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.
Gabi had videotaped Mark barely managing to put one foot in front of the other, crossing the beach sand on his way to the edge of America and the Pacific. We watched it over and over again after she sent it to us. Our son, who had crossed the country on foot, in 81 days!! And now, he’s gone.
While no longer boyfriend/girlfriend, their friendship was deep, of a special nature, and she continued to love Mark in her own unique, Gabi-kind-of-way.
Six weeks ago, we entertained the notion of taking a “vacation” of sorts. It wouldn’t be the normal kind of get-away that couples take. No lolling around on the beach at some gated resort for us. No, we’d head to Santa Monica Beach with some of Mark’s remains.
This was a return for us to a city that we visited in 2008, after Mark went west. Somehow, geographical separation from New England and the space it afforded from three months of running on adrenaline was something we knew intuitively was necessary.
We were overjoyed seeing Gabi again. She’d remained in Los Angeles when Mark flew back across America to the East Coast and Brown in 2009 to join their MFA in Literary Arts program.
Gabi knew exactly where Mark had concluded that amazing journey by foot across the continental United States in 2010. This was at the edge of America bordering the Pacific Ocean, at Santa Monica Beach. This is where we’d place some of the remnants of our hulking 6’3” son, reduced to ash and bone fragments. That’s what a careless (and one could even call, “malicious”) act by a motorist renders a beautiful human being.
Late in the day last Thursday, after Gabi had driven us all over her city, we made an emotional walk together across the ribbon of sand. It’s never easy carrying your son (and best friend, too) in a plastic container.
Mary and I waded into the ocean and placed a portion of Mark’s remains in the Pacific. Gabi remained on the sand. She snapped a few photographs of Mom and Dad as we cried while the waves washed up over our legs, wetting the bottom of our shorts. There was also some symbolism in carrying him across the country with us—not as dynamically as his own completion of his barefoot walk would have been—but it provided a sense that he was again at the end of another kind of journey, one that’s nearly impossible to properly capture in words.
The next day, Mary “celebrated” her birthday. Much like my own day marking being a year older, the day was afflicted by what had happened to our beloved Mark. It’s hard to eat cake and ice cream knowing that you’ll never see his face, experience one of his unforgettable hugs, and hear him say in his inimitable manner, “hello Mother.”
We’re here until next week when we’ll jump on a big jet airliner pointed back towards Portland (Maine). We’ve since left LA and are driving up the California coast, north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Then, we’ll turn east for the desert and Joshua Tree.
Then, we’ll head for home, concluding our two week “sad vacation.”