If you read newspapers on a regular basis you know that each day can bring both good and bad news.
Those of us who work the news business learn that early on in our jobs and it helps you form a thicker skin to the more troubling news that inevitably comes along.
Most times anyway.
Monday was one of those days when the news going into the paper drew a longer look and sparked that sense of sadness that comes with losing someone you knew.
Christine Nowak, 50, a Call reporter for 15 years, was up there on the proof sheets in an obituary.
Chris had left the Call 15 years ago to work at another job she loved with the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce but I can tell you she never really gave up the news.
I got to know that with certainty over the past few years as Chris and I met routinely for a cup of coffee or a breakfast sandwich and chatted about the news events of the day great and small.
It was a forum we established sometime after Chris began her long journey with cancer and one that gave me the chance to observe her as someone with a special ability, a talent that exceeded Chris’ work for both The Call and the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.
It was over our coffee together, that I got to know someone best described as “Chris the Amazing.”
It’s a moniker someone gave Chris along her journey and one that stuck with her many friends during that time.
Chris first faced breast cancer some ten years ago and would go on to endure some wrenching setbacks over the ensuing years that included new rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
But what made Chris amazing was her ability to set all that aside and still be herself. She had a life to live, responsibilities to her mother, Helen, with whom she lived, and many good friends in her community and church, St. Jude’s in Lincoln, to keep up with.
While she could, Chris lived with cancer and didn’t let it hold her back. We would get our coffees at places like Starbucks in Lincoln, Barnes and Noble, or Panera Bread and set up shop so to speak at small tables where we could let the words flow.
A lifelong resident of Lincoln, Chris knew many things about the Blackstone Valley that came from her upbringing in the area, her hobbies such as golf and the Blackstone Valley Historical Society, and also from her jobs at the Call and working under John Gregory at the Chamber.
Her illness would eventually force Chris to retire early, but she put her extra time to use learning something new, the skill of radio announcing that she eventually got to try her hand making several radio spots on a part-time basis that played locally.
Even though busy with taking care of mom, Chris still remained connected to the events in her town and bordering Central Falls, North Smithfield and Woonsocket and I always was surprised to learn things from Chris that I hadn’t heard first in the newsroom.
She just couldn’t give up that old role as a reporter and would pass along a good tip whether it was a news item or a business development that was still in the works.
She had certain views on the political scene that made our talks feisty from the pundit perspective and also humorous when she let on about her likes and dislikes.
She also had a good sense of what a newspaper like my own should be doing and wasn’t afraid to offer her critiques whether positive, negative or indifferent.
She could get a little boisterous at times when talking about her favorite football team, the Indianapolis Colts and their quarterback Peyton Manning, an affection she took up from her late father, Joseph Nowak, who had actually been a fan of the Baltimore Colts. When the Colts were beating the New England Patriots in the big games, Chris could become as annoying as our former co-worker Michael Holtzman when he savored crucial New York Yankee victories over the Red Sox. I’m not going to tell you Chris was perfect. Few fans of sports teams are when you weigh their choices.
Chris did come across as a dutiful daughter who would not shirk her responsibilities to an aging mother, even if those responsibilities limited her options in how to make the best use of the time she was given.
Chris and her mom had their routines, and Chris would get them out to a few favorite spots in Lincoln and there was always contact with Father Bernie at their church and the next-door neighbors who helped them get along.
As I read Chris’ story on the proof sheet, I was glad I had all those scrapbook moments of her to fill in the time from when we had toiled in the newsroom facing daily deadlines and the demands of finding news. I had learned things from Chris that help now and I’m sure will help again in the future.
As her illness progressed, Chris wasn’t afraid to say she wouldn’t be cured but countered that with her belief that she was living with cancer.
Last summer things got harder for Chris and she said she adopted a new outlook that her cancer was now in the driver’s seat and she was along for the ride. We were able to go to coffee less often and then not at all. When she took another turn, I went looking for her at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence and walked down a long hallway to find her resting in a room after getting another round of radiation. She put on her glasses, perked up despite her medication, and was amazing once again.
She was in and out of care facilities after that and her crew from St. Jude’s and her cousin, Dolores, helped her get through her new challenges. She still took care of business and had made arrangements for her mom even as she coped with new downturns. Chris had her coping strategies down to a T and just kept taking on what came along.
Helen passed away last week and I saw Chris a final time not long after. Her old friend from the University of Rhode Island, Elizabeth, was with her, holding her hand, and I’m sure Chris was at peace.
Chris had strength to give and that came back to her in the end. When I think of it all, I realize it isn’t a sad story, Chris’ story, not a sad or bad one at all.
Joseph B. Nadeau is a staff reporter for The Call.