This week Will Leschber remembers a lost friend. One for whom Theatre and Film stood as well-worn pillars to their friendship.
This last week I lost a dear friend. I had known Christian Oliver Fjell since fifth grade. To me, he was always just Chris. He is the first of my age group to pass. Death is never easy and to experience it with someone who was a close part of your life from adolescence into adulthood is a unique sadness.
I knew the grade school kid who wore out his Jurassic park shirt and could talk endlessly about dinosaurs and spies and movies of all kind. I knew the middle school guy who would read science fiction that was light years beyond his reading level. He could talk your ear off about Robert Heinlein, if you let him. Many times I heard him say, “You gotta read The Cat Who Walks Though Walls, man. It’s great!”
I knew the high school Chris as one of my most valued friends. Friendship at that time sounded like an endless stream of movie quotes, theatre games and excessive laughter. Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Magnolia, American Psycho, Gladiator, and still Jurassic Park: We threw around so many lines from these movies, you’d think we knew them by heart. Mainly, we just knew the lines that made us laugh or had an inordinate amount of curse words. Thank you Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Bret Easton Ellis. In the years after high school, we saw each other through forays into college, streams of crappy jobs, glorious and terrible relationships, heartache, heartbreak, more movies, the busts and booms of being in our 20 and still searching for our purpose.
Like many errant souls, we had both found a true place in Theatre. Whether that meant being a apart of it, seeing it, or critiquing it. Theatre gave us a unique foundation of personal and artistic connection. It brought out the best in him: athleticism, creativity, community, purpose. Some of my favorites memories stemmed from our time upon the stage. One in particular stands out as a good summation of our friendship. During our junior year the Drama department put on Guys and Dolls, as most high schools do from time to time. Being the superstars of high school theatre that we were, Chris and I were not cast in any of the leads. Oh no! We reigned supreme in the chorus, as backup dancers and various character parts that were beyond the abilities of those actors who could only play merely one part. Pffft, amateurs.
Anyway, in the middle of the run there came a night where the curtain call had a bit of a hitch. When the time came for the group of us dancer/chorus/character-role types to take the front of the stage for recognition, we were bumped by another group who jumped their order in the curtain call and blew right past us. My feeling at the time was these things happen and it was a simple mistake. No harm no foul. These things happen in high school theatre. BUT Chris wouldn’t let this stand.
The next day as the cast collected before the show to warm up and get ready, he called everyone’s attention. Chris was outspoken but was not one to make impromptu speeches to the whole cast. This was equal part speech and equal part reprimand. He went on to say that myself and the others who had been skipped in the curtain call were vital parts of the show and deserved better than to be overrun by others greedy for applause. He defended our hard work and said that we had spent just as much dedicated time at rehearsal as the folks who got much more of the spotlight. He expressed that even though it may have been an mistake, everyone in the cast was integral and should be valued as such. He stuck up for his friends and put himself out there to make sure they felt appreciated. I don’t know if his speech was necessary but I do know that it meant the world to me that he stood up there, took a risk and made sure that I felt valued and loved. Chris always had something to say. Friendship with him was never boring. He didn’t always say the right thing. God knows he said plenty of wrong things, but he always spoke from a place of loyalty and love. Years later (earlier this year, in fact), I felt the same way when he delivered his best man’s speech at my wedding.
Purpose, even now as we’ve passed beyond the barrier of our 30’s, can feel illusive. Chris was just 31. Sitting in the ICU, watching someone fade away, it’s tempting to feel that there is no purpose and that our struggles are pointless. But being in that room surrounded by friends and family sharing stories filled with laughter, tears and times untold, I knew we were all connected. Through this shared collective experience of being with him at the end, I knew that his time with us, although short, was invaluable and was without a doubt purposeful.
Old friends, community ties (theatre or otherwise) and recollected good times are always purposeful. You will be missed, my friend. Be seeing you…
Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path… One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… And then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf?… See what?
Gandalf: White shores… and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: [smiling] Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: [softly] No… No it isn’t.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
~J.R.R. Tolkien (with some help from Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson)