Last evening, I heard the news that my friend C.J. (Chris) Henderson had passed away late the previous day (July 4). It was a somewhat stunning, sobering, sad moment. I had known, of course, that Chris was fighting a battle with that damned beast Cancer and that the treatments were no longer having much affect, except to make him sicker and weaker for periods afterward. Still, I did not realize (maybe no one did) that the beast would win its battle quite so soon.
Chris was one of my oldest friends in the writing community – which is to say that our friendship went back nearly thirty years. I met him via letters and phone conversations in the pre-email and internet era of late1985. Bob Randisi sent him my way after Chris had submitted a story to one of the PWA anthologies; Bob liked the story a lot but was unable to fit it into that particular collection and wasn't sure when he would be doing another, so he suggested it might find a home at Hardboiled Magazine, which I had just started editing and publishing at that point.
Chris contacted me, sent me the story, I loved it --- and so it began. Chris quickly grew into one of the handful of Hardboiled contributors I came to consider personal friends. We talked on the phone often, continued to exchange letters now and then.
The initial story he sent was entitled "Toothpick", and remains one of the best --- certainly the toughest and grittiest --- of his Jack Hagee tales. It is a charming little vignette that pits PI Hagee against a serial killer called the Chef, who kidnaps, rapes, tortures, kills, and eventually devours his female victims. As I recall, a drastically different version of the story had previously appeared somewhere (sorry, I don't remember where) in a collection of illustrated stories. But Jack Hagee made his prose debut in the pages of Hardboiled. In the twelve issues of HB that I put out before handing the reins over to Gary Lovisi (who continues to publish it yet today), four Hagee stories appeared, plus two articles by Chris and one article about him and his other work. Like I said, Chris was a friend and pal but above all he was a damn good writer whose work I truly enjoyed.
Hagee has appeared in several more issues of Hardboiled under Gary's watch, as well as in a series of published and re-published novels, along with Chris's ever expanding work in the occult/supernatural genre. He is probably known by more readers for the latter, but as Chris himself always said: Everything he wrote was hardboiled. That remained at the core of our particular connection.
As the years came and went, we continued to stay in touch.
We met in person on two occasions. The first was when I journeyed east to attend a Bouchercon in Philadelphia. Chris attended also, as did Gary Lovisi; and we buddied up for much of our time there (and a terrific time it was) with the one and only Mike Avallone. In the day and night prior to driving from NYC to Philly and also for a night following the convention, Chris and his family generously put me up in their home. Chris met my train at the station, took me on a memorable tour of the Big Apple that included a trip to the heights of the Empire State Building, Coney Island, and a ferry ride around Ellis Island. All mighty impressive stuff to this country bumpkin rolling in from the farmlands of northern Illinois. And, topping it all off, was the hospitality shown to me by Chris and his family.
A number of years later, Chris passed through Rockford on his way West --- a drive he was making with his daughter and one of her friends --- to see sights such as Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, etc. They stopped briefly, I met them at one of the nicer restaurants just off the Interstate, and bought lunch. Rather puny compared to what I'd met with when I went east, but they insisted that was all they had time for.
In recent years, we've talked and exchanged e-mails a little less frequently, but still on a fairly regular basis. Every now and then we would appear in the same anthologies and we would critique one another's stories, just like always.
When I first heard from a mutual friend, John French, that Chris had been diagnosed with cancer, it came right after I was trying to get him involved in a series of short horror novels (to appear initially as eBook originals). He seemed uncharacteristically slow about committing or even responding --- after I heard about the cancer, I knew why.
He'd already begun chemo by then and was having some pretty rough days, so I was reluctant to just haul off and call him. So we traded a few e-mails. He told me to give it a while and then try to call, if he was feeling up to it we could talk.
But I let too much time pass. It felt too awkward, I wasn't sure if I would be imposing and I wasn't sure what I should or would say.
Then I started hearing that the cancer was getting worse. I sent a couple more e-mails and left a few comments and "likes" on Chris's Facebook posts.
But I still never called.
And now I can't. And I feel ashamed and empty and very regretful that I didn't.
I'm still not sure what I would have said. But, damn it, we talked a thousand times. One of us would have come up with something. If nothing else, we could have argued about politics or movies like we often did.
Times like now is why I use "Persevere" as the sign-off to most of my correspondence.
It's what those of us who remain behind must find a way to do --- that got pounded into me real deep when I lost my beloved Pam back in 2008. Wading through the emptiness and finding the will to keep going was never harder for me than at that point.
Now my hope is that Chris's wife and daughter will lean on each other through the emptiness and find a way to persevere.
As far as sign-offs, Chris used the same one through all the time I knew him.
It was always: "yer pal – Chris".
Goodbye, pal. See ya on the other side, one of these days.