The Prewitts and Geibs (sans wives) on April 2, 2014.

THE INCURABLE OPTIMIST

Chronicle of a Last Week

Christopher Allan Prewitt was an optimist, almost pathologically so.

At times it could irritate me, but mostly it made me laugh. It is one of the reasons why Chris was one of the best men I’ve ever met.

When Chris and Josh Dinkler went backpacking in the California Sierras last summer, they encountered a surprise thunder storm that left them stranded in their tent as lightning struck all around and rivulets of water cascaded under their tent all night long. On the way out of the mountains Chris suffered huge blisters on the backs of both heels. The blisters oozed for a week.

I asked him, "Wasn't it horrible?" No, he said. They had had one good day of good weather at the beginning of the trip, and then they encountered a "few difficulties."

The trait that so many found so attractive about Chris was his positive “can do” spirit that would never admit defeat. I am not sure I ever heard Chris say “no” to any chance to try something new.


Izzy and Chris at Indian Wells Tennis Tournament on March 9, 2014.

Want to play in an adult soccer league with us? Sure! How about trying to brew a batch of homemade beer? Great idea! Participation in an African aid society and travel to Sierra Leone? Where do I sign up? Dress up like the Village People and dance in front of the entire student body? Sounds fun! Take our daughters to the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament? Let’s do it! Go camping during spring break?

Actually, it was Chris’s idea to go camping. During our spring break vacation he asked if I wanted to go camping in Yosemite during our spring break of 2013. I said "yes" and we did it.

So we decided to go to Yosemite for the second year in 2014. The thought was to get outdoors where our daughters could run and play hour and hour. I am decidedly neutral when it comes to camping, but Chris’s enthusiasm was infection as always and I girded myself. “The girls will love it and I will enjoy Chris’s company‚Ķ” I thought. But the week before a cold front swept down into California, and it was actually snowing in Yosemite National Park. It was a good fifteen degrees colder than it was the year before, and I was cold most of the time during that earlier visit. My principal memory was of being cold.

As our trip approached Chris sent me a text claiming that the “weather is snow and more snow which I am willing to brave but we have 3 little tiger cubs. What are your thoughts?” That was the closest Chris would come to saying, I want to cancel our plans, or at least change them. He was so incredibly obliging.

So we decided to go to Joshua Tree National Park instead. The desert would be warmer, we thought, and neither of us had been there before. But when we arrived it was cold but even more so it was windy -- and the high desert wind gave the cold a special bit. “Campers prefer even rain to wind,” Chris would later explain to me. Rain was wet but you could mostly escape it by staying under cover. Wind was everywhere.

The idea was to hike and explore the national park all day, cook and eat a luxury meal, put the girls to sleep, and then watch “Game of Thrones” by the campfire after or daughters were asleep. Exactly what we have done the year previous in Yosemite.

But none of us slept much that night, as the wind battered the walls of our tent loudly. The wind would ebb and flow, but strong gusts of wind would cause a loud flapping noise that made sound sleep impossible. Even in my sleeping bag I was cold. The winter storm front had followed us out to the Mojave Desert, and that next morning it rained and, ever so briefly, hailed (followed by a beautiful rainbow). That would make it our second straight camping trip with hail.

I was fairy miserable and even Chris admitted he had slept poorly (and he cannot hear a thing at night with his hearing aids removed). He went to work the next morning trying to tie the tent down more securely. Chris loved to use camping gadgets and problem solve outdoor camping problems -- ropes, carbiners, and even a brand new solar panel this trip that turned into a portable lamp at night. The girls spent hours climbing the rock formations around us.

Reluctantly, Chris wondered aloud if maybe we should leave the park a day early. I was more than ready: I was relieved. But I was going to wait for Chris to put it out there first.

Since the beginning of the year Chris had been training for the Mountain to the Sea Marathon. (Chris, Want to run one marathon before you turn 40? Hell, yeah!) I suggested he run twice a day while we were camping to jack up his mileage for the marathon eight weeks away. We have all the time in the world, I told him. I will watch the girls and you get some good training in. But he only got in one run.

Chris put on his running clothes at our #5 camping space at the White Tank campground at the Joshua Tree National Park, and we all jumped into his truck and I drove four miles southwest down the main road and dropped him off. The girls and I then drove back to camp and waited for him to return. The entire run would be uphill for Chris. When I saw Chris approaching in the distance, I called to the girls and we clapped as he made it into camp. Chris proceeded to use his fancy camping solar shower that he had specially prepare to wash after his run.

He then started making a dinner of chicken tortellini with a vodka red tomato sauce from Trader Joe’s, and then he added some Santa Maria Tri Tip leftover from the previous night’s dinner. Chris listened to the Beastie Boys as he cooked, occasionally breaking into his little dance where he shot lasers from his fingers all around. Chris loved being in the outdoors, as it seemed to replenish his soul. He was rarely more happy than when out in nature. He also loved good food and cooking and eating it, and he spent considerable time before camping trips planning meals and buying everything necessary to do so.

On that evening of April 1, 2014 Chris was in a fine mood as he cooked and ate. And the pasta with steak I devoured eagerly that night was a delicious meal I enjoyed thoroughly.

I asked Chris the next day why he so rarely swam nowadays. For most of his life Chris had been a standout swimmer and water polo player. He told me he was really enjoying running and playing tennis, and that left him with no time for swimming. Chris was enjoying the challenge of training for this upcoming marathon.

I like to remember him saying that, considering he was hit by a drunk driver and killed while running five days later. It also helps to tell myself his death was quick and Chris felt no pain.

But his body must have been brutalized after being hit squarely by a car traveling at high speed. And then they took his body to the morgue for storage. And then, per his wishes, his body was cremated.

And this, the day after his death, is a hard reality no amount of philosophizing can ease down my gullet.

In the wake of his utterly senseless death, I would hear, “But Chris was such a nice guy! Everyone loved him!” It irritates me. Everyone knew that before he died, and it changes nothing.

The day before his death Chris and I had a USTA League Match against a team from Moorpark. For strategic reasons Chris was to play #1 position singles -- playing the opposing team’s best player. He was expected to lose that match so that we might win in the lower doubles matches. As a veteran coach and team competitor, Chris saw the logic. He would be the sacrificial lamb for our team that day. He would play his part; Chris knew the score.

He lost 6-0, 6-0. Then Chris played a third set with his opponent just for fun. It was a beautiful day at the Pierpont Racquet Club. Going to play tennis there was “personal time” where we could play, compete, sweat, and have fun without thinking of jobs, families, bills, or responsibilities. On such days as April 5th, 2014 in the gorgeous California weather right next to the beach Chris would look across the net at me and say, “Life just doesn’t get much better than this, eh buddy?”

There were some internationally-ranked seniors playing tennis after our league match concluded. We sat there watching these men play tennis about five times better than we would ever play it while Chris explained how his singles match had gone. He explained:

"It was not as lopsided as it sounds. We had like ten deuce games, but I just could not close it out and win a game! But I learned a lot. And I did not get down on myself when I made errors."

I listened carefully, as Chris pronounced himself content with the day’s competition. I smiled to myself, feeling the usual mix of amusement and admiration. I would not have taken losing like that so well.

One of these senior players we were watching was a teaching pro at some tennis club in Arizona who had traveled to Ventura to play that night. I sat there admiring his flawless strokes, perfect timing, and outstanding physical conditioning. A whole life dedicated to a sport. Swinging a racquet at a ball for decades without any non-athletic career, I wondered. Sports as a career. Almost a life.


The final text.

I turned and told Chris, “You played water polo in college and beyond some, and then you sensibly gave it up -- unlike that guy out there on the court. I respect what you’ve done in education more than what that guy has done.”

“Thanks, buddy!” Chris quickly shot back.

It was almost the last thing I said to Chris in this lifetime.

Chris had been looking forward all week to his 16 mile run to take place that next Sunday morning, April 6th. It was the long one for the week. The run that would prepare him for completing 26 miles in late May.

I sent him a text later that next morning, affirming him what he was doing. This was a reciprocal action we engaged in -- you go for it and I will cheer you on, and vice versa. It is perhaps the best thing about Mr. Chris Prewitt and the point of this eulogy for you, Chris -- your near pathological optimism and “can do” spirit helped other people to be more optimistic. It helped me to be a better person. It helped others to be better. An affirmation of the "better angels" of our human nature. Chris was EM Forster’s “Room with a View” made real.

Two minutes after I sent that text, I got the phone call that informed me Chris had been hit by a car earlier that morning. He was dead.

So this is what will remain for me from Chris Prewitt: his power to help make me a better man. To hold on to what is positive, good, and life-giving, and to let the rest slide.

He served similarly to countless students, teacher, athletes, and relatives in his capacity as a high school teacher, a middle school administrator, water polo athlete and coach -- not to mention as a friend, brother, son, husband, and father.

Chris Prewitt, you will be sorely missed.

But your demise is perhaps overstated, as an educator never knows where his influence might end.

The best of Chris Prewitt lives on.

May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

April 7th 2014

The End

Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
When he's held by the sea's roar, motionless, there at the end,
Or what he shall hope for once it is clear he'll never go back.

When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat,
When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
No longer appear, not every man knows what he'll discover instead.
When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky

Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into the darkness, there at the end.

Mark Strand


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