Is Chris Burns Dead or Alive? An Exploration Eulogy for a Man on the Run

I have heard it from many people–because we really didn’t get to say goodbye–that I should write a goodbye. No graveside crying, or planning a celebration of life. No community gathering at a certain time on a certain day to share in the joy and grief of a life lost to us. No chance to speak the long goodbye. So if I’m writing a goodbye, then to me, it is a eulogy to someone who’s life has felt like living death for over a year now. I’m not sure if Chris is dead or alive, but we grieve as if death, a sudden death…and slow death. Everything happened so fast, and yet the grief continued to trickle into our lives as we discovered our true selves and his chameleon life. I’ve had over a year to try to understand what I would say. I imagine in the next year, these words will probably change dramatically. But for now…today…if I could say my last words, I guess this is what they would be:

The first time I met you, you had on khaki pants on a mission’s trip in the middle of Cherokee North Carolina, and they were pulled way up above your belly button. It wasn’t the style. You were the kid who had already read the entirety of Les Miserables at the young age of 12–we met when you were in seventh grade and I was in eight grade. But we both knew all the words to the Newsies soundtrack that played on repeat in the 15-passenger van that drove us to and from a missions trip–our first experience with those who had less than us, less than the world we had grown up in. 

I always wanted to be your friend because you were kind. Because you were thoughtful about your ideas and beliefs–your integration of God and living. In that young innocence, nothing seemed wasted in your mind as to how the world should be, your care for the part that you would play in seeing that hope for a better world. It seemed like you were friends with everyone–but you were not necessarily like most of the other middle school boys. You were different, but trying to fit in. You were good at sports, but it was never a driving ambition–sometimes I think you played basketball in high school just to try to seem normal in the crowd of testosterone swirling around you, even though you were regularly bullied at practices.

 Eventually, you would realize that pretty girls did indeed like you, and it was perhaps one of the greatest shocks to your system. You had never considered that beautiful young women would want you in their life. So when this finally happened, you fell very quickly. And you fell hard. I wish it had been me, but it was another.
At the same time as you were falling into teenage love, you found your way down the hall of your high school and into the theater. You found friends among the dramatists–they became a family to you, a place where you felt known and loved by your peers–a place where you could be yourself. You dropped out of basketball in favor of singing, costumes, and pretending to be someone else. By the end of your senior year, you felt like you had it all. You were riding pretty high on life…until things started to unravel. Some of your friend groups have said that you were in and out of contact quite often. For weeks at a time, you would be available and spending time, and then you would be gone, disappeared for the next few.

Some days you decided to see if you could carry vodka in your water bottle to school to become inebriated during class time and get away with it. And you did. You could be drunk at school, and your teachers never were the wiser. You eventually were so irregular that you were kicked off of leadership at the church–you acted like you didn’t care, but later you would tell me that it stung. You had been hailed as a shining star in the youth group and with that came influence and prestige–and that was taken away from you in one conversation. Soon after, the pretty girl would decide that she didn’t want to date a high school student when she was now herself a freshman in college. Your dream had been to marry her in Disney in front of the castle and drive away in a carriage–you had a  knack for idealizing moments in life. But at the same time, you were also calling me every evening while I was in my freshman year of college, and I finally got up the nerve to express to you that you were using me as an emotional girlfriend—you were committed to another–and I didn’t want any part of it. I wasn’t going to speak with you anymore. You called my roommates at least once a week begging them to convince me to speak to you. But I knew in my heart what I wanted, and I never wanted to feel like I was taking something that could be precious to someone else.

In all honesty, I did break my own heart in making that decision. I was beginning to fall in love with you as you were telling me about marrying someone else. My heart was pulled in opposite directions, torn, and I had to make it stop before it became completely broken in two.

All this pushed you over the edge–and one night you were at a party so drunk that you were vomiting on yourself, blacking out in between. Looking back multiple times throughout life, you wondered why you didn’t die that night–because you were alone in your misery and deadly high blood-alcohol levels. People had carried you into a bed and left a bucket beside you, and you laid in the dark in between reality and delusions puking. But, the partying still went on for months. You told me that at some point, you decided you just couldn’t do it anymore, didn’t want to. And I believed you.

I believed in getting tired of bypassing grief, avoiding feelings, and self-medicating. I had no idea then how reliable substances can be throughout a person’s life to numb the pain. They wait in the shadows for stormy weather, and present themselves as a kind friend when the pain gets too unbearable. I think perhaps, that is a part of your story. Whether it was drink, or food, or technology, or recreational drugs, or prescription drugs, or pheromones, or the dopamine from illicit affairs–they became your friends to get you through the feelings you could not look in the eye. I’m sure early on it was a “teenage” thing.

But we got married young, and you became a father at the delicate age of 21. I had hoped the joy of a new family would produce a drive to take care of us–perhaps it did. Perhaps it was being so close to getting fired from your first job at a church, being fired from your second job at the church you grew up in, and the deep disappointment of not finding the career with unlimited upward mobility with your third job that turned that drive into a ruthless ambition that slowly sloughed off moral limitations. I can look back now, and it is like trying to see clouds move at night–I can’t ever really see how it happened clearly. But there was a subtle movement, the slow death of getting older every year, where you felt colder, darker–your priorities weren’t time with the family, your priority became another “good” ambition–providing for us. But, it wasn’t good–the providing.

We needed daily bread and you wanted us to feast like royalty at every meal. We needed time spent with our husband and father, and you spent your time manipulating provision thinking it would make us love you more. Oh how mixed up it became–I imagine how lonely that would feel to think that all we wanted from you was to be taken care of with things–stuff, trips, cars, houses, boats, the newest technology.

Maybe we didn’t say it enough–we loved you. We wanted you, your presence, your sense of humor, that kind heart now buried deep under a ruthless ambition. Eventually, all we encountered was the ruthless ambition; I think perhaps it swallowed you whole. You transformed your chrysalis into what you thought would make you happy–giving in to every desire you felt–finally feeling instead of numbing…but in this transformation, what could have been beautiful turned gothic. Eventually your free feelings and desires appear to have ruled your life–once you came out of your cocoon of anesthetic, there were no limits or boundaries. You were no longer in charge. We knew it and felt it…I think we hoped that something would curb your impulses, that your eyes would one day look clear and divert your gaze from the allure of untethered ambition as a means to an end. But now we see that you gave in every time. You justified your means for your end…and your end wasn’t even on target anymore.

You were degrees off on your soul’s compass and, while you wanted gold, now everything you touched was deadened. It was precious metal, but not living. I don’t know that you ever caught a glimpse of your deadly caress until maybe that last week. And I guess that is where I really start this eulogy–because that is when you were surviving on life support. The person we had known was no longer with us. Your eyes were wild and hollow, your weight was so low, your skin was graying. Frenetically attempting to catch your breath, you ran around intentionally stealing what was precious to people you said you cared for. You took their money and stole their futures–perhaps without an ounce of regret. You were a dying man, and you weren’t going to die with dignity. Maybe it’s because you had given up your dignity so slowly those years before? Maybe you never knew how to protect that dignity and integrity–or maybe you just didn’t care? I can’t speak to that, I don’t even have conjectures. But, you didn’t die with dignity.

You ended up dying as a criminal. Even more, you ended up dying as a man on the run, a coward who would not face up to his own degradation–that is how little humanity you had left. What a waste of a beautiful life. What a sad, sad ending for a soul. It is both a tragedy and a horror film. It never had to end this way. But, here we are; it did end this way. 

On September 24, 2020, Christopher Wayne Burns, father of Philip, Gavin, and Arabella, husband to Meredith Burns, died a coward. The haunting tragedy is that the family was never able to say their goodbyes, to bring closure to their broken hearts. Within weeks, they simply had to leave the idea of a body, a husband, and a father in the ground in order to survive the world without him. They never wanted to survive the world without him. But, perhaps, with all that is now known, his death was a saving grace to live their lives beyond his tragedy. At the time, all they wanted was to say one last goodbye, to have closure, to grieve the death of the person they once loved–in those early days they begged God to bring him back, to save him from himself. But over time, each family member wrestled with their own grief, returning it back to where they left the body laying in the dirt, allowing their tears to water new life out of the broken soil of burial. And that is how the story ended for Christopher. He was a young boy, full of life.

Psychologists, pastors, counselors will all have their theories on how he came to such a resting place, but the truth is no one can fully understand a human soul, the choices it makes or the inclinations it does not have the skill to break free of. Whatever the reasons, the intentions, the choices or lack thereof, we can all find sadness, anger, grief, loss, loneliness, heartbreak, confusion, and disappointment from Chris’ life story. May he at least rest in peace, as the rest of his family attempts to find peace from their tears nourishing a new life sprouting from the burial soil— to hope to grow into the life that includes his death.

Ironically, the FaceApp that trended a few years ago left us with a vision of what could have been.

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