Way back when I was still in high school, I would occasionally drive up with my buddy Stosh to hang out with my brother, Randy, at college. On one of those visits, I met a person that I will never forget as long as I live. We became best friends, then we became estranged friends…and last Wednesday, I was at his bedside as he drew his last breath.
Mark was physically disabled from birth, born without full use of his arms. But thanks to several operations, he was able to lead a somewhat normal life. He could drive, he could drink a beer, and he had one of the most unique personalities of anyone I’d ever met. Plus he had his own radio show at Lewis University’s student radio station, so he immediately became a hero of mine.
Mark was probably born fifty years too late, because he loved old things, and collected many old items, from records to phonographs to a huge life-long collection of 16 millimeter films. He specialized in Three Stooges films, but also had Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and several old TV shows, as well as a few feature films. For years, some of my favorite memories have been drinking beer and watching old movies in Mark’s basement. He would always let me pick out a few favorites, and even though he had seen each one dozens of times, he was usually laughing at them more than anyone.
To say that Mark and I were close friends is an understatement. His parents became a second set of parents to me, and even threw a party for me when I graduated from college. They also drove over three hours to attend my wedding…after all, Mark was one of my groomsmen. I truly felt like a family member whenever I was at their house, and cried when each of them died.
Mark also had a very keen sense of humor, mostly derived from watching the greatest comics of all time. When he was “on”, no one could make me laugh more. For years, he and I would trade lines from old TV shows or movies, and each of use would immediately shoot out the punchline of any gag the other would start.
Because of his handicap, Mark didn’t always feel safe, but would go just about anywhere with me because, as he put it, “nobody’s gonna mess with me when YOU’RE around.” We hit a lot of saloons together, and he took me to taverns in Joliet that I would never be able to find again. We would be driving through some dark neighborhood in the middle of the night, and all of a sudden I would see a neon tavern light, and Mark would take me into some little corner bar where a few old men were at the bar having a 7 ounce draft…and they all knew him by name. We drank at VFWs, Moose Lodges, and the infamous Slovenian Home, where we would listen to a live polka band every Saturday night.
I would often bring Mark home with me when I would spend the weekend in my little hometown, and Mark adopted it as his own. He loved our little town, and always called it “Mayberry”. So one day, after his parents were gone, he called me and said “I wanna move to Minonk.” This was a big change for Mark, but he was insistent. It took my friends and I a year, but we got the job done. We found him a great house, and it soon closely resembled his former home in Joliet.
My good friend, Scott, who had been helping take care of him for the past couple of years called me last Wednesday morning about 10:15 and said that he was at the hospital, and that Mark’s condition was grave. I drove over to the hospital immediately. Scott and I were joined in Mark’s intensive care room by a nurse and a minister, who offered great comfort. Mark couldn’t talk because of the oxygen mask on his face, but his eyes were open, and I’m sure he knew we were there. We stood and watched him for about ten minutes, as a slide show of memories flashed through my mind. Finally, my concentration was broken by the nurse’s words: “time of death, 11:17 a.m.”
I won’t go into details about the disease that killed him, nor will I go into details about our estrangement…mainly because I’m not sure exactly what caused it.
All I can say is that Mark was a truly unique friend that I will miss terribly. I hope he is with his parents, I hope they give him a body in the afterlife that fully works, and most of all, I hope he is at peace.
There are hundreds of clips that I could attach that would remind me of Mark, but I chose this one. We both loved this one, and we used the line at the end several times when we were on the phone with each other.