Friday, September 26, 2008

For My Dear Brother Mark

My older brother, Mark, died on September 11th, 2008, of complications from a bladder infection that turned into sepsis. He was 47, and would have been a first-time Democratic voter so that he could vote for Barack Obama. I presented the following as a eulogy at his funeral.

If I had to impose a unifying theme or narrative on the life of my dear brother Mark, I would pick a passage from the Gospel according to John:

A Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Mark was born in Kaiser hospital in Walnut Creek on April 23rd in the hours before dawn, and in that moment a light came into the lives of my parents, the first of six.

My earliest memories of Mark are sharing a room with him in our house in Richmond, California. We would lie in our beds and talk, two kids in their PJs, sometimes late into the night, and share our fears and hopes with one another.

There was one night when we were talking, and I noticed his voice sounded kind of strange. Mark had a talent for throwing his voice, and he was creeping towards my bed, while making it sound as if he were still across the room in his bed. He reached up and grabbed me and went, "RRAAAARRRR" and I went streaking out of the room, screaming at the top of my lungs. I still laugh thinking about that.

Mark’s adolescence was troubled and stormy, and matched the wider tumult and upheaval that marked the decade of the seventies in the United States. Things had reached the point that he and my dad were barely on speaking terms, when Mark had the auto accident that left him permanently paralyzed and changed his life forever.

That was a dark time in the life of the family, but I want to say again –

A Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Or, from JRR Tolkien, whose tales Mark loved: Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures.

The wake of his accident was an occasion of Grace for the family, a time when we were immersed in Love – people from the church came together, and my parents didn’t have to cook dinner for the four months Mark was in the hospital, because someone from the Church would bring food every single night. Mark himself never went a moment without prayer during the difficult days after his accident, and during physical therapy in Kaiser: people from the church were praying literally around the clock for him.

One of the nurses in the Kaiser Rehab program was a woman named Marilyn; Mark and my family came to enjoy her very much - she grew up in a rough area of Boston, and was both plain spoken and very devout, in an earthy way (she was the first person I ever heard use the term, "lower than whaleshit," which still makes me giggle). She went to our Catholic parish in Benicia.

She eventually revealed that her husband, Bobby, was the drunk driver who had paralyzed Mark.

Bobby was an alcoholic, and in the wake of what he'd done was swimming in shame - he could not bear to face my parents or the rest of my family. My parents were obviously livid when Mark was first hurt, but came to a place before too long where they could forgive Bobby, and not carry around the burden of a poisonous grudge. They had Marilyn relay this to her husband, but he still could not bear to face them.

One day, my family came out of the church, and saw Marilyn, and greeted her - "Hi, Marilyn!" - and she greeted my parents by name. Bobby happened to be with her - and suddenly everyone realized who everyone else was - Bobby realized he was facing my parents, and my parents realized that this man with Marilyn was the man who had paralyzed their son.

Bobby turned to my father, his face dark with shame, and said, "I don't know what to say."

My father went to him, and hugged him, and said, "It's ok, Bobby. In a way, you gave me back a son." Bobby wept in my father's arms.

A Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Indeed, something miraculous happened: In the wake of his accident, the troubles of his adolescence faded away, and in their place was the beginning of the phase of Mark’s life in which God took the raw materials of Mark's life and circumstances, and from those made of him something of a saint.

The crosses Mark bore were heavy indeed, but he bore them with great love. Of all the children of the Family, my father’s final illness and death 12 years ago were hardest on Mark. Dad was sick with cancer for a long time before he died, and all of us kids pitched in to help, staying with him and looking after him. We, however, could leave, get some air, take a break and re-charge; Mark was there the entire time, and bore the burden with immense strength and patience. He was never bitter, always attentive to the rest of the family; never angry but always available to talk to and comfort us as we comforted him.

You know, one of Mark’s regrets is that he didn’t get a chance to tell our Dad he loved him before he died; I think there is, as I speak, a joyous reunion happening in Heaven where my Dad is letting him know that he knew Mark loved him, and that they can express their love now without reserve or hindrance.

Mark spent the last few years of his life in increasing physical pain. Pain can blind you to others, and keep your focus on yourself: with Mark, though, he reached out and became more giving, both of his time, his prayers, and sending us things unasked for and unannounced; things he bought online and just arrived out of the blue on our doorsteps; things we might have mentioned in long-forgotten conversations that we might need or want, and he remembered and got it for us. I expect that in some way he will continue this tradition, sending us things that we didn’t know we needed from where he is now.

Mark had a curious, seeking, intellectually hungry mind, and he never stopped learning until the day he died. His latest project was teaching himself calculus. He was very, very widely read – on an astonishing variety of subjects, from cryptography and codes to history and mathematics. He had pretty extensive knowledge of history, especially military history. I remember when I was in the Army, when I came home on leave he would grill me on what military life was like, and enjoyed the stories I told of the places I’d seen and the people I’d met.

You know, I never got Mark back for scaring me all those years ago when we were kids. And even today, I half expect him to come bursting up beside me, just for the joy of watching me dash out of the Church in terror. He was that kind of guy. I am praying for you today, Mark. Pray for us, too, Mark. Pray for us.

A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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