Ever since, each member of my family has searched for ways to cope with their loss, to accept that Mark is gone. We’re trying to understand what drove him to the most desperate measure a human being can take, and to somehow learn to deal with all the "would haves, should haves, and could haves" that have wracked us since that day.
When I thought about how I wanted to express my feelings, or if I even should, a hundred ideas occurred to me. Most of them focused on my own pain and confusion. Local newscasts simultaneously headlined the slaying of Phoenix Police Officer Mark Atkinson. The outpouring of people and support for that man and his family made me realize how many people were part of my brother’s life. So I wanted to offer some (and perhaps get) help in dealing with the aftermath of suicide.
No one of us suffers more than another. The gamut of emotions I've witnessed and felt since the day Mark died has convinced me that we each deal with tragedy in our own way, in our own time, ranging from stoic suppression and redirection to open rage and despair. Regardless of the manner of expression, the core emotions are anger, regret, and reflection.
Our questions remain unanswered. Ungranted are our wishes to wake up and find that this has all just been one horrific nightmare. Our need to have Mark back is denied.
Mark left no will, no letter of explanation, and no goodbye notes. His debts were considerable, and there was little in the way of finances to cover them. So there was work to be done, and none but his immediate family members to do it. The sole insurance settlement has been paid out, and the affairs of his passing have concluded. Only the memories remain now - some good, some bad - but all tormenting. I'm angry at him for leaving me, and denying me all the experiences he always promised me we'd share - all the things we would do together, all the memories we would create - as brothers, and friends.
I don't pretend to understand what Mark's state of mind was in those last desperate moments before he left us. I can understand his pain, because he'd been suffering through it for almost two years - sometimes coping, other times succumbing to a dark and lonely experience I only have a glimpse of. A lot of people feel they have failed or been failed by parents, family, and friends. The spectre of failure weighs too heavily upon them and they feel that suicide is the only available escape. The same is true of a perfectionist, someone who has imposed unrealistic expectations upon themselves, or had them imposed by others. These were my brother’s demons. For 41 years, his level of commitment to everyone around him so far exceeded his ability to meet it that he couldn't help but fail. Mark couldn't accept failure from anyone, particularly himself. His "can do" philosophy was fatal.
To have known Mark was to know a man who literally and physically embodied the "strong, silent type." He was, without question, the most natural-born leader I've ever known. People followed him because they believed in him, trusted him, and knew he'd never quit or let them down. When Mark spoke, it was because he had something genuine to say, and something that meant a tremendous amount to him.
Not even the black-hearted "St. Lawrence Luck," could get Mark riled for very long - not even just before the 1998 Kentucky Derby, when the jockey of the horse he'd bet rather heavily on fell off the nag coming out of the gate. He was able to laugh about it later ... though not to the degree everyone else did.
He had faults, of course. No one - least of all me - will say he was perfect. His ambition could blind him to its effects, at times. And he absolutely refused to accept any situation in which he might appear weak, not in control, or outmanuevered. He couldn't accept his faults, and resented anyone who pointed them out. In short, he had much more in common with people for whom he had little patience or understanding than he would ever admit. He was often harsh when he lost his temper, but even more often aloof. I've never known anyone who kept things "inside" more than he. And I think now, in retrospect, that was one of his most vicious and torturous demons.
I was never as close a friend to my brother as I'd wanted to be. Knowing that he felt he couldn't call me in his most desperate hour of need has left me cold inside, and wondering what I might have done to better earn his trust and confidence. He kept his friends far closer to him than he ever did with me.
All I can do is go on, find the happiness I know he wanted for me, and try to be the kind of man I knew him to be. I’ll forget his flaws, and forgive his failings, because he couldn't forgive them in himself. I’m opening closed doors, and trying to rebuild bridges I've burned. I have to forge a legacy of my own that Mark can be proud of. I must be a good man, so that part of my brother will live on in me.
Mark and I shared two bonds in our lives. The first was George Carlin - the last of the truly great philosophers of our time. I can't count the number of times Mark and I literally made plans to just sit and watch one (or several) of Carlin's concert videos, and I don't have enough fingers to count the number of times we went to see The Master perform live, usually in Las Vegas. Mark seldom laughed out loud. His broad grin or sly smirk were usually about the best anyone could get out of him. But Carlin could make Mark roar until he had tears in his eyes.
That's how I try to remember Mark; not because it was so like him, but so refreshingly unlike him.
The other, more deeply rooted bond was baseball, and the Boston Red Sox in particular. We share the same hero - The Great Number 8, Carl Yastrzemski, who led the Boston Red Sox through 22 years of amazing ups and downs, and was the absolute heart of the 1967 Pennant Miracle Cardiac Kids. Now, the Cardiac Kids have finally won that most coveted of titles - 2004 World Series Champions and 2007 World Series Champions - realizing the dream in the single-most dramatic World Series in the history of baseball. To this day, I'm still not sure which was the greater thrill: Winning the World Series, or coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win four in a row and beat the New York Yankees for the American League Pennant - something that had NEVER been done before! I consider it a confirmation from Mark that he's in a better place. But he's not at peace ... in fact, he's partying up a storm!
The memories I have of Mark center around the Red Sox and baseball. There was that one special Saturday afternoon that Mark spent trying to teach me to hit the ball just prior to my first-ever little league game. Then there was the first Red Sox game he and I ever went to together at Fenway Park in the Spring of 1975. Yaz went 2-for-3 that day and I chowed down three Fenway Franks. They won 8-3 against the Tigers, and Mark bought me my first Red Sox wall pennant. I still have it.
Next was the Red Sox/California Angels game in Anaheim (we drove from Phoenix) at which we watched the most obscene display of bad fan behavior ever recorded when Angels fans threw their complimentary seat cushions out onto the field by the thousands in protest of a completely accurate call at second base. And yes, I still have my cushion.
Then, there were three games at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix to watch the Diamondbacks. Even though the National League D-Backs didn't play "real" baseball (no designated hitter, pitchers actually get at-bats), Mark was thrilled to have professional baseball in Phoenix, after 14 years of living here and having to go without. Now, every time I'm there at Bank One Ballpark, I'm saddened with the fleeting memories I have of times Mark and I spent there together. At some point, the D-Backs are supposed to join the American League, and I'll be there every time the Red Sox come to town - not just because I want to, but because I know my brother will be there.
Everything I know and love about the Great American Passtime, I learned from Mark, whose passion and respect for the game knew no bounds, and would brook no severance of loyalty. He was scouted by the Cincinnati Reds while he was still in high school. He was that good. He was also too much of a partier to realize the brass ring being presented to him. That mistake haunted him for his entire life, and reinforces my hope that somewhere, in some other life, Mark took that ring and went on the be the best to ever play the game. Cliche, yes. But comforting. Very, very comforting.
Mark drove with me from Massachusetts to Arizona in 1995. We planned to stop at both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the "Field of Dreams" in Iowa City (from the movie). We made it to the Hall of Fame. But in Iowa, Mark drove past the exit, and said, "We'll see it next time."
The next time?!? It took 32 years to get there the first time, and the odds of us both going together again were slim at best. I know Mark's intentions were genuine, but I had to face then, as now, the fact that it would never happen in our lifetimes. That road trip is one of the best-worst memories I carry of Mark. It haunts me, and makes me laugh ... just one of the moments I would revisit if I could turn back time.
My brother is dead and I can't remember the last time that I told him I love him. It will haunt me forever that I'll never be able to do so again. So I beg your forgiveness and indulgence here in my last, best chance to say goodbye.
Goodbye Mark, and Godspeed. I love you, and I'll see you in Iowa.