While the world is caught up — or not — in the impending royal nuptials, I couldn’t help but spend some time thinking today about another upcoming wedding that’s now been called off. When Getty photographer Chris Hondros was killed last week in Libya, he left hundreds of grieving friends and relatives and one woman, Christina Piaia, whom he was engaged to marry on August 6.
On Wednesday, I watched the Webcast of his memorial service at a soaring Brooklyn cathedral, dripping with greenery and flowers that looked like cherry blossoms on my grainy laptop screen, along with nearly 1,000 other Internet viewers from all over the world. One person commented on a live chat feed that he was tuning in from Iran. Another viewer lamented something along the lines of, “Crushing. Supposed to be there for a wedding not a funeral.”
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Piaia was the final speaker. How she was able to coax words out while standing feet away from where she was supposed to take her vows is something only she could explain. I was not about to try to track her down to ask her.
A former photographer herself, she was incredibly composed as she talked of the reasons why her fiancé traveled to the world’s most chaotic spots to document darkness. She acknowledged what Hondros, whose work capturing the small moments of wartime had earned him a Pulitzer nomination, had meant to the people assembled in the pews.
He was their past and present, but he was her future. He may have been a hard-charging, fearless journalist, but at some point, he ostensibly had headed into the thickets of Williams-Sonoma with Piaia, where they had registered for a pasta machine and a set of cheese knives. When she addressed Chris and said haltingly, “I love you. I love you. I love you,” it was nothing short of heartbreaking.
Journalists love writing about other journalists, which in part explains the media’s combination of shock, horror and fascination with the deaths of Hondros and fellow photojournalist Tim Hetherington, the need to pay homage in print.
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When news of the deadly mortars in Misrata broke, I’d never heard of Chris Hondros. But slowly the circles started to narrow. Turns out he went to college at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C., one street away from where I lived for the past 12 years. Then I learned he spent his childhood about 70 miles away in Fayetteville, where I grew up. We went to high school together; he was a senior when I was a sophomore. I did not know him. But I wish I had.
Fayetteville is a pretty small place. When I lived in Raleigh, friends were always surprised when I told them I was from what we denizens call Fayette-nam. It’s a military town, home to Ft. Bragg, with all the grittiness — think pawn shops and strip clubs — that entails. It’s the kind of place where kids with big dreams don’t stay put.
People there perhaps do not realize what a big impression Hondros made on others. My father, a retired urologist who at one time or another called a significant chunk of the men in Fayetteville his patients, phoned the other day to ask me whether I’d ever heard of a kid in high school named Chris Hondros. “He was killed in Libya,” he told me. “His father was my patient.”
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“Dad,” I responded, “people the world over know about him.”
Hopefully that knowledge will be of some comfort to Piaia in the coming weeks as she packs away her wedding dress and marks the days until August 6 no longer looms larger and larger on the calendar.