Chris Fortune spent most of his life in a wheelchair, and in the end was scarcely able to lift his stiffened fingers to his mouth. Yet at a recent memorial, his friends remembered him as a man of high intelligence, with a big heart and profound Christian generosity. His life options were seriously limited, yet he managed to enjoy the most sublime expressions of life, art, music and literature.
Born in Montreal in 1949, Chris grew up in Victoria. His classmates at St. Michaels University School remembered him as a rugby player and a boy mature beyond his years. He proceeded in 1967 to the University of Victoria, where he graduated with a master’s degree in Slavonic literature. It was during a summer job offshore with the coast guard that he became aware of his multiple sclerosis.
Chris then began a lifelong series of hospitalization, but his personal magnetism never wavered. From his bed, he courted and married his nurse, Marion Ross, and with her help, he taught Russian literature at UVic and became one of the foremost translators of Russian modernist poet Nikolai Zabolotsky.
One day in 1983, he rolled in to visit a show of my paintings in his motorized chair and we began a probing conversation on art, which led us to 30 years of adventure visiting art shows together. He was a “sounding board” for my writing and, following his own tastes, made a substantial collection of local art and pottery.
Unable to advance in academia, Chris volunteered to teach literacy at William Head Penitentiary, and was eventually hired there, setting up the first computer network for inmates. He and Marion moved to Metchosin to be closer to his work, and all too soon, his abundantly healthy wife was felled by a rare disease. He lost his lovely home and became a resident of the Gorge Road Hospital.
But Chris knew how to work the system. He had been one of the founders of the HandyDart transit service and was later chairman of the board of the MS Society. He found an assisted-living apartment at Tillicum and once again spread that old magic. Caregiver Kathy Hunt fell under his spell and they were married in 2008 at Glendale Gardens.
Chris continued to reinvent himself, training as a “life coach” and setting up a business helping people prepare for retirement. Together, Chris and Kathy moved to Langford, where their tiny home was a hive of activity, with Kathy’s fabulous garden and the coming and going of his support crew of caregivers. Chris’s mother, Catherine, moved in with them for his last two years, and in his own way, Chris looked after her, too. No longer even able to hold a book, he lived on the Internet and when he could get out, continued his passion for music and art shows. Moving past years of staunch Anglicanism, he was rebaptised in the Roman Catholic Church.
Though Chris was surprisingly healthy, his sedentary life took its toll and his hospitalizations became more frequent. When he was able, we went to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to pore over the Asian art, and visited the auction houses where he considered additions to his collection of Inuit carvings. In the end, a simple infection caused his life systems to collapse and, following his “do not revive” order, Chris passed away peacefully. The priest who was there at the end said it was a “good death.” And all of us who knew him agree that his was a good life.
Christopher Ronald Fortune was born in Montreal on July 18, 1949, and died on Feb. 4, 2013, in Victoria.
Robert Amos is the Times Colonist’s art columnist.
Island Lives is an occasional series celebrating the lives of Island people who have died recently. The series focuses not on the famous, but on our neighbours who have led interesting lives or made a difference in their communities. If you know of someone whose life should be celebrated, let us know by email at email@example.com or by mail at 2621 Douglas St., Victoria, B.C., V8T 4M2.
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