October 9: What Must Happen

I’d called a funeral parlor (one near our home) in my “fug [yes, it’s a word] of grief,” the night before. Even as we spoke, I knew we would not need their services. The gentleman showed no humanity, no sense of humor when I said, half-jokingly, that we wanted to take Mark’s ashes and split them up into portions we could carry around in our purses. I can’t do business with someone like that.

The funeral home in Salem, near us, was – as it turned out – a necessity. They would “process the body for transportation,” which meant more things we had to decide when we could least function: cremation or burial (we chose the former…Mark would not have wanted to take up space in the ground), what kind of urn, what did we want to say on the urn.  We all knew the right one – simple, beautiful smooth wood. We were all appalled that you have to pay hundreds of dollars for a plywood box that takes the body from the parlor to the crematory. We could afford it, but what about someone else?

Sarah, Steve and Mary made the difficult decision to see Mark. We were ushered to a quiet parlor, far away from the lobby, and there he was, with freshly washed hair (how did they know how he liked it styled?), wrapped snugly in a quilt. He was still banged up but no longer bloody.

So still.

Wake up, Mark. Oh please wake up. Lift those dark, thick eyelashes we all envied. Smile one more time with those marvelous, slightly gapped teeth. Where are the cameras, Andy? Jess? One more video, what a great big laugh, once we get over the awfulness, the over-the-top-ness of this prank.

We asked for scissors so that we could take some hair…his silky hair. He loved his hair. It smelled like him. We took so much he ended up looking a bit shorn, like Aslan the Lion in the Chronicles of Narnia, as he lay upon the great stone table.

We cried. And cried. And talked.  And prayed.  And then we left.  And then I went back.  One more smell. One more touch. One more prayer. I could have sat there, with him, for a very long time. I wish I had.

Virginia Tech is, unfortunately, no stranger to tragedy. This has left the administration inordinately sensitive and responsive to situations such as ours. Somehow a hotel room was found for us, on the day of a home football game, when rooms are booked years in advance. Pizzas were ordered for and delivered to Mark’s roommates and friends. We met with the Dean of Students who made it clear: there was nothing we could not ask for. And their concern extended, uncategorically, to every single student affected by Mark’s death.

His roommates, his friends…the great stories, the great laughs they shared, the common love of Mark in all his quirky glory. How he loved to eat and critique the dish, while smacking his lips a certain way; how he loved to game; how smart, how kind, how easy to love and how easily loving he was in return. How he was the brother she never had; the friend who understood her best; the roommate to endlessly argue with over Fantasy Football, soccer teams and whose turn it was to buy the groceries.

As the sky darkened and thunder rumbled closer, we all went out to the corner where it all happened. A Ghost Bike Memorial was being erected there for our Mark, and as the rain came down and lightning flashed, and a stranger told us how he almost died several times on his bike, and how he felt compelled to do this for our son, we were forced to yield to heaven’s dictates and went inside to escape the storm.


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