May 2018 was the month of corner-turning, the month of next steps.
Sarah graduated with her master’s degree in teaching in the first week of May, and once we managed to take a breath from all the celebrating associated with this significant accomplishment (and: she has already secured a job for this fall! YESSS!), we proceeded down to Mark’s university for what would have (ostensibly) been his graduation weekend as well (his friends were hilariously blunt: “Mama Slough, he probably wouldn’t have made it in 4 years. Almost no one does in aerospace.” Fine. I’m calling it THIS weekend.)
We were there to dedicate a memorial in his name, a bronze plaque affixed to a bench just outside one of the engineering buildings; and, if we had the emotional wherewithal, to also attend the commencement ceremonies – the entire class ceremony and the aerospace engineering one, which were on separate days. Steve and Sarah weren’t sure, but I knew I wanted at least one of us there at each, in Mark’s stead. It just seemed fitting, like the closing of a loop; I felt so strongly that I wanted to somehow finish what he had started, and what we had started with him.
Getting there was a long and difficult haul. And I learned so much.
Mark’s best friends at VT could not decide, in the aftermath, in their shock, what to do (they’d been given carte blanche by the university, to create a memorial). Us, either. But at some point in 2017, I thought of a bench – one that would invite students to sit, to ponder how precious time is.
I wrote his friends. “Yes?”
Who knew it would take months, and $2500, and wading through committee approvals? (All the while, the clock was ticking toward his class’s graduation date). At what point do you give up and at what point do you forge ahead? But for every bump in the road, there was a gift.
One of his lifetime friends – one of a set of twins born the same day, who had never NOT been in school with Mark, since preschool: she arranged a GoFundMe Page so that she and her peers (and many others, in the end) could donate to the memorial. Twice as much money as was needed was raised in a matter of days.
The committee approval came through in late February. I was determined that the memorial be dedicated on April 21. I thought my reasoning sound: I wanted it established well before his peers would graduate and leave campus in early May. But due to a miscommunication with the plaque maker, April 21 did not happen. We were “stuck” with May 10 – the day before his class graduation. I was VERY frustrated, even as I realized 4/21 would have been terrible (because I would not have been remotely prepared due to tax season). I tried to just let things go. This “letting God lead” stuff is hard.
Then the bench was stolen. Mark’s buddy Megan had picked out a bench near their dorm, in a spot she loved, and it was just gone – ripped out of the ground. So the Dean of Students walked all over campus until he found a bench just outside Randolph Hall, where all freshman engineering students must attend their “Intro to Engineering” class. The bench sits in the dappled shade, facing the entrance to the hall. It could not be a better location.
I had a few possible pastors in mind to lead the dedication, but just somehow I knew it would be Bryan, had to be Bryan – who knew Mark, who had come to be with us at the hospital on the day Mark died. I checked, just to see if maybe another pastor was “supposed” to co-lead…? Nope.
Bryan sent me his draft sermon and we collaborated on his message – a combination of physics and faith (we geeked out). Being an overanxious, controlling person, I tried too hard to make it more like something I would have said; in the end, I was so grateful – watching the video in the quiet of Mary’s guest room the next day – that Bryan did exactly what he thought was right. His heart is good; His connection to God is good. People were touched. Stop, Emily. Stop trying to manage everything, especially in fear. God’s got this.
All the elements just came together. Even the weather, which was terrible (humid, thunderstorms, gnats and mosquitos swarming) and sent us inside, actually delivered a ceremony that was more peaceful and uninterrupted than it would have been outside. Mark’s VT choir, and its marvelous Director, came and sang two beautiful hymns. Lots of people were there – so many parents in town for their kids’ graduations (oh, right!). Bryan’s homily was perfect. I’d reached out to 3 local friends – one a woman I barely knew, but who was a Little Sister to the same fraternity at my university and she’d reached out to me after Mark’s death – to bring pies, and they brought a wonderful selection for folks to enjoy (Mark LOVED pie). The part of the service that had me most nervous – giving people an opportunity to speak, to share a memory (what if no one says ANYTHING?!) – was simply lovely. My mom got things going and it just flowed from there – laughter and tears. Wonderful NEW stories about our incomparable, quirky Mark.
It was…perfect. Thank you, God. I’m sorry I kept trying to do things my way….
The next day Steve and I did attend the larger class graduation in Lane Stadium. We saw one of Mark’s roommate’s parents and my sadness over what we had lost — the chance to get to know each other as our boys moved through VT – swept over me. Collateral losses will be catching us by surprise for many years, I suppose.
Steve, Sarah & my parents headed for home that afternoon, and after a good night with Mary, I went to the aerospace engineering graduation the next morning. I was doing okay, actually chuckling as I drove the 45 minutes to the university, over the picture Sarah had texted to us the night before. It’s a poster she spotted in a Staples (office supply) store when she got home and was running errands. God and Mark, just giggling themselves silly.
As I left the AOE graduation (hot, long, anticlimactic, but I did it), skirting happy families taking photos with their beaming graduates (and yes, I did stop and offer to take a photo of one group so everyone could be in the picture, because my momma raised me to be polite), I refocused on something I had noted as I hurried from my parking space earlier: I’d parked in almost exactly the same spot as we did the August we dropped Mark at VT as a freshman. My favorite photo on my phone, Mark and Steve that day, as we prepared for good-bye, with their backs to Lane Stadium, helped me confirm that yes, we’d stood 20-30 feet away from the car to take the photo.
Loops and circles of completion.
Are you happy, Mark, that we did all this? Did it matter to you, or just to me, that I made sure a Slough was present?
I slowed down, swiveling around to gauge the relative positions of lamp posts and trees in the background of the photo. Yes. Here, or almost right here. And, of course, there was a quarter, lying on the ground. At this point all I can do is shake my head.
I headed for home, filled to the brim with emotion, trying to see the highway and having to resort to napkins from Subway when the tissues ran out. I was so emotional I failed to go back to the bench one more time. The good news: it’s there, always. We will be back.