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.


Brad said...

Joe: Amazing post. My condolences.

from_yesterday said...


Nate (Joe's Cousin & Mark's Nephew) said...

Joe, in a lot of ways I can agree with this particular assessment of our Uncle Mark's life...and in many ways our similar relationship with him. Although I was not "close" with Mark (we never would hang out alone together like buddies), he was a looming presence in my life growing up in Elkhart, and on each visit I made after leaving. Your experience and interaction with Mark will obviously be different, having moved away from Indiana several decades ago and visiting with the family in Indiana on a yearly basis. Being geographically removed makes ignoring/forgetting Mark, and his difficulties a little easier...and I agree that at several points in my life I wished to could do the same thing.

Mark's life was not a test for anyone but Mark. BUT Mark's life is a lesson for us all. Let me also take the time to simply state that his difficulties, your difficulties, my difficulties, OUR collective life difficulties are never easily explained through the lens of personal choice, we have to understand that what we go through early in life colors, informs and can cripple us. I don't know what Mark's developmental years were like, but I can imagine that something (or many somethings) happened to Mark, which gave us the uncle that we knew. Mark had been through treatments, rehabs, psychological assessments, half-way ran the mill, but he kept TRYING. Half-hearted sometimes, sure...indignant in the face of treatment, sure...but he kept trying.

What I learned from our uncle's life, is about judgement, and judging others. Not that addiction is a nasty bitch, but that life is life and your life is your life. If anything, I feel guilty (like yourself, Joe) for judging him. I did not have an incident where I confronted him, BUT I withheld my FULL unconditional love for Mark in hopes that a day would come where he was "all better" (what a laughable idea! not that he couldn't get better, but when can a person really "get better"? just get through, and find new ways of living). I did care for Mark, just as I know you did Joe. Our uncle did have a big heart, and I'm not just saying that to sound like some Hallmark card, he did. He was a sweet guy...who had many demons he couldn't work out (and when he did, he had "demon" friends who'd pull him back). I despise parts of our family for the consistent, and close-minded judgement that flings from on high, and personally vow to change how I may judge others.

I'll miss my Uncle Mark, not because he was some heroic figure in my life OR that we had a deep friendly bond....but because he was my FAMILY. Good and bad, I'll take it all, but we're in this thing together...and I won't be looking to judge anyone, much less my family after this wake up call from Mark's passing.

joe said...

Thanks, nate. I agree that the judgment lesson is the key lesson here. And I hope I didn't get across the message that I won't miss Mark; I will. He had a great heart, and an infectuous laugh. I've got a few more posts about Mark, which will be mostly happy and celebratory. I just had to get this really sad one out of the way first.

Nate (Joe's Cousin & Mark's Nephew) said...

It was a fitting post Joe. You did not miss the mark (wink) expressing your sorrow over his passing, and that he would be missed.

Once I started writing, I had to keep going. I'm glad I could say what I said, it felt good and was happy I could do it in this forum.

trAcy said...

thanks for letting others/me witness this family discussion. and i don't mean Witness.

Aunt Lynn said...

Dear Joe,
How moving to read your post about Mark and your feelings. You are so quiet and closed emotionally that it warms my heart to be able to hear and share how you feel. I do beleive that judgement is the lesson we all should learn. We must always find the good in each other and cherish it. We all have failed Mark at one time or another, but we all helped Mark too at one time or another. Mark is at peace now and cherish your good memories you had together. I love you - Aunt Lynn