Tuesday, October 15, 2013

THE DEATH OF MARK



When readers of Children of the Manse asked me how the four of us, adopted as children from an orphanage, had turned out I would think immediately of Mark, second in birth order, and wonder how I could ever write that story.  Well, it’s done and I have also written a sequel, “Reactions to the Death of Mark.” It seems to me that one of the saddest realities in life and the hardest to accept is the unfulfilled promise of the young.  Mark’s early death turned our lives upside down.  None of us would ever view life or our own lives in the same way again.

 
MARK’S STORY

          My brother Mark, only 15 months younger than I, was the sibling to which I was most attached.  Perhaps that was because of all we had been through together in our biological family and at the orphanage before we were adopted at ages seven and eight by the Luchs.  Perhaps it was because Mark and I were in the same unit at the orphanage while I was rarely permitted to be with Janey and Michael. And surely it was because we were so close in age.  Mark was more solidly built than I and by age 10 was taller.  Mark loved the crunching of bodies in our school ground football games at Rufus Putnam and always voted to play tackle while I voted to play touch.  My favorite sport was basketball, a game of finesse in those days.  Mark liked the rough and tumble of football.    
Some years later, after Mark persuaded me to try out for the Los Alamos High School football team ---I was already on the Los Alamos varsity basketball team --- I liked that we ended up on the line together, he, number 36 at left tackle, I, number 46 at left end.  He was a better football player than I was.  He did most of the heavy work moving bodies out of the way on our offensive line and he made most of the tackles on the left side of the line on defense.  He was elected co-captain of the team at the end of his junior year.
A few months later Dad accepted an offer from the First Congregational Church in Evanston, Illinois.  Mark, disappointed he would not be able to play another year for Los Alamos, left early for Evanston to join the football team there.  He almost immediately earned a position on the starting varsity eleven, the first senior-year transfer in the history of Evanston High School to do so.  Suburban high schools north of Chicago typically enrolled ten times as many students as did Los Alamos High School and Evanston High School played in a much tougher league than Los Alamos. The athletes were bigger and Mark, playing on the line as a guard at 175 pounds, was 50 pounds lighter than most other linemen in Evanston’s league. 
In the fall of l953 he described the Evanston football program in a letter to dad, who was still in Los Alamos.     

“We started out with two practices a day, each lasting 2 ½ hours.  The boys here are big.  The two boys I am competing against weigh 230 and 250 lbs.  They use the two platoon system.  I am playing first string defense and second string offense.  But I’m on my way to first string offense, too.”   He finished the letter with “Tell Coach Cox (his Los Alamos coach) that there would be nothing I’d like better than to play in Los Alamos this year.”
It was in Evanston that Mark took his first hard blows.  In the Oak Park game he lay on the field unconscious for a few minutes, then stood up in a daze, and lined up as if he was playing with the Oak Park team.  The Evanston coach pulled him out of the game.  But then, not five minutes later, the coach sent him back in to play.  Mark suffered two concussions while playing for Evanston.   He began to have terrific headaches which he relieved with ever larger doses of Empirin.  You could wonder why Dad did not try to stop Mark’s football career then.  Dad’s only nephew, Richard Amacher, spent weeks in a hospital recovering from a damaged kidney injured during a high school football game and barely survived to become a professor of English and concert violinist.  I guess it was because having to stop playing football would have broken Mark’s heart. 
Mark accepted a football scholarship to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, the old home town, in l954.  He played on the freshman team and was identified as one of the four outstanding players that year.  Football, academics, and the need for money were the themes of his letters home that year. 

“We lost our game to Miami (University of Oxford, Ohio) 36 to 19 because we gave away our usual amount of fumbles and blocked punts…I have a calcium deposit on my left arm and my right shoulder is kinda banged up.”  “I am still playing first string and liking it very much….I don’t have much of a social life because of all my studies but I still like it.”    

          He suffered two more concussions that year, one on the field, the other when a roommate, trying to wake him, pulled him out of bed and banged his head on the concrete floor.  Shortly after that he had his first seizure.   Mark’s state of mind is evident in a letter he sent home in the autumn of l954.  The letter begins by announcing he has pledged Delta Tau Delta. 

”I am very happy with my choice….we have a very large pledge class.  I never saw so much talent in one group of boys in my life.”

But then the tone of his letter turns somber.

 “Dr. Hudson got those tests back from Columbus.  I don’t know too much about them except they are not normal…Dr. Hudson wants to do some more research on the case …It’s no fun to have someone tell you that your tests didn’t come out normal and that you will have to take some more tests.  Also, that you may not be able to play football….”

“I haven’t said anything about all this crazy testing, but if he doesn’t let me play football there’s going to be trouble.  The minute I don’t show up for football I will lose my scholarship…I know this doesn’t sound very much like me, but when I don’t feel any different than I did before I had this so-called seizure, it’s very hard for me to cooperate.”     

In a later letter he writes in response to the news that Mom will have to have a disc removed to relieve her back pain.   

“I am going over to the medical center Monday to find out the results of my skull x-rays.  They will probably find it cracked and send me across the river (to the state mental hospital in Athens).  Man, I never had to put up with so much nonsense in all my life.  Mother, when I get home, we can lament together.  If you see an atomic bomb explosion coming from this way in the near future, you know that the Dr. has said I cannot play football.  I would rather be in your pants than in mine.  I do not know what is going to happen to me.” 

          Ohio University took the view that the seizure was the result of the concussions he had suffered in Evanston and withdrew his scholarship.  In looking through records and interviewing biological family members, one burning question on my mind was, did epilepsy exist in our biological family?  I found no evidence that it did.  We know much more about concussions and seizures as a result of football injuries than we did in the 1950s.   Mark’s seizure was almost surely the result of repeated concussions.

          Football was Mark’s life.  His dream was to play football through college and eventually become a football coach.  After the seizure he was put on anti-seizure medicine and told not to drink alcohol or coffee or stay up late at night.  He felt lost and aimless.  He began a difficult period of reassessment and adjustment.

          Next to football Mark’s first love was music.  He played the piano, read music easily, and had a fine voice which he had used over the years in church choirs and school choruses. He sang the only vocal solo, Del Riego’s “Homing,” at his junior high school promotion exercises. 

          After graduating from Evanston High School in the summer of 1954 Mark attended the University of Michigan sponsored music camp at Interlochen.  He was in four choirs and a madrigal group, and earned eight hours of credit taking voice lessons and enrolling in a University of Michigan course in music theory.  “We are doing the Messiah, Bach’s B Minor Mass, the Brahms Requiem, and some other stuff,” he wrote. Of the madrigal group he wrote, “We have learned 33 pieces of music in the last two weeks.”  He concluded one letter with, “We are all having a great time and working very hard.” 

          One letter discussed a visit by his current Evanston girlfriend, Liz Chapman, and he issued invitations to all members of the family to visit and hear the Interlochen groups sing.  “We are as good as any professionals,” he writes.  Also in the camp that summer was Bob Kingsbury, a charming southerner and favorite of the Evanston high students who participated in Bob’s choral and orchestral programs. Mark writes, “Tell Mike to work on his voice and violin because Kingsbury wants to see him in orchestra and Master singers next year.” 

          But even during the intense musical summer at Interlochen his mind was very much on the upcoming football season at Ohio University. “I should weigh 180 in the next couple of days but I can’t gain the weight I would like because they don’t feed me enough…I am keeping up my exercises and am on a good training program. I’m in great shape.” 

          After Mark had to give up football he enrolled at Northwestern University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music with a specialty in conducting.  He then spent a year teaching and leading the high school choruses of St. Clairsville, Ohio.  His senior chorus competed at the state level and received an “excellent” rating.  The school was deeply disappointed when he announced he was resigning to return for a graduate degree and offered him a paid assistant football coaching job to add to his music teaching as an additional inducement.  But the following year he enrolled in the graduate music program of the University of Michigan, this time majoring in music theory and composition. He chose Michigan because he wanted to study under the then composer-in-residence, Paul Cooper.  During these years he had no more seizures. 

          Some months after enrolling at Michigan his eye was caught by a blond student accompanist, a young woman from Iowa.  He asked her if she would play a choral composition he had just written. When he returned home that evening he told Mom, “I have just seen the woman I am going to marry.  Her name is Joan.” 

          He asked Joan out.  She turned him down.  Weeks later he asked her out again.  Again she turned him down.  He tried a third time with the same result.  Then, a month or so later, he said to Mother. 

“I am going to give her one more chance.  If she turns me down again, I will give up.”

          He asked her out a fourth time.  She accepted, they began dating, and were soon engaged to marry.  Dad’s diary contains a quote from the period when Mark was building an apartment in the basement of the family home in Ann Arbor.

“I marvel at his aptness in handling tools and knowledge of building.  What a marvelous girl he is marrying!” 

Another diary entry recorded on September 7, l960.  “Mark marries Friday – a most lovely and unusual girl.” 

          Dad officiated at the marriage of Mark and Joan in the first Congregational Church in Ann Arbor and they moved into the basement apartment Mark had built.   Both continued their academic programs to earn master’s degrees. 

          After the incident at Ohio University Mark had no seizures for five years.  But not because he was following doctors’ orders.  He drank coffee regularly, sometimes drank alcohol, and often stayed up late to study, all unwise behaviors.  He continued to have severe headaches for which he took large doses of Empirin.  Then, because he had had no seizures, he stopped taking his prescribed medication, Dilanthan.  Weeks later, he had a seizure during which he fell on the concrete basement apartment floor and broke his arm. 

          Late in the morning of Tuesday, March 27, l962, Mark told Mom he was tired and wanted to sleep for an hour before conducting a rehearsal of a choral group at the university.  He complained of a splitting headache.  He asked if she had something to help him sleep.  She suggested he look for something in the medicine cabinet on the second floor in the master bedroom.    

          When Mark failed to show up to conduct a rehearsal of a choral group at the school of music in which Joan was the accompanist, she returned to the house at once because missing a rehearsal was so unlike Mark.  It was early afternoon.  She found the door to the sitting room locked.  She knocked.  There was no answer. 

          She called to him, “Mark, Mark, are you there?”  No answer.  She became frantic.  She shouted Mark, Mark!  Still no answer.  Desperate, she ran outside the house, broke the half window of the basement room and crawled through the window.  There Mark was, lying on his side turned away from her on a couch as if asleep.  She shook him, “Mark!, Mark!  She pulled him toward her and then administered CPR.  He did not respond.  He did not move.  In horror Joan realized that Mark was dead. 

          Mother found Joanie on the front lawn crying hysterically.  She managed to say to Mother, “Mark is dead!  Mark is dead!” 

            Mark died between noon and 2:00 P.M. on Tuesday, March 27, l962.  On the turntable was the Passacaglia of Anton Webern, an Austrian composer in which he had developed a passionate interest.    

REACTIONS TO THE DEATH OF MARK



I recently met a college roommate of my wife.  We spent a delightful two days with her and her husband in Ashland, Oregon, the city of Shakespeare.  They adopted two children, one a boy of eight, the age I was when adopted with my three siblings from a county children’s home in southern Ohio.  Their son died at age 29 of lymphoma, leaving a wife and child. When my wife asked how her college friend was coping with his death ten years later, she said, “It seems like yesterday and it seems like forever.”  If anyone still doubts the depth of love in adoptive relationships, I share my adoptive family’s reaction to the death of my brother Mark in this sequel to Children of the Manse. 

                    FATHER’S REACTION TO MARK’S DEATH

I have to admit I resented Dad’s parading his own grief, which no doubt was genuine, while Mom and I and Janey and Michael mourned Mark in silence.  Even when faced with death Dad could not resist working to be the center of everyone’s attention.  He rose to Shakespearean heights in the eternal curse he pronounced on Tuesday, the week day of Mark’s death.  He planned Mark’s funeral without consulting Mark’s brothers and sister.  At that point I wasn’t sure I wanted Mark to be cremated. It seemed too sudden, too much of a shock to reduce him to a box of ashes so quickly.  It was done before we could ask for a few days delay.  
Two weeks after Mark’s death Dad was well into a sermon when his mind went blank.  He stood silently in the pulpit while the congregation waited, wondering.  After a few minutes he said, “I don’t feel well.  Let’s sing the final hymn.”  Mother noticed that the next day he walked with a stiff arm and dragged his right leg.  He had had his first stroke.      

                                        MOTHER’S REACTION

Mother grieved in silence as we did, trying to console Mark’s wife, Joan, and being helpful to all.   Shortly after the funeral she and Dad went with another couple to a restaurant near the University of Michigan campus.  Students near Mark’s age at the other tables were laughing and having a good time as students normally do.  Atypically and irrationally, Mother said out of their hearing, “How can you be so insensitive, so inconsiderate?  Don’t you know that my son Mark has just died?”  A few weeks later Joan found Mom at her desk staring blankly into space.   She asked, “Where am I?  What am I doing here?”    She was suffering transient global amnesia, a reaction to the shock of Mark’s death.             



                                        JANEY’S REACTION

“After Gus (her husband) walked into our bedroom and told me Mark was dead, I went into denial.  All the way back on the flight from Missouri to Ann Arbor I looked out at the clouds, crying and asking, “Mark, where are you?  Where are you?” I was not yet able to accept that what Gus had told me was true.  When the plane landed at Willow Run I saw the four of you waiting together, Mom, Dad, Michael, and you, and then I knew it was true.  Mark was dead.” 
“After Mark died I cried every night for over a year.  It was physical.  I felt my heart had been ripped out.  I dreamed of Mark every night. I could not let him go.  I hated God.  Then God disappeared.  I could no longer believe in the God I had grown up with.  I feared others close to me would die.  When would the next blow come?” I asked.  I became determined never to love anyone so much again.  Gus tired of my crying.   Mark’s death put pressure on our marriage and contributed to the divorce two years later.”     
I remarried eventually, this time a man I was not in love with but who was economically secure.  He was a brilliant young lawyer, the son of a federal judge.  I made it clear I did not love him before we married but he wanted to marry me anyway.   
A few years after Mark’s death Julie (her daughter) and I moved into the basement apartment where Joanie and Mark had lived.  Julie was three years old.  One morning she told me a man had come into the apartment the night before.  He had, she said, sat there, pointing to a cedar chest near the entrance to the apartment.  I asked her to describe the man.  She described Mark.   She had never seen Mark alive.   

                                        MICHAEL’S REACTION
Michael was in army intelligence, stationed in Burlington, Vermont, when Mark died.    
“When Mother called me to say that Mark had died I went immediately into shock.  I was overwhelmed.  My reaction was raw and physical.  I did not sleep at all that first night.  I was simply unable to digest what Mother had told me, that Mark was dead.”  
“I immediately applied for and was granted 10 days of emergency leave.  I remember the day I flew out of Burlington was the first warm day of spring. The sun was bright, which annoyed me.  I more or less got through the next few days by rote.  I don’t remember much from that period.”
When Michael returned to Burlington he coped with his grief through extreme physical activity.
“I did calisthenics at every opportunity during the day and long runs of up to 10 miles at night.  I had developed a bad smoking habit and became determined to quit.  I focused intently on my work, which involved a lot of driving alone around upper New England.”.
“I began taking risks and I did not hold back.   I began looking for a motorcycle, the biggest and most powerful I could afford.  I had never been on a motorcycle before.  When I finally found the right one, the man who sold it to me said, “I don’t know that I want to be responsible for selling you this motorcycle.”  I rode thousands of miles at high speeds over many hours without a helmet, eating up the time to forget. 
“I met and spent time with the Tuppen family that had recently come down from Canada.  The father, Jack, liked to walk through the house reciting Shakespeare.  Through the Tuppens I met Ivonne, a British nurse, and began dating her.  We rode my motorcycle together.  She had also lost a brother, in her case to a motorcycle accident, and that gave us an additional bond.  It was crazy. The worst was there was nothing I could do to bring Mark back.  I could do nothing to change the fact of Mark’s death. I felt utterly helpless.” 
The undiagnosed panic attacks Michael had suffered from childhood became more severe.  When they came Ivonne, a nurse, rushed him off to the emergency unit in the local hospital, thinking he was suffering a heart attack.  Michael rarely drank alcohol before Mark’s death.  He did not frequent bars with army buddies.  But he found that alcohol eased the panic attacks and his grief and he began drinking.   

                             
                                        LEWIS’ REACTION

Mother’s phone call announcing Mark’s death was so shocking I remember well the details today.  I will never forget her words:

"I hate to do this to you, Lewis, but your brother Mark is dead."

From deep within me I cried out loud, “No!  No, Mother!” My mind whirled out of control.  I was disoriented. I could hardly speak.

          After Mother’s call I began the six hour drive around Chicago to Gary, Indiana and on through Kalamazoo and Battle Creek to Ann Arbor.  It was a cold clear night. I drove, often in tears, feeling that something had been physically torn right out of my heart.  What I remember most during that long ride besides crying wildly was looking up at the starry sky and shouting, “Mark!  Mark!  Where are you?!!!  Where are you?!!! Where have you gone?”   
          I thought of nothing but Mark on that long drive.  I reviewed many scenes in our lives together as I drove through the moonlit night.  The challenges we had overcome. I found I could bring his presence back in my mind but I could not, as I wanted, fix the images of him to gaze upon.   I tried to remember every detail of the time I had last seen him so I could carry that memory within me forever.  He was sitting in the kitchen of the apartment he had built.  He was sitting with his back to the wall in a chair at the kitchen table.  He was drinking coffee.  He wore a red Pendleton plaid shirt unbuttoned over a white T-shirt.  
          The memories flow backed as I drove on and other images flashed before me.  Of Mark in our Los Alamos green and gold high school football uniforms.  Of his wedding pictures with Joan.  
The other memory that does not fade at all after so many years is returning to our home in Ann Arbor after a long walk alone.  I could hear his wife in the basement, mourning.  She was moaning and only stopped to cry, "Oh, Mark, Oh, Mark, Oh, Mark."  Her words shattered me.  It was the saddest voice I had ever heard.  I will never forget the crying of his young widow.  Later Joan said to Janey, “I so wanted to have his child! Oh, why couldn’t I have had his child!”                    
          For months I shut out the world. I seemed to be abandoned again as I was as a five-year-old abandoned to an orphanage.  But this time my abandoner was God.  I was angry with God.  I felt God had betrayed me.    
The day after the funeral the March weather in Ann Arbor warmed a little and spring began to appear.  Easter was still a week or so away.   I heard birds, including some early arriving migrants singing their morning chorus.  They were the signs of continuing life that I heard but rejected.  I was with my brother in death. I could not understand how everything went on as usual, just as if nothing had happened.  Self-indulgently I wanted to cry out, “Don’t you realize that everything has changed, that nothing can be the same again?  Mark is dead!”   Why didn’t the world end?  How could they smile?  Who is next?  Who else will I lose?  When?  Tomorrow?  Next month?  Next year? 
Death was not a matter of being adopted by new parents or of surviving serious illnesses. I could not do anything about death.  Death was the universe’s big NO to whatever hopes and dreams I had. No cry of our hearts, no moaning of our souls, no amount of effort or willing or praying or pleading can change the fact of death.    
At first I tried to believe that I could continue with my cheaply purchased faith in God.  But when I admitted that that faith would no longer do, I faced years of painful soul-searching reflection.  I went into my inner desert alone and for a long time to re-think my life before the wound began to heal and any relationship to God began to be possible, and when years later it was, it was not at all as before.  I no longer was an innocent believing I had any right to be protected from the worst in life.