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.    

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