My Friend Mark...
My friend, Mark... is in heaven. As his beloved sister Barbara and I watched him breath his last breath, we refused to cry, because we knew he was ready and willing leave Planet Earth. He had already informed us that he was looking forward to seeing his mom, Janet and his brother, Johnston and his Grandma, who were waiting for him. We smiled when we recalled him mentioning quite a long list of others he knew were "up there" as well, among his former case worker, his former dentist, etc., etc... (He had many people who loved him up in heaven as well as down where the humans still reside.) I asked him if he would remember us. "Don't worry about that!" he replied.
Mark's sister and I became fast friends when we started working together, in the Autumn of 1999. Shortly after we met, we shared about our families. She told me she had just lost her mother and was working on moving her other twin brother, Mark from his apartment in St. Louis, MO to an apartment in Richmond, VA. She asked me if I'd like to meet him when he comes. I had mentioned that my late sister, Mary Jane and my other sister, Mary Frances were also labeled "intellectually challenged" and I'd be comfortable with that prospect.
I was introduced to Mark in the Summer of 2001. I was divorced and living alone when we met. Mark became an active companion for me on many of my volunteer excursions. He worked with me at Art 180 events, he accompanied me to St. Thomas Episcopal Church's Outreach Ministries, he volunteered with CARITAS Shelter Programs and YMCA/Target Bright Beginnings. We went to movies and theater events and he introduced me to Cadence Theater Company. He became familiar with most of my RVA friends and my family adored him and corresponded with him. Mark volunteered at the Richmond Folk Festivals and we attended many First Friday Art Events and parties, together. If he was not with me, "Where is Mark?" was often asked of me.
I was so happy to witness that Mark lived a life that was full of love, good music, and independence. Although he was considered, "intellectually challenged," he received supported employment training and was brought up, just like most of us, to care for himself, as an adult. He was a meticulous, organized housekeeper. He loved old appliances, old radiators, and he loved housecleaning and loved to vacuum and to prepare food for himself in his home. One Thanksgiving, he prepared a turkey dinner for me. (It was excellent: Juicy, tender and delicious!) When I could, I enjoyed following him around Food Lion or Kroger, as he checked his list for grocery shopping. (Barbara tells me that, on his last grocery trip, he was "very optimistic" and bought a lot more groceries than he would use.)
Whenever I visited his apartment, Mark would brew me tea, with lemon, and we would watch "Leave It To Beaver" episodes, or his favorite movies that he collected on DVDs. Barbara and RB facilitated Mark's four moves to different apartments, while in Richmond, VA. Every apartment he moved into was walking-distance-accessible to his employment. He always had "real work for real pay" jobs. He was meticulous about preparing his clothes by washing and pressing his work clothes and laying them out, the night before, so he could be ready, early in the mornings. He was very particular about his possessions (I asked permission, first, before touching his stuff.) He loved to show me his large collection of model cars, airplanes, books. His fascinations were antiques, old radiators and old house appliances, music, Trains-Planes-Automobiles, and news about natural disasters. We sometimes watched documentaries. His favorite documentary was the building of The Gateway Arch. While driving around, we blasted music "Oldies" from the 50's, 60's, and 70's. He knew every music artist and recording. He was like a walking encyclopedia of information, dates of news events, and information about celebrities; a "savant," like the character portrayed in the movie, "Rain Man."
Some of my favorite memories of Mark: Going grocery shopping, driving to visit his childhood home in Norfolk, VA, watching him chase little birds for fun and laughing, going to IHOP or AppleBees, Hosting his (and his twin Vincent's) 50th Birthday Surprise with all of his friends and family at my home, watching him flirt with African American women (Mark associated women of color as people who had loved him when he was growing up), watching him walk out to my car with different outfits for all kinds of weather (I loved watching him with his winter coat, scarf wrapped around his head), swimming in the pools of the apartment complexes he lived in.... So many good times.
Last September, I asked Mark what I could to do for him, when he found out he had Bladder Cancer and it was incurable. He said, "Just hold my hand." The week before he took a turn for the worse, he reminded me of this promise. He often told us, during these last days, "Don't worry! I am okay!" Last Friday, I did not worry. Barbara and I were standing by. I held onto his hand, until it froze wrapped around mine. It was hard to let go...