Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mark

I remember throwing myself onto one of the beds and flipping on MTV. “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies, tell me lies, tell me, tell me lies . . . “ sang Stevie Nicks. I was just days away from starting my senior year at Yelm High School but here I was in Marietta OH, taking in the ocular disaster that was a room at the Knight’s Inn. I think they’ve moved into this century now but back then it was a different story. Think medieval stereotypes, shields, swords, wood-beamed ceilings. Think purple. Then shudder. I wish I had a photo.

But why am I going on about a hotel room? Probably because it’s what I know. What I remember first hand. There was just so damn much I didn’t.

Twenty two years ago today my cousin Mark Fleming died. It wasn’t a shock; he’d been battling cancer for a few years but shocking still because I knew him. He was just a kid, like me.

Mark was known as “Fling”. It could be because he couldn’t say Fleming as a child, but I don’t know. He was just a few years older than me and we were the oldest of the Arnold grandkids. I imagine I probably saw him often my first year of life. My mom and I lived with her parents on their farm while my dad was in Korea. After Dad came home we moved to Washington. We would return every few years for a visit but you know, we were visitors.

I remember hearing CANCER. Like the Telephone Game, what I heard was not necessarily what was said, but that part was real. He fell off a Homecoming float and a chest x-ray revealed something far worse than a broken rib. Is that what really happened?

There’s a lot I never knew. Did he ever undergo treatments locally? He lived in West Virginia and I don’t know what would have been available in the vicinity. I do know he underwent treatment in Texas (MD Anderson Cancer Center, I believe) and I always, always think of his mom when I see the Ronald McDonald House donation box at the drive-thru window. Though it’s never occurred to me before, I wonder if his treatment was experimental, a Hail Mary, last ditch effort. I once heard “testicular cancer” but never since. If that truly was the origin, I wonder if that kind of family history is something I should be aware of as the mother of four boys. With a little reading I found that it’s more common in young men and 90% of cases present with a painless lump or mass. That sounds dangerously easy to overlook. If it spread to his lungs, it really was over before it began.

But again, I knew so little. What I did know was that Mark was an only child and very loved by his parents. He was their Big Deal and rightly so.

During the summer before my junior year my dad took me back to Ohio for a week or so. It went unsaid to me, but this was a trip to see Mark. I remember trying to mask my shock at his appearance. I knew he’d be bald but what I wasn’t prepared for was his skeletal physique or his smile. He wouldn’t let you be sad. He joked and kidded with me the same as he had during my last visit. Before. I wondered what that was like for him. He had to know why we were there. Did he feel like it was only a matter of time? Was he at peace? Or did it feel like a battle he could win? Or maybe even a battle he had to fight, for the sake of his family who desperately loved him?

“Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye, and deny it.” Garrison Keillor

Eventually the battle was over and we returned a few days before my senior year was due to begin. A stop at the Knight’s Inn and then the funeral home. My grandpa greeted us as we walked in and I gave him a big hug. I was immediately filled with regret; he didn’t reciprocate. I wasn’t raised around my grandparents, only stereotypes. Physical affection wasn’t their way. It wasn’t my parent’s either so I wasn’t scarred for life or anything. Just hoped I hadn’t made him too uncomfortable.

We made our way to my aunt and uncle and Mark. “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies, tell me lies, tell me, tell me lies . . . “ blared from a boom box next to the casket. They had the radio tuned to his favorite station. I finally cried. It was suddenly no longer unreal.

So now I’m grown with sons and my heart seizes at the thought of losing one. I’ve mentioned before that my younger boys are sort of Pokémon obsessed and something I often hear mentioned in their conversations is “battle damage”. I think of the “battle damage” this would inflict on a mother. On me. I have to believe God doesn’t give us more than we can handle but honestly, all I can think is Game Over.

After sitting here writing for awhile, I realize what I didn’t know didn’t matter. Mark, I miss you. I miss the idea of you. I wish I’d known you better. The time I did have with you always involved laughing and for that I will be eternally grateful. The day I introduce you to my family will be sweet indeed.
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3 comments:

  1. Occasionally I am neither interesting nor entertaining . . . I KNOW. Shocking.

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  2. this was so interesting & well written! thanks!

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