Gain and Loss: My Friend Mark

So I know I’ve been nonexistent for a couple of weeks, but there’s been good reasons for that. Part of it is some planned life changes, and some of it is other life changes that were unforeseen. I definitely want to get back to talking about writing, talk about the upcoming con I’m prepping for, talk more about Olde School, genre stuff, all of that. Definitely going to do some music posts, creative posts, and also hopefully share the occasional project picture of my other interests, as well.

Today, though, I want to talk about my friend Mark.

I first met Mark when he was an evil clown, and one of the few pictures I have of him is him in warped makeup and a purple ringmaster outfit, snarling at the camera, and holding a bag of snacks. That dichotomy sums him up pretty well, actually – intimidating and mischievous, but always ready to plow people full of  food. I’d met him when we both were involved with a local Halloween event, though I don’t really recall our first meeting. For those who would encounter him in a store or on a street, he was tall and looked fairly imposing and his big grin looked a little like baring teeth, but his eyes were gentle and he was truly one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met.  Over the years I’ve learned to look for that grin and interpret it, especially if he was giving me a look while we were talking to others who may not get an inside joke. I may not remember our first meeting, but I remember a lot of little things, like how he’d walk with me to the parking lot late at night, even though he was limping. He’d find things to talk about and made an effort to be nice to me even though I was coming into a new situation and was far more painfully shy in social situations than I am these days.

Through the years I kept bumping into him – at work, at other events, at the polls, in the store…little encounters that add up to a lot of fond memories through the years. It seemed that every time I turned around, he was there, especially when I needed a smile or a laugh. We were locked in a small booth for hours doing interactive puppeteering at a Christmas event, and it always struck me how he could talk to kids, older people, even sulky teens, and get everyone to leave with a smile. He had a knack for making everyone feel special.

I tend to employ the iceberg strategy until I get to know people really well – as much as it seems I show, most things I keep tucked away and hidden. Maybe it was all those hours together, maybe it was just the fact that he was nonjudgmental and I could just let my entire personality out around him, but we had a lot of incredible conversations over the twelve years I’ve known him. He got through the walls fairly fast and found out things I tended to keep under my hat, like how I’d gone to school for theatre and actually partially funded school through vocal scholarships, but then had stopped singing after a series of incredibly bad and embarrassing auditions in my early twenties. Somehow (I’m attributing it to five hours locked without an exit with him every night for two months), he wore me down and got me to audition for The King and I for a community theater he was involved with. It may not seem like much, but getting cast as Anna made me realize that I still had some genuine talent, whether I was making a living off of it or not. It truly changed the way I looked at myself. As a director, he gave me freedom to try different things and make decisions and mistakes and build my own confidence. He made me part of a community when I’d worked to wall myself off. After that show I helped out with a few others, usually children’s shows, and he had this utter gift for convincing kids to believe in themselves. That was something that I’ve heard a lot of in the past two weeks – he loved people, and he believed in them. He believed in everyone he was around, no matter what we thought of ourselves. I’ve found out over the weeks that he’s done that his whole life. I’ve never met anyone who had such an utter love of life, of the world around him. Even if things frustrated him, he kept a cheery grin on his face. Even when he was complaining or gossiping, it was more mischievous than ranty. He was also fond of a good prank – some playful, and some a little too hilarious and graphic to detail here, at least right now.

I went on to do several other projects with Mark: a straight drama in a small dinner theater, more puppeteering, other little things. Beyond that, though, he was always thinking of me (and everyone around him). I don’t know how many times he showed up with food or had rehearsals at his apartment with a spread that went across his kitchen. He cheered on every little accomplishment of mine in writing, even if I ended up taking twenty steps back for every step forward. When I got the contract for the Kingdom City series, he gave me a pendant from the Vampire Diaries, and when I admitted that I didn’t watch the show or read the books he said something to the effect of: “I know. You can wear them as a trophy when your series annihilates them.” He was able to get me out of my head and out and about. We often went to a comedy/rock club in town, and talked for hours about all our shared interests. He called me at one in the morning when my grandfather died suddenly to make sure I was okay. When a guy came after me in a store parking lot and I had texted all the people I knew in the area to warn them away from the lot, he immediately called me back and offered to drive down there to “deal with it” for me.

At this point Mark was using a scooter and had difficulty getting around, even on his best day. I don’t know what he thought he was going to do, but he was the only one to step in that swiftly.

He’d had health problems for a while, a continuous, long series of situations that took him to the bring and back. He always bounced back, the way a phoenix does, reappearing just when you think he’s done for.

I knew he was in the hospital, but I didn’t know how bad it was until our mutual friend messaged me. I got  there as fast as I could. Like always, he was chipper, though the meds made him loopy. We talked about a lot of things, and for the first time he began to talk in a way I’d never heard him speak before: of things coming down to the end. It’s hard to see someone you care about, someone who means the world to you hooked up to machines, almost like their old selves but not quite. I should have felt the urge run for the hills, and there’s no shame in that. As strange as it sounds, it was then I absolutely felt like I couldn’t back away. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen a lot of death in my family and direct circle, but I knew at that moment I had to be there for him as much as he’d been there for me. I visited as much as I could and struggled for ways to keep things entertaining: I made a stack of index cards of little memories and everything I wanted to tell him, sang him show tunes, read him people’s emails. The last private conversation we had he gushed about how proud he was of me, and for once I began to see myself through his eyes. I’ve come a long way in twelve years, and a lot of it is because of him. It was also the first time he’d ever admitted to being in pain to me, even after his leg had been amputated and he had been through much, much more. He admitted to being tired. I told him it was okay, that I was there, and I knew I was going to be.

When he was moved to hospice, I will admit I was terrified and exhausted and a thousand other things. There were moments and conversations that I didn’t want to ever have to have, but I found myself walking through it, surrounded by mutual friends and his family, one cog in the massive machine that was his life.

How do you thank someone for their positive nature, for their kindness, for their generosity? How do you express your gratitude for helping to make you into a better person? This is someone who’s taken people into his home because they needed one, someone who encouraged people of all ages and abilities. As people filed in to visit, over and over I heard that he believed in them when no one else did, just as he’d believed in me. As he drifted in and out, as he looked smaller, as things changed I realized that I am extremely lucky to have had him in my life, not just because of his influence but because he’s introduced me to so many other amazing people.  Even in the hospital he was still complimenting me and telling people about my books and my performances and all the fun we’d had together. There’s nothing I could ever do to repay that except to be there for him.

Rock stars aren’t always famous. Gurus aren’t always million-dollar motivational speakers. Special people don’t always get nobel prizes or awards and mentors don’t always have movements named after them. There are a few people that truly make me believe there has to be a higher power out there: my mother is one, my grandfather was another. Mark is definitely this way. He loved so absolutely, without judgment, without condition. When I felt lacking or ashamed or not enough, he absolutely believed in me – not even in what I could be, but what I was at the present moment. That is a rare, rare gift.  He gave where it was needed and was a truly kind, compassionate, generous soul. If I can be even a hundredth of that in my life over the years, I’ll consider myself a job well done. I’ve said that over and over again during the past few days, but it’s the absolute truth and the most coherent sentiment I can express.

Mark passed suddenly and peacefully, and it’s still very, very surreal to think that he won’t be around the corner at the store or at the polls or a phone call away. I had promised him that I’d sing “Whistle a Happy Tune” at his funeral, and I did…never have I clung to lyrics that were suddenly so fitting in my entire life. I hope all of us who participated made him proud and gave him what we wanted. I’m glad he’s at peace and out of pain, but I’ll also miss him. Of course I will, there’s no way I won’t. And yet…he’s given me a huge gift, bigger than anything else he’s ever given me. He’s given me a huge insight about what it means to be human and what it means to not be afraid.

And for that, and everything else, I am incredibly, deeply grateful.

8 thoughts on “Gain and Loss: My Friend Mark

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