He’s looking back as a building erupts in flames in the distance. His turned face, catching the fading twilight is tender and curious. I wish I could have been there to wrap my arms around his neck, touch the vulnerable spot on the back of his head with my palm, rest my lips against his infrequently shaven cheek and whisper a plea, “Don’t leave your hotel room tomorrow sweet darling scoundrel, there is no glory to be had in Misrata, no front pages, no awards, there is nothing there for you.”