Wednesday, May 10, 2006
I found about my uncle Mark's death on Saturday morning, just as I was leaving to a debate tournament in Belton. Mark had been hit by a car and had died instantly. He was 52 years old.
At first I felt nothing, which is not unusual when such news arrives. The last time I saw Mark was a little less than a year ago. We had coffee and pie at a diner in Elkhart, Indiana, and he seemed unhealthy to me -- physically, yes, but more so spiritually. A few months after our lunch I received news that he had attempted suicide. He recovered fairly quickly, and over the fall and winter I received sporadic reports suggesting that he was getting better. Mark and I didn't really talk much.
It hadn't always been that way. When I was a kid Mark was a jolly uncle, and I loved it when he showed up at my grandparents' house. I first learned that he smoked pot when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and by the time I was in high school we were party comrades of sorts; we'd do it up whenever I came back to Elkhart or when he came to Colorado. I got into AA when I was 20 and he kept on going. He did more than pot and beer.
With a few years of sobriety behind me, and with the ignorant arrogance that comes in one's 20s, I came to believe that I knew what was best for Mark. I felt that his parents were enabling him. They baled him out of the myriad crises he stumbled into, and I was convinced that he'd never come around unless he could feel the full consequences of his actions. My prescription was a full-blown intervention, the kind where the family all gets together and lays down an ultimatum: Get sober, or forget about us. It's an effective method, proven so by that Stuart Smalley, but in this instance, I was the only one on board.
So one day near Christmas in the mid 90s I accosted Mark and told him that if he didn't get sober I'd disown him. I can still picture the look of shock and hurt on his face.
Things were never the same for him after that. I matured and came to realize how stupid and mean I was. And I had my own lengthy relapse, at the end of which I woke up in Kansas City. I tried on several occasions to make amends with Mark. In fact, I think I mentioned my regret again when we had lunch last year. He always accepted my apologies. But the damage was done. We were never buddies again.
And -- I have to be honest here -- as sincere as I may have tried to seem in my acts of contrition I was still judgmental of Mark. I couldn't, or wouldn't muster compassion for him. Addiction is a peculiar affliction. I do believe that it's a malady -- no different, really, than my own periodic depression, or, say, chronic fatigue. But its most apparent symptoms are choices, at least they're choices for those who aren't afflicted, and it's hard to reconcile those choices with social norms and expectations. It's hard not to judge, even if (or especially because) you yourself have made plenty of choices that are ripe for the judging.
Soon after I got to the tournament I began to feel tremendous grief, and it took most of the day before I could understand why. As I said, Mark and I weren't very close. He's not been a steady presence in my life for a good many years, so it would be disingenuous to say that I'll miss him with the ache I've missed others who've passed on, and I'm guessing he might feel the same way. But as I made my way through the day and I continued to probe the feelings I was having I found myself trying to size up Mark's life.
Like most of us on this planet, Mark was subservient to history, not a shaper of it, so his impacts have been contained to those he had relationships with, and they'll likely disappear when those he touched pass on to to join him, within a generation or two thereafter. So once I got past the superficial assessment of where he wound up in life, or what little material he'd amassed, and began to dig into what he meant to me, that's when I could start to understand why I was so shaken.
I won't be so arrogant as to say that Mark was sent to earth to test me, but I do believe that there are those who test us. It's like that old line from the Bible, I'm not sure which book or verse, where Jesus says to treat everyone with kindness because they might be Jesus himself. I always think of that line when I meet beggars on the street, and it usually inspires me to search my pockets for something to give.
But bums are superficial tests. It's easy to part with spare change. I believe that in my relationship with Mark there was an opportunity to achieve something truly wonderful, whatever that might be. And now that he's gone it's equally clear that I blew it. Sure, it was a tough test, one that anyone might fail. But on Saturday the grade came in, and I felt the way anyone who failed would feel.
Posted by Joe Miller at 4:32 PM