Wheaton College holds a special place in our hearts. It’s where Mark spent four formative years between August, 2002, and May, 2006. We made the 180-mile trek (from Durham, at the time) probably close to 100 times to visit him on-campus.
I’ve been reminded often of late that there are many people who don’t know of Mark’s baseball exploits at Wheaton and before that, at Greely High School, in Cumberland, Maine. In high school, Mark was also a defenseman in hockey, and one of the captains of the team as a junior and a senior. The barefoot-walking, vegan superhero, who didn’t seem enamored of “doing sports” while making videos and blogging his way across the country, was once quite an athlete.
Back when I was driving up-and-down (and sideways across) Maine, retraining the state’s workforce in my nonprofit role, I regularly touched on “transferable skills.” Mark’s death and the subsequent focus on his life and our memories of him reminded me on Wednesday that his laser-like focus and discipline he drew upon “doing sports” transferred readily to that next creative chapter in his life, when he walked away from the diamond.
Professor Charlotte Meehan played an integral role in Mark’s literary and creative development when he showed up at Wheaton. She organized a wonderful reading in his honor on Wednesday at the college. More than 50 people filled the May Room in the Mary Lyon building to hear selections chosen by Meehan of Mark’s work. These were read skillfully by former professors, his college baseball coach, the sports information director, friends and classmates, and other faculty. I closed the reading with a selection from my 2014 book of essays, specifically, “A Northerner’s Journey Crossing the South.”
With the reading set for late afternoon, this afforded Mary and me a chance to show up beforehand and spend a little time walking around. Actually, we headed straight for Siddell Stadium, the place where we spent so many weekends each fall, and then again in the spring, whenever the Lyons were playing at home.
Our last visit to campus was May, 2006. We were attending the special graduation ceremony for Mark and his Wheaton senior baseball teammates. They’d missed walking with the Class of 2006 because they were in Appleton, Wisconsin, playing for the Division III national college baseball title. They lost to Marietta College, 7-2. This was also the last time Mark would spend any meaningful time on a baseball diamond, save for a handful of appearances in future alumni games.
Wednesday was picture perfect early March weather day in New England. Brilliant sunshine, and temperatures hovering in the mid-50s. It would have been an ideal afternoon for a baseball practice if the field was just a bit drier.
Both of us struggled to hold onto our emotions that had been welling up as we parked Mary’s Rav4. The short walk to the home bleachers on the first base side unleashed tears and flooded us both with memories from previous times spent in that very same spot.
Gazing at the fence in right-center, with the prominent white 355-marker basking in sunlight, I closed my eyes and visualized yet another one of Mark’s howitzers to that very spot, landing just short of the warning track and rattling up against the fence. I could “see” Mark with his trademark long stride, loping into second and banging his palms together in celebration. I remembered a cold April day in the middle of the week in April, 2005. I drove down and saw Mark hit a homer into the trees beyond that fence against Suffolk University. We celebrated with dinner at Jimmy’s in Mansfield, and then I drove home in the dark, savoring what I’d just experienced with my son.
An hour later, we were across the street, hearing people talk about Mark’s “genius,” and his recognizable talent as a developing writer when he showed up in Norton, as a freshman. It was also amazing to hear three separate professors talk about that talent, while highlighting very different examples of both his material from more than 10 years ago, and passages from I am a Road and poetry he was writing and posting (on Instagram) just this fall and winter. Again, the idea of taking an ability and honing it, much like he did with his hitting, was very apparent to me sitting and observing.
What I also think would have been quite obvious—even to someone that had walked in on this late day gathering by mistake and figured out what was going on—was that while we’re all grieving the loss of Mark’s physical presence, his ability to make us smile, chuckle, or even laugh uncontrollably, is still very much with us. This happened numerous times over the 120 minutes we were gathered to celebrate Mark and his writing.
A case in point was Mark’s Wheaton buddy, Aaron Fix, reading another sports-related selection from Mark’s website, about Ricky Henderson. He had the entire room in stitches. Fix, who on Saturday night, at March Forth, a benefit held in Portland, at SPACE Gallery, touched down on Mark’s regular contributions to the Golden State of Mind (GSoM), a fan forum for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, and a similar reaction and appreciation for Mark’s unique to use of absurdity in his work, making us laugh.
I recall Mark coming home in 2006 and telling me that I needed to “watch the NBA.”However, I’d forgotten his ardor for some of the western teams in the league, especially the Warriors, NBA champions in 2015, and runners-up last season. They’ll likely be one of the four finalists again this year. But back when Mark was contributing his unique takes on the team and “the Association,” they were struggling to win half of their 82 regular season contests.
Our Wheaton trip, following on the heels of Saturday’s benefit for the Mark Baumer Sustainability Fund, was again an emotionally taxing adventure. Waking up Thursday morning at a crappy hotel in Norton that smelled like stale cigarette smoke didn’t help matters. Emotionally raw and feeling the loss of Mark, I was also kicking myself for thinking that staying at this workers-on-the-road place would allow us to save a few bucks. Mary found the silver lining though, when she said that “this is the kind of place Mark would have stayed at,” while on the road, especially early in the final trip. He told us numerous times later that not staying in hotels (especially when he hit warmer weather in the South) helped him not to feel all stuffed up in the morning. I’m sure he was also happy that he wasn’t watching his credit card balance inflate quite so rapidly, as he financed his walk-with-a-purpose.
Rather than linger in this less-than-ideal setting, we drove into town, got some coffee and a bagel. Just after dawn, we walked the grounds of the Wheaton campus, retracing some of the same steps that Mark took more than a decade ago. We walked by the pond and were followed by one lone duck. We stood on the quad—one of those classic New England college settings, basking in the shadows from the majestic mid-19thcentury structures ringing the perimeter. There was the chapel, the library (where Mark loved spending time), Balfour-Hood, his old dorm, and the Dimple.
Back to the hotel to check out and then, off to Providence, anticipating that we would be shuttling a few more of Mark’s remaining personal effects back to our home in Maine. Just one more reminder that our lives have been forever altered. Part of the challenge for me has been trying to put Mark’s death into some kind of context that imbues it with meaning. It’s been impossible to do.
The best I’ve been able to come up with was what I closed with on Wednesday, from my essay:
I think time spent on the road changes you. Looking down a strip of uninterrupted blacktop, stretching for as far as the eye can see, or seeing a mountain peak in the distance make you want to find out what is at the end, or located on the other side. When you get there, another destination looms ahead, beckoning you forward towards it. Experiences like Mark’s had made sitting in a cubicle, or focusing on an image on the screen disappointing, and lacking in adventure.
The road certainly had beckoned to Mark, coaxing him back, challenging him to conquer another 3,000 miles of mainly blacktop and concrete. This time, Mark’s goodness and love intersected with the less-than-noble elements of America that Mark was so adept in cataloging (and critiquing) in I am a Road, as well as 100 days of videos and blog posts from our nation’s highways and byways. Nearly seven weeks out from his death, it’s clear to those who loved him, and/or were eagerly following his daily updates, that we all came up empty.
I’m guessing that this is one reason why it’s been so difficult for us as parents to locate any acceptable meaning (and peace) from what happened to Mark. That, and realizing that there’s likely not going to be any real justice meted out to the woman who killed him, someone who had little regard for the laws of the road. What makes it just a little more galling is that she had a Trump bumper sticker affixed to the back of the SUV that she drove into Mark, ending his beautiful life. I guess there’s absurdity at play here, when someone who has skirted the law and never suffered the consequences that others (like people of color and immigrants) might have for a similar n’er-do-well lifestyle, would support and autocratic, law-and-order candidate for president. Pretty absurd, but not in a funny, Mark kind of way.
I am a Road is Mark’s final book, released just prior to leaving Providence and hitting the road in October, 2016. The book chronicles Mark’s “First Crossing” of America, back in 2010, narrated by him in his imitable style.