Widgets Magazine

Chris Chan: ‘friend and dreamer’

Stanford doctoral student in political science Christina "Chris" Chan M.S. '08, 31 years old, died in a climbing accident two weeks ago. Friends and family paid their respects at the memorial service on Sunday at Memorial Church. (Courtesy of Andrew Burr)

Sunday afternoon in the Main Quad was a familiar scene. Tourists went through their usual motions, moving in small groups that buzzed of English, Chinese, Russian and other foreign tongues. Their necks were outstretched, fascinated by the grand sights of Memorial Church and the repetitive arches that encircle the Main Quad. With cameras in their hands, the tourists clicked away this fleeting moment.

But the moment lingered for a man and a woman sitting 10 feet away, separated from this whole scene. They wore black, and their solemn composures were held together by their entangled fingers. The woman tipped her head upward to reveal her swollen, red eyes. The two, like many more, had come for the July 18 memorial service of Christina “Chris” Chan M.S. ’08.

Just outside the steps of Memorial Church rested a black-and-white photograph of Chan that captured her radiant, soulful smile. She is the reason so many have traveled across the nation to express their tribute to her life and their condolences to her loved ones.

Her friends and family trickled inside the church before the service, filling up rows of wooden pews. A curly-haired girl clutching her Winnie-the-Pooh bear stumbled down the aisle. As she passed, the child watched the adults through the lens of her round, brown eyes, vaguely aware of the weight in the somber atmosphere.

Nearby, two friends rose from their seats and reached out to hug one another, only to end up in tears. The woman’s cries were muffled into the man’s shoulders. As he handed her a crumbled tissue, they both let out a broken laugh.

Then the service began.

Chan’s friend Paul Csonka, a Stanford doctoral student in robotics, delivered the first reflection.

“Dear Chris,” he softly began to a stilled audience, “I am humbled when remembering you.”

“‘You missed a spectacular storm on Saturday,’ you wrote to me in an e-mail last summer,’” he said. ‘You could see the falls starting up the captain and middle cathedral, the thunder was echoing against the granite walls, and the mist quickly floated up from the ground, like clouds hovering over the valley floor.’”

His heartfelt words then illuminated the rich layers of Chris’s personality.

“What an incredible mix you are of poet, scholar and athlete and comedian, and best of all for us, professional friend and dreamer,” he said.

He moved on to recount the time they first met at Stanford Alpine Club with a fond and nostalgic smile. “She plopped down in a free seat, and just began enthusiastically talking with all of us total strangers. It was obvious, literally on that day, that Chris was out of the ordinary.”

“By far, climbing wasn’t her greatest strength. Friendship was her greatest strength,” Csonka told the audience.“I learned from Chris that we should live our own ways, in a way that’s fitting to ourselves, no matter how unusual it looks to others. Chris, you never ceased to show us to be honest with ourselves.”

“From you I learn to live as though all my friends and everything that was happening were a dream come true,” he continued.

His voice became softer, the loss surfacing in the subtle droop of his smile.

“My heart is sad when I think of how I won’t ever see your trademark smile anymore, or hear your grand laugh or feel happy just being in your company,” he said.

Chan’s friend from her undergraduate years at Harvard University, Jeremy Gaw, echoed the same sentiments felt by many in the room.

“Chris was different. She was a breath of fresh air,” Gaw said.

“For Chris, college was a time to explore, to discover…and most importantly, to develop lifelong friendships,” Gaw added.

Chan’s friend shared some of their memories together, revealing more facets and layers of Chan’s life.

“When we weren’t playing Frisbee, we were running around the Charles River…We also had many bike trips, rain or shine – of course rain or shine for Chris – to Walden Pond,” Gaw said.

“Chris, wherever you are, we miss you and we love you,” Gaw’s voice broke, struggling to contain tears. “When I am running or biking or trying something new, I know you’ll still be with me, cheering me on.”

Angie Heo, Chan’s roommate from her freshman year at Harvard, described Chan as a visionary.

“She had a strong sense that she wanted her life to count, and wanted to do it with ours,” Heo said.

A musical interlude follows with “Amazing Grace,” performed by Stephen Henderson on the guitar.

Up front, a young man in a military uniform sat with his head lowered in deep contemplation. To the left of him, a man wrapped his arms around a woman’s shoulders in gentle comfort. A bright glow seeped through the church’s oculus, casting a light on the lowered heads and stilled eyes and bodies of those immersed in their own thoughts. For this moment, time graciously stayed put in remembrance of Chris Chan.

The reflections resumed with Stanford graduate student in energy resources engineering Sarah Inwood, Chan’s friend. She described Chan’s enthusiastic appreciation for life.

“She saw beauty in every moment, in every person, in everything… Some people can live a long life and not live to the extent that Chris did,” she said.

“Those of you who know Chris, you know she suffers from a syndrome known as ‘overly generous,’” Inwood continued. The audience let out a light laugh.

“Everything about her was infectious,” Inwood said. “Now that she’s gone, I just see a gaping hole.”

Peter Chan, Chan’s older brother, gave the final reflection at the service. He slowly made his way to the podium and began, “For the past week I’ve struggled to figure out how to express tribute to an amazing person I’ve known my entire life.”

Peter Chan moved on to reminisce of his sister’s fearless nature that had surfaced at an early age.

“She would swim out to the ocean so far that the lifeguards would frantically wave for her to come back to shore,” he said.

He described Chris Chan as “the true trailblazer through life,” highlighting her gift “to inspire you to do things you never thought you could, to climb higher and farther than you thought you could, to feel like you’re at the top of the world.”

In his closing remarks, Peter Chan left these fond words for his sister: “Chris, you’ve climbed higher than all of us… thank you for being the best of friend, sister and inspiration.”

As Chris Chan herself had so eloquently described her climbing experience on her Stanford website, “To climb upward into the starry night and finally reach the top of the climb under a moonless sky was a beautiful experience. It reminded me of the end of Dante’s Inferno:

My guide and I came on that hidden road / to make our way back into the bright world; / and with no care for any rest, we climbed / he first, I following until I saw, / through a round opening, some of those things / of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there / that we emerged, to see once more the stars.

Chris Chan, daughter, sister, friend and inspiration – a bundle of life that will continue to resonate with the lives of those she’s touched.

  • andreas drexler

    what a tragic story of young promise snuffed out