My friend Chuck McIlvain was one of the 34 victims from the boat Conception, which was transporting scuba divers and caught on fire on Memorial Day off the coast of Santa Barbara near the Channel Islands. This is the deadliest marine disaster in California and the cause of the fire is currently unknown.
I have spent the past few days trying to process this tragedy. Eyes well up; I blink away. I’ll regularly scan Chuck’s Facebook feed because it’s such a delight to read everyone’s wonderful stories. I’d like to share a few of mine here.
Chuck and I both graduated from UC Berkeley the same year. I didn’t know him in college, but we had mutual friends. We were both hired after college to work for an environmental consulting firm. Thrust into an intense work culture, we became fast friends. We also commiserated over our measly salary. He constantly joked, “How is it that an engineering major from Cal makes the same amount of money as an English major.”
I got back by scaring the bejesus out of him. While he was turned around in his cubicle, I’d summon my inner ninja, sneak in, creep up behind him and SCREAM! Or the best was when I crept in and stood behind him while he sat in his chair. He had no idea I was there. I just stood, watching him work. Then I’d say, like a haunting ghost, “Good stuff.” He practically peed in his pants. How we laughed!
I remember one day Chuck wasn’t in his cubicle and I asked where he was. Apparently he had broken up with his girlfriend and was too heartsick to come to work. I didn’t think much of it and shrugged. Keep in mind, up until this point, I hadn’t been in a relationship with anyone so couldn’t really fathom what it meant to be heartsick.
The next day I went into Chuck’s cube to say hello. He turned around and his eyes were blood red. My dear Chuck! I gave him the biggest hug and asked him about it. He looked exhausted and in so much pain. I offered, “Oh Chuck, tell her how you feel. You’re a mess. You can work it out. It will be ok.”
He shook his head, “We said some things to each other that we can’t take back. It’s over.”
I pleaded with him to go home and rest. How could he work in his condition? But he’d already taken a day off (see above about our measly pay, let alone our limited benefits) and couldn’t afford to take another day.
I distinctly remember that moment as the first, and possibly only time, I had seen a man be so vulnerable and sensitive.
When I scroll through his Facebook feed, I see so much laughter and spirit. But that vulnerability and emotion that can be so lacking in this world, he shined a light on that too.
As I mentioned, Chuck was a friend of mine from work. But I’ve also realized these past few days that my work friends don’t have to be compartmentalized. That they’re my friends just as any other. Chuck McIlvain and Dean Oliver were my first friends that I made through work. And over the years, I’ve made work friends who have celebrated at my wedding, held my baby, and one day will attend my funeral. I’m now keenly aware of friends I spend my days with, collaborating on projects and meeting deadlines—friends who bring joy to the work place.
I want to offer my sincere condolences to Chuck’s wife and his family, but also gratitude for raising and sharing with us this honorable man.