Nature’s Way

Spring is when our natural world emerges from hibernation—at least that’s how it works in places like New England—especially in the far-flung northern locales of the region. Buds appear, perennials poke up through the earth, and dormant lawns demand attention by way of a lawn mower.

Even in the midst of coping with the fallout from death and loss, it’s impossible not to notice and be affected by spring’s rousing “hallelujah.”

May moves forward and folds into June. Summer’s official commencement isn’t far off. And yet, the defining event rooted in winter’s cold and darkness travels with Mary and me, no matter how bright the sun shines, or how directly its rays reflect.

Upon returning from California, I was shoved into normalcy. I say “normal,” knowing that for us, normal will never be the same again. How can it be after losing someone we loved as deeply as Mark?

I’ve blogged about being a baseball umpire. Spring is a busy time when you officiate high school baseball in Maine. While our season is shorter than other parts of the country, by the first week of May, high school schedules are in full swing. With rainouts backing games up and umpiring numbers being down across all four umpiring boards in the state, you can work as many games as you want and can physically tolerate.

Beginning with an extra-inning contest at the Ballpark in Old Orchard last Friday night, I have logged nine games over the last week. Three of the nine have gone extra frames.

On Wednesday, I was on the plate between Greely and Falmouth. Mark played for the Rangers of Greely. This game between neighboring rivals pitted Falmouth with their undefeated record, and Greely having only one blemish on theirs. I had two of the best pitchers in the state going head-to-head.

When I received the assignment, I almost turned it back. Part of me had doubts if I was up to the task in terms of the emotional aspects associated with it. Like all similar situations in my life, I steeled myself for the task and decided to face up to it.

Save for Mark’s former coach being a bit too vociferous about a few pitches that he thought his pitcher should have had, things went without a hitch. I dealt with questions about balls and strikes like I had in the past—informing this coach that I wasn’t going to listen to him “chirp” about balls and strikes any longer. That took care of that.

On the way out to the parking lot to change and debrief, my partner said, “great job, buddy.” I knew he was right. While I won’t say this was easy being behind the plate in a key schoolboy contest involving Mark’s alma mater, I can say that it felt good to face up to the challenge and succeed. Mark wouldn’t have wanted anything less from his dad.

Mary’s been my rock for as long as I’ve known her. Gracious, even when her heart’s been broken. She continues to amaze me in how she’s been able to carry forth.

She’s handled what seems to be a never-ending list of Mark-related administrative tasks with courage and competence. “What else is there to do,” something we’ve both said to one another, time and time again. With our return, Mary’s resumed her weekly training with her beloved SheJAMs sisterhood. She’s focused on July, when she’ll be entering her fourth Tri for a Cure triathlon, this being the 10th anniversary of the event.

A small solace hitched to spring’s arrival that I’ve been paying attention to is the busyness inherent in  the natural world—at least when I’ve slowed down and truly paid attention to it. I’ve been working at cultivating a daily ritual of descending the stairs from our bedroom and looking out the cove-facing window that sits at the base of the stairwell. I’m enjoying cranking open the window and spending  a good five minutes taking in the sound of the birds, watching for the shadowy movements of squirrels in the trees, and marveling at the earliest flecks of sunlight shimmering on the surface of Woodward Cove.

A window into nature.

The natural world is where we both feel Mark’s presence. We noted this when we were in the midst of the desert and Joshua Tree National Park. We felt him with us at the edge of the surf, on Santa Monica Beach.

Mark’s spiritual presence isn’t enough to mitigate our sadness and stop us from missing his physical form, but it’s what we’re left with and worth holding onto.

Travel Writing

[Leaving LA and Santa Monica]

Our time in California is coming to an end. We’ve been on the road for nearly two weeks, nearing the completion of a trip we felt compelled to take. We’re missing home a bit, even our cat, Lucy. Odd how our heartstrings pull at us.

This journey has been centered on Mark. Emotions Mary and I have been contending with in losing our only son don’t seem close to dissipating. Love doesn’t disappear just because someone we loved dies. Tears continue streaming, while the holes in both of our hearts remain (and will live there forever).

Time spent in Santa Monica and Los Angeles was beautiful. Seeing Gabi again was one of the highlights of our time in this magnificent state. When political types slag California either through ignorance or ideology, they know not what they are talking about. It’s hard to put into words what we’ve seen and experienced during this briefest of stays in a place that could just as easily be its own county if it wasn’t one of America’s most important states.

Checking out of our cottage near the beach, we began trekking up the Pacific Coast Highway last Monday. We stopped and watched an amazing group of surfers spend their morning catching and riding waves at Malibu Lagoon State Beach (also known as Surfrider Beach). Our morning in Malibu was close to perfect.

A surfer catching a wave in Malibu.

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On the Beach

In 2007, we rented a camp sight-unseen in Steuben, Maine. The tiny village west of Bar Harbor, was just far enough from touristy Mount Desert Island that it remained stuck in a state that felt more like 1955 than the first decade of the 21st century we were living in.

Mark and his girlfriend-at-the-time, Gabi, drove up from Boston in her Jeep and spent the week with us. Bernie, our beloved Sheltie was still alive and seemed to have recovered from a stroke suffered in January. Our little unit of three (plus one and a dog) was back together, gathered under one roof.

It would not be stretching the truth at all to say that the week in late July was one of the most memorable ones of our married lives. We hiked, biked, played cards, and enjoyed the old house abutting a National Wildlife Refuge on a picture postcard-like portion of Maine’s coastline. “Idyllic” is another well-worn word that wouldn’t be inappropriate in framing this snapshot in time.

We never judged or compared Mark’s three “serious” girlfriends that we’ve known. However, we adored Gabi. Maybe because she was Mark’s first long-term romantic relationship—or perhaps it’s because she was so easy to like and “got” our family and the special place it occupied in Mark’s life. She also spent the most time with us and we knew her the best. When they broke up in 2009, we were sad. We wondered if we’d keep in touch.

When Mark was killed, Gabi called us that Sunday less than 24 hours after the horrible news. She was devastated. Crying on the phone, we shared an emotional 30 minutes catching up and hearing her share with us that Mark was “her best friend” and that she was so sorry for what we’d just suffered in losing him.

She continued calling us nearly every week. In February she sent a package that included photos.

Gabi was also who Mark referred to in his blog about walking across America in 2010 when he wrote,

I am on my way to a friend’s house in West Hollywood. I drank a coffee. It is my first caffeine of the trip. After I drop some weight from my pack at my friend’s apartment we will walk to ocean. We will march to an end. Continue reading

A Starting Point

To call our trip to California a vacation would not accurately capture its purpose. Perhaps “sad vacation” is a more apt descriptor.

Mark lived in Los Angeles for a year after graduating from Wheaton and being accepted into Brown’s MFA program in 2009. Returning has been bittersweet at best. Memories of our (separate) trips in 2008 abound.

As iconic as it gets.

Mark completed his first walk in 2010 at the Pacific and Santa Monica Beach. It’s fitting that our trip begins here. 

On the beach.

We’ll spend a bit more time hugging the coast, then it’s time to head for the desert. Updates will follow in good time.

Cost of Corporations

Corporations are like vultures (and I apologize to the vultures of the world, as in the natural world; they perform a service, unlike corporations). They figuratively pick over the remains of the deceased, and they do it systematically and with precision. All with the wink and nod approval of our government overseers.

At least vultures in the natural world provide a service.

Bureaucratic structures seem designed to wear you down and extract what little resistance a grieving person might be able to muster. Life insurance is just one of the structures that comes to mind. Kafka wrote about this.

Then, there are states like Florida, where the dregs of society go to skirt personal responsibility, especially when it comes to killing pedestrians. No requirements at all for an errant driver owning anything substantive in terms of liability. Not sure how the laws developed there in terms of their homestead exemption and bankruptcy. Again, I’m sure the powers that be were tacit in the process. Oh, and Progressive Insurance, you suck!

It’s never been lost on me that Mark identified many of these things during his 101 days of walking and sharing. He recognized that lie that all of us have been sold and continue buying. He told the truth in a non-judgmental  manner. And now he’s gone.

There’s plenty more to say and write, but the past two weeks haven’t been conducive to writing. Not that the previous weeks back to January 21 were, either.

A friend and former colleague told me that there would be a time when the world would return to their distractions. She cautioned us to prepare for being alone with our grief, not to mention the myriad other tasks of trying to locate some meaning in Mark’s death.

Come on, be a friend

I’ve mentioned numerous times in my recent posts that grief isn’t linear. Loss means you jump back and forth across the continuum and experience a full palette of emotions; that’s at least how I’ve been processing the death of Mark.

Two weeks ago, I felt a bit of creative intensity returning. I’ve been able to blog, mainly personal reflections about losing a son. However, I’ve been short on new ideas. Grief affects our cognitive abilities, just one of the “gifts” that grief delivers.

I remembered a friend of Mark’s that I met at his celebration of life. He had offered his eye as an editor for anything—taking a look at Mark’s work, or even ideas I might have.

Hesitant about sending something I’d put together—an idea for an essay related to Mark and my experience as his father processing death, grief, and some of the bitter/hateful reactions from some corners of the internet. I used an essay written by David Foster Wallace as my jumping off point, and the reaction that his subject had when Wallace later committed suicide.

At the very least, his reaction was disappointing. I’m fine with being offered a critique, and even some suggestions about how best to pitch something like this. Instead, he chose to be dismissive at best, offering little in the way of encouragement.

My mood over the past few weeks has been alternating between deep sadness and red-hot anger, with several outbursts of frustration. As disorienting as this up-and-down yo-yoing looks and feels, the counselor we’ve been visiting for two months assures me (and Mary) that all this is quite normal.

Someone I’ve never met, but who had been following Mark’s journey, initiated an online conversation shortly after he was killed. It’s obvious from his public profile and body of work that this person is immensely talented. He also knows compassion and how to extend it to those suffering loss. He recommended Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as a place to find some solace and a book on mourning that was worthy of my time and effort. I’m grateful he did. Continue reading

A Machine Called Love

My body is a machine/
Built to force so much compassion and love and kindness into the world/that human life has no choice but to thrive and flourish.
[Poem by Mark Baumer-Day 28/Second Crossing of America]

Mark wrote this and recited it on his video from Day 28, the day following the Trump victory. He was in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania. On both sides of the road were farms and fields where peas had been harvested earlier in the fall. Mark is shrouded in his green rain poncho, as the day was rainy and probably cold.

On a rainy day in November, 63 days before he was to be killed, Mark speaks about human-induced climate change, how it’s causing typhoons and droughts. He indicts the American way of life, talks about ways that we can mitigate our personal contribution to global warming and climate change. He mentions that “one of the easiest things you can do to help the environment is stop eating animal products…you can do that today…you could have a huge impact if you just stopped eating meat.” Continue reading

Distancing from Darkness

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several hand-written notes. These were all personalized acknowledgements of what Mary and I have been going through since Mark was killed on January 21. Often, they touched on the difficult time that this person had in reaching out and the struggle for words that adequately addressed what they thought we are going through.

When people that know you don’t respond, it only compounds the grief and loss that you are feeling. That’s been my experience anyways in not hearing from people that I assume know that we lost our only son—and that we are walking through a valley and have been for more than two months.

As Linda Andrews writes in her lovely and pertinent book about grief and loss, Please Bring Soup To Comfort Me While I Grieve,

When it comes to the topic of grief, many people are uncomfortable and unprepared to know what to say or do. Some people try to say the right thing and others just avoid the whole situation. The effect on the person who is grieving is devastating; feelings of pain, hurt, anger and disappointment prevail. People who are grieving are not in a position to understand this flaw in the human spirit. Continue reading

Pedestrians and Cars

The end-of-week news cycle is focused on the attack in London that occurred on Wednesday. A lone driver plowed his car into pedestrians on the city’s historic Westminster Bridge. The latest reports are that four people are known dead, with another 50 people receiving injuries ranging from minor to very serious.

While the media unravels details, seeking to supply motive and all the other things that have become the norm in reporting news events, real humans have been forever impacted by one man’s act. Mary and I know all-too-well how the actions of a solitary figure have the power to permanently alter one’s personal journey.

How our news is received is now ideological. No longer are most people able to simply process information and come to a conclusion. We have grown accustomed to having others tell us what events and actions mean. It’s important to frame everything in some larger narrative—terms like “terror,” “lone wolf,” and of course, the need to link it to “Islamism.”

Personally—especially since Mark was killed January 21—I no longer care to consume news that plays to the same old binary ways of framing the world and my life.  Actually, my aversion to black and white explanations dates much further back than that.

Historic Westminster Bridge, London

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Losing Love

When a loved one is stolen from you by death, you immediately get clear about priorities and what’s important. Think of it as a refinement process unlike anything else most people will ever experience.

I haven’t been consuming news of late, no longer obsessing over the minutia of the daily cycle of events like I once did. When your son has been ripped from you by a senseless and careless act, the buffoon in the White House and his boorish antics seem trivial. Of course that also doesn’t mean that what’s taking place doesn’t have consequences.

During Mark’s final video, the day prior to being killed by a woman who happened to be a supporter of the man seeking to dismantle the country that I’ve known for 50+ years, he ticked off a litany of things that concerned him about the man who had just been sworn into office as our 45th president.

“We now officially have a president,” said Mark, “that does not believe in climate change. He wants the world to burn so he can profit. We have a president who hates women, who discriminates against women, who physically abuses women. We have a president who hates minorities, who wants to make minorities suffer. we have a president who hates disabled people, who doesn’t want to help people when they are in need. All he wants to do is profit. If you support this man, you do not support human life on this planet, plain and simple. You do not support the future of earth as a planet…”

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