Memorializing Mark

Our Memorial Day weekend centered on burying the remains of our son, Mark Baumer. In case you may have stumbled across this blog and lack context, Mark was hit and killed by an inattentive driver in Fort Walton County, Florida on January 21. He was an award-winning poet and writer, and was engaged in his second crossing of America on foot. He walked across the U.S. in 81 days in 2010.

Because of the newsworthy nature of Mark’s walk, his cause (raising awareness) about climate change, while also walking America’s highways and byways barefoot, the story of his death received widespread media coverage. In my opinion, this article in The New Yorker was the best of them, written about Mark by a writer, Anna Heyward, who made an effort in understanding the arc of the story, and “got” Mark, as a creative genius and activist, also.

Mark’s been gone for four months. For Mary and me, his parents, our lives continue to be affected each and every day by the grief associated with this loss.

Losing an adult child that you loved more than life itself isn’t something that you simply get over in four days, four months, or four years. Yet, there are people at work and elsewhere with unrealistic expectations who don’t seem to understand the devastation associated with an event like the one visited upon us.

Here are remarks that I delivered at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Saco, on Saturday morning, prior to interring Mark’s remains:

For the past four months, I’ve been trying to locate meaning for why Mark was killed. I’ve been unsuccessful on that front. How does one imbue an event with any meaning, like the one that robbed our families of Mark, a loving, vibrant 33-year-old?

Mark loved baseball for a time in his life. In fact, baseball is where we may have ultimately forged our bond as father and son. In baseball terms, a 33-year-old is in the prime of his baseball abilities and acumen. In a creative sense, I believe Mark was just hitting his stride as a writer, poet, and digital gadfly.

Why would someone who worked so diligently and was ever at their craft, cruelly taken away before they ever got to the zenith of their creative capabilities? Perhaps you now see why finding meaning has been so difficult a task for me since the end of January.

A day doesn’t pass, no, nary an hour transpires without both Mary and me thinking about our beloved son who is no longer with us.

While it’s comforting in some twisted logic, wishful thinking sort of way to think that Mark might be somewhere else, waiting for us, the rational in me doesn’t allow for that. The best I can come up with is that Mark’s energy that spark that makes up our life force is now somewhere, just not in the hulking physical form that we came to know as Mark.

 At funerals and graveside events like this one, it’s traditional for the reading of a prayer, or a poem, or some saying that leaves attendees with some kind of hope for the future. I’ll try to carry on that tradition in my own flawed manner.

 Among many of the Indian nations in Massachusetts there was the idea that after death, the soul would go on a journey to the southwest (which at that time, was a place, far, far away). Eventually, the soul would arrive at a village where it would be welcomed by the ancestors. In a similar fashion, the Narragansett in Rhode Island viewed death as a transition between two worlds: at the time of death, the soul would leave the body and join the souls of relatives and friends in the world of the dead which lay somewhere to the southwest.

The one brief respite from my own grief and loss regarding Mark has come while being in nature. Mary and I felt Mark’s presence while we were in the desert, at Joshua Tree a few weeks ago. Each morning, Mary and I have developed a routine. When we wake up and look out on our beloved Woodward Cove—especially those mornings when the sunlight hits the water making  it shimmer, and the birds are delivering a symphony of sounds—Mark’s presence is all around us.

 Mark, your life mattered and was ended prematurely. We’ll miss you forever.

Afterward, we left Saco and drove 90 minutes into the heart of Maine’s western mountains. There, we planted two trees at Mary’s sister and brother-in-law’s house where we come together the week before Christmas every year. We wanted something that would capture Mark’s presence and keep his memory alive in that special family gathering place.

Bryant Pond, ME

 

Trees for Mark.

Our families stepped up this weekend. We also were so pleased that Mark’s girlfriend could join us for the family ceremonies in Saco and Bryant Pond, and then spend time with us on Woodward Cove. As difficult as the weekend was at times, there were also times of beauty that Mark would have been happy to have had a hand in bringing about.

 

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. Continue reading

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

Continue reading