I don’t live with many regrets. But yesterday when I read my mother’s email announcing *Mark’s death, something crawled up the back of my throat, and I can’t spit it out.
I hadn’t spoken to Mark in twenty years. Googling his obituary, I read comments by congregants from all three churches where he pastored since he left mine in small-town Virginia, when I was 14.
The voice of the ole’ time religion I’ve since deserted rattles in my ears: “May the blessed Lord watch over you as Mark travels to be with his Maker.”
He’s gone. Again. And all I’m left with are empty, online comment spaces I’m afraid to fill. He was a shaggy-haired, liberal, academic, southern Baptist preacher who wore jeans and cheap suits, unafraid to talk about feelings. How much had he changed over time? Which story should I tell his family, his church?
My words are stuck inside.
Mark served as my church’s youth group leader and Sunday school teacher, as well as pastor when I joined at nine years old. Driving me home after youth group a few years later, he said, “So, I guess things must get tough sometimes between you and your dad.”
I gulped the air around this understatement that no one dared breathe. My father, a church deacon, had spent the free-love 60s buried in academia and rarely glanced up since, except to wag stiff fingers at wiggly children. Local newspapers often interviewed him about his previous work as a Republican White House staffer. But with Mark’s single utterance, the silent balloon of my perfect family popped, and I took a tiny step toward freedom.
Mark challenged me—the rule-following people pleaser—to be daring. He was the assistant rec-league basketball coach and got me to play. When I scored a basket for the wrong side, I searched for his eyes instead of my father’s, the head coach.
Mark grinned. “It’s better to make a basket for the wrong team than not to shoot at all.”
He took our Youth Group to amusement parks and buckled me into the front car of loop-de-loop roller coasters, giddy like an older brother, insisting I hold my arms up high.
He taught me any faith worth having was worth questioning. He looked us all straight in the eye.
During one infamous youth retreat, Mark explained sex “is a good thing to be enjoyed, not the evil most adults will tell you it is.” The news squirmed underneath my skin against my father’s implicit denial of my pubescence.
The Cold War neared a new height in 1983 and our youth group watched ABC’s “The Day After,” depicting post-apocalyptic fallout. Later, I dreamed of hiding in a nuclear shelter and reluctantly asking Mark not to let me die a virgin.
I awoke with flames shooting through my lungs and cheeks, whipping myself for subconscious longings. Buried underneath hormones and transference was hope for deeper intimacy, a connection with someone who really knew me. Mark was the closest thing I knew to such a bond.
A year later, Mark married and left for graduate school. Afterward, I sulked through a beach vacation.
In college I drowned in a sea of philosophical theories. One by one, the logic of their ethical constructs had lured me, like European cathedrals with God-light pouring in through mosaic stained-glass patterns; yet if I pulled a string, each came unwound like a crocheted doily. I started questioning everything.
My parents—concerned, but emotionally unavailable—drove me to see Mark, hoping he could help navigate my agony. Mark called my questioning and crisis normal, even though it “hurt like hell.”
I turned away from philosophy out of self-preservation. Finally, I abandoned religion, too; I couldn’t commit to one knowable, spiritual belief system.
But Mark performed my church wedding ceremony one year after college. Two years later, he refused to absolve me for leaving that same bad marriage, encouraging more effort.
I’d expected more support from Mark than my father’s retort: “Don’t you think maybe you should wait until after your law school finals?”
After ignoring Mark’s counsel, I never reconnected; nor did he. I didn’t share the news of my remarriage or children’s birth, nor curiosity about his life. Despite my day-to-day fulfillment, I still carried the shame of his disapproval.
I always thought someday I’d get to say, “Can’t you forgive me for shooting at the wrong basket the first time around? The only reason I ever had a chance is because you saw me.”
I can’t post any of this on the condolences wall. Yet, it just doesn’t feel good enough to tell the empty sky or universe: “Thank you. He helped make me so much of who I am.” I’ve realized the importance of saying “thank you” to people while they’re alive. Once they’re gone, it may get stuck in your throat.
*Mark’s real name has been changed.