Losing someone you love, as Mary and I loved Mark, creates a hole—one that beckons to be filled. We were a close knit unit of three, now reduced by a third. Percentage-wise, the number is 33, Mark’s age at his death. This is merely another random detail aggressively forced upon us by the universe, without solicitation, or any offer of negotiation, let alone any thought for our welfare or benefit.
Our experiences as brand new members of the Grieving Parents Club have helped us to learn firsthand to understand why parents that have lost a child unexpectedly would look for ways to assuage their pain and the waves of grief that threaten to swamp them. We also live in an age where there are a host of pharmaceutical remedies and of course, there’s always the option of legal self-medication, too.
Someone that I don’t know that well, but who offered me some unexpected kindness and empathy this week, shared a bit of his own story about members of his family and how they chose to deal with the grief of losing a teenage son 20 years ago. The mother drank herself into alcoholism and the father tried to cope by filling their garage and yard with “toys” of all shapes and sizes. Neither of those were solutions capable of bringing their son back to them. Fortunately, they were able to find a more positive approach further along in their own journey along grief’s highway.
I’m thankful for Mary. The two of us have been able to face down adversity at various stages of our life together. She’s unbelievably resilient and strong. I’ve always admired that in her, dating back to when I was first smitten by her during my sophomore year at Lisbon High. She stole my heart during the opening assembly on the first day of classes. I now say it was “love at first sight” for me, although it would take me another year to convince Mary of my worthiness. We’ve been a couple ever since.
When Mark was born, he completed our family. Prior to that, as deep and passionate as our love was, romantic love tends to draw us inward. Christianity talks about their being different types of love—children redirect your gaze outside of yourself and help you to begin to see the world through the eyes of another, and perhaps, teach you what true, unconditional love is all about. At least for me, this was the first time I came face-to-face with that kind of special love that Paul wrote about in his first letter to the Corinthians. I was looking at it when I looked into the eyes of my newborn son, Mark. That was back in 1983 and I got to appreciate it for 33 magical years.
My own love for Mark wasn’t always perfect. He told me one time when he was in college that I had been too tough on him. I guess that’s how my own father and many of the men that I had as mentors instilled in me what it meant to be a male in our culture. This tough-love approach may have been a bit too much for Mark at certain times in his life, as I was now finding out from my 20-year-old son. Yet later, when we circled back around to that previous discussion years later, Mark would tell me that as tough as I’d been at times, he now had a newfound appreciation for the discipline that it had forged in him, as well as an ability to follow-through on tasks and projects.
But back to the hole in our lives. That hole is currently being occupied by grief.
Grief has become our third wheel and constant companion—showing up as indescribable pain, a tsunami threatening to drown us both—delivering daily, an altered reality that will forever be our “new normal.” One could excuse anyone for wanting to tune out the pain and simply numb it by whatever means available. Certainly, attempting to remain present might not be the method others would choose to employ.
Yet, if there’s one characteristic that I can’t get away from or out of my head about Mark whenever I’m thinking about him (which is almost all of my waking existence) is how he lived his life by being present. As much as anyone I know, Mark had cultivated being in the moment, experiencing life fully, while simultaneously employing the very tools and technology that often leave the rest of of distracted and unavailable to those around us.
Because I had developed a habit of regularly sending Mark notes and even epic narratives via email dating back more than a decade, I have this remarkable archive of correspondence with him. Rather than simply succumbing to memories as a means to block out my emotional pain, I’m attempting to look back—via these older emails, Mark’s own writing, while also receiving stories from others that knew and loved him. This has allowed me to enhance my own understanding of our son.
“Why?”, you ask, is this important. Because both Mary and I believe that Mark has something to offer all of us in how he had come to live his life, or “walk his talk,” as I’m want to say. His approach is a model for all of us to begin taking back control of our lives that we have often handed indiscriminately to others that don’t have our best interests in mind, nor deserve that kind of control over us. I’m thinking of employers, politicians, so-called friends, even other family members.
Reading back through a host of communication that Mark and I exchanged on his most recent walk, we were talking about all sorts of things; economics, the food we eat, how we interact with people that are different than us, and a bunch of other things. I’m also struck by how often father and son—two grown men—regularly told each other that we loved the other one and that we appreciated what the other one was doing and offering back. Validation personified, in a culture that doesn’t put a premium on valuing or validating our fellow human beings.
Mark’s walk, the one he was on when he was killed, has gotten a great deal of attention from all kinds of people, and for good reason. What I’ve been especially grateful to have in my possession are emails that we exchanged during his First Crossing, completed back in 2010. I even used a particular convention in the subject lines of each email, titling them, “Notes for the road #1, 2, 3…,” and later, simply abbreviating them as “NFR #21, 22,” etc. Contained in them are a treasure trove of thoughts, ruminations, and insight that were premonitions of who Mark was moving towards becoming later. Here’s one example of many (this on titled, “NFR #24,” dated June 10, 2010) during the 81 days it took Mark to complete that initial trek across America on foot.
My longish emails (mainly written upon waking in the morning, around 4:30 or 5:00) covered all manner of topics, including our mutual love of the Boston Celtics and their playoff run that particular year. I took this on as my role during Mark’s walk to simply let him know I was there, thinking of him, and wanting him to know that.
[me] Good morning,
It’s early, and I’m starting this prior to going down to the basement to do my Spartacus routine. I only do it twice per week, but it’s been a great addition to my fitness routine.
When I go through the circuits, I don’t enjoy them, but they make me think of you. I’m reminded of my son, the little boy that used to hold my adult hand, in his tiny fingers, as we walked to Lake George to feed the ducks.
That little boy has come eons from having to hold his Dad’s hand, crossing the street, and needing to be shielded from harm by his parents.
What you wrote last night was truly poetic. Several times on the trip thus far, I’ve read things that you’ve written–philosophical observations, and ways that you were able to use words to capture a snapshot in time–that takes ability as a writer, something that you have. Other times, you used humor to illustrate something, and it made me laugh, or chuckle out loud, early in the morning, or during a long, grinding day of work.
There’s nothing I can give you that can get you through the next two weeks. You are in territory that I don’t have much experience with. This is a defining time on the trip, I think.
We’re going to see you fairly soon and I hope Mom and I being with you for a few days will give you a chance to renew, have some people nearby that love and care for you, and truly respect and are inspired by your journey. I’ll see how many miles my ragged old body can handle on the road.
You no longer need us–however, you choose to let us be a part of your life. For that, I know I am truly grateful, as is your mother.
I’m proud to call you my son.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t share the good news regarding “our” Celtics. Last night, they rallied, 103-94, handing the Lakers their first home loss of the postseason at home. Ray Allen was on fire and I mean, on fire!! He hit 7-8 threes in the first half. He ended up with 8 for the game, an NBA record, beating Scottie Pippen and Kenny Smith’s record of 7. He finished with 32 for the game on 8-11 shooting behind the arc. Rondo had a triple/double; 19 pts, 12 boards, and 10 helpers. Pierce had a tough night, as did KG. Nate Robinson spelled Rondo with some solid minutes in the 4th, when Rondo was on fumes. TA played some tough minutes blanketing Koby who was held to 21.
Gasol with 25 was tough and Bynum finished with 21 and 7 blocked shots.
It heads back to Boston 1-1 on Tuesday night, which is what I had hoped for and I’m sure you’re happy with the split.
Be strong and I’m looking forward to walking alongside you, sharing some barbecue and southern cooking with you, and hearing your thoughts and about some of your experiences along this amazing walk that you’ve been on. See you in less than two weeks (now). We’re shooting for June 20, somewhere in Tejas!
Love you a lot,
PS My dreams last night were filled with southern back roads, Spanish moss, and antebellum mansions. The Driveby Truckers, singing about Lynyrd Skynyrd were playing as the soundtrack. I think I’ve been reading too many travel guides of the south; love you.
On that walk, just like the final one, I let him know I didn’t expect anything back. Any response was always a bonus, and as difficult as it was to walk–requiring super-human endurance, physically, not to mention the amazing mental toughness that he had–he’d always send something back, even if it was a short note like this one.
[mark] I feel pretty good today. I think I just need to stay positive.
Glad the celtics won.
What I’ve especially enjoyed being able to do is to juxtapose the back-and-forth we had 6 ½ years ago, with what we were talking about on this trip.
We’d have these amazing discussions via email and by phone, and even sometimes via text. Mark was putting out an amazing daily stream of content, and then adding addenda back to me, like this response on Day 90, from January 12. This was a reply to my own observation that it was impossible for any of us to escape capitalism’s “golden handcuffs.”
I couldn’t agree more with you. Part of me is excited about addressing the problem of capitalism more head on when I return. The plans aren’t concrete yet but basically boil down to making as little as possible and eventually get below the tax threshold where you no longer have to pay taxes meaning you’re not contributing to the war capitalist machine of america. There are a lot of steps including paying off all debts but I’ve felt some freedom at the thought of making the goal less about making more money and about making less.
While in the midst of his Second Crossing, Mark offered us honesty that welled up from his vulnerability. As a friend wrote on Facebook after Mark’s death, “It takes great courage to feel great sadness.” It took immense courage and remaining centered for Mark to do all that he accomplished on the walk he never had the chance to complete. All of us that loved and respected him are grieving that.
If there’s one single thing that Mark has been teaching me each and every day for more than 100 days now, is that it’s essential for me and everyone else to find a way to be present in our lives. It’s also important to figure out exactly what that means for you and me in our various situations and circumstances. That’s probably the best way to honor him, and find a way forward through our own personal grief travels.
Please consider making a contribution to The Mark Baumer Sustainabilty Fund. We have set this up as a way to ensure that Mark’s memory and passions live on in tangible ways. Mary and I will be bringing forth some exciting news in the coming months about local projects currently in the planning stage.