Some stories are more impossible than others.
Take the story of my friend Mark. I’ve been trying to write something about him for nearly three weeks.
Ever since I received the quiet phone call from my friend Phillip regarding Mark’s death, I’ve sat at my desk at varied hours in different arrangements to do just this one thing. To this end, you would find me here in the morning staring at the French gray walls of my office, and again, in the afternoon, holding my $5 fountain pen over my $2 notebook. Late at night I remain rooted here— hunched forward, scowling at the screen while a 70 lb. three-legged dog attempts—in a show of loyalty—to co-occupy my office chair as I write.
Or not write, as has been the case, about Mark and Mark’s life. My stalled fingers hover and tremble at the keys not because of the dog in my chair and not because I’m constantly losing my $5 pen in my cluttered office, and not because I don’t know what to say—because goodness knows I have yet to run out of things to say about everything and everyone, even if it takes me all night or a whole year or a flaming hot deadline to figure out what to say and how to say it.
What has halted me again and again are the facts and the figures. There is so much of Mark to know, and so many shared experiences with Mark to consider, the tenure of our two-year friendship creaks and wobbles under the weight of all the abundance that is Mark himself.
If you wanted to find the shape and substance of a man like Mark, you could measure him by his heavy shelves of wonderful books or the many gorgeous frames of film he shot in his storied travels. You could, if you liked, measure him in cultivated silences—because he was a man who considered your question with judicious care before offering an answer.
You could easily measure Mark by his stories, which were legion and inclusive, or by the sweet banter he shared with the love of his life, Dawn.
Many of you will study the length and breadth of the man based on the size and shape of his strong friendships, or maybe just one friendship, the one he had with you. I know I will measure him by the conversations we did not yet have, the notes for which I’d ferreted away for a sunnier day when Mark was feeling well enough to talk, and I will also measure him through the books he introduced to me and I, to him.
But this is where I leave off the checks and balances and the counterweights because what has occupied the center of my sadness at the loss of Mark is the Mark-shaped hole in my heart, and that absence cannot be measured or weighed or explained with ease.
A person’s life is not a playbook, you see, or a morality tale or a pithy epigram; a man like Mark is not solely the sum of his stories, his books and his papers, nor is he a proof to be deduced solely by his devotedness to his family, his spouse and his friends.
Mark was Mark, and he is Mark still. I would give every book in my library to hear the sweet scratchiness of his voice again; to listen to him tease Dawn and Dan and his parents in his funny, gracious way. But no one’s offering me an exchange rate on my books for the width and breadth of this dear man’s life.
Instead, I’m left to my office in a crooked little suburb in a cranky old city, standing upright but leaning against my desk. I am paying close attention to the rain that burbles against the panes of my dusty aluminum-framed windows, and the darkness outside seems unceasing at this time of night. Still, the dog with three legs slumbers on the floor, running the length of the room in his dreams. Still, this house sleeps on and on.
All the while, one part of my mind continues to cross and re-cross a single moment in another November, when I walked into a local diner ten minutes late to meet Dawn and Mark and Dan and Mr. and Mrs. A— for the first time.
Here. Look.—The noonday sun holds up the sky. I open the chrome and glass doors of the diner and clatter inside, searching for faces I’ve only seen in pictures.
The cashier, seeing my confusion, steps from behind the counter to lead me around a wall of sturdy glass blocks. The first person I see is a bespectacled and smiling man rising from his seat to greet me, followed in no short measure by his brother and his father, while his spouse and his mother look up and offer me two equally lovely grins.
Oh, Mark, I am so very nearly embarrassed to tell you how much I’d be willing to give up just to have this one moment, with you, again. But no alchemy of mere words will bring you back from the places you had yet to go. And there is no way to measure and shape the entirety of you into a single, small story. Trust me, Mark, I’ve tried. You know that I’ve tried.
If a man’s life is a river, your life is—and was—a place where even the rivers have rivers of their own.
I believe your rivers have reached their headwaters now. Godspeed, Mark.