On August 24th, 1997 one of my oldest and dearest friends was killed in a motorcycle accident in the hills overlooking the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco. I had known Mark for 20 years; we had gone to both high-school and college together, and had once been in business together shortly after I moved to California. I had experienced other losses, of acquaintances and grandparents, but never someone both so emotionally close and so far from the end of their expected allotment of life. It was the first time death had touched me quite so closely and quite so abruptly.
In addition to claiming my friend, Mark’s death made me feel suddenly mortal at a time when I was just beginning to appreciate the immensity of my responsibilities as a newly-minted father. And the notice of his death in the newspaper, a single paragraph so terse and impersonal, was made to seem even more inadequate, even more indifferent, by the pages and hours devoted worldwide to reporting the death and life of Princess Diana a week later. Granted, I am biased in my evaluation but, given the career he devoted to creating useful things from the ephemeral stuff of human inspiration, I can’t help but feel his life was more worthy of celebration, and his death a more profound loss, than hers.
I have included this piece here to remember Mark, to tell the entire world and not just those of us that knew him that it is poorer because he is no longer here.
27 August 1997
Mark Wu: 15 December 1962 – 24 August 1997
Most of us, as we grow older, as we form new friendships, as we take on new responsibilities — as we become more and more the adults that once seemed so foreign to our younger, cockier selves — most of us lose pieces of our past. Some pieces we let go willingly because they no longer interest us. Some pieces we put on a shelf when there are other things to do, always intending to pick them up and brush them off just as soon as we can, but never doing so. Some pieces merely disappear when we are not looking, leaving only a mystery. Some are taken from us in full view while we watch in horror, unable to hold them, unable to understand why.
If we are lucky and diligent we can maintain the pieces that matter so they don’t gather dust, don’t slip quietly away. Perhaps other things will take on more immediate importance; perhaps we will get to the older things less often than we’d like; perhaps their very constancy will allow us to take them for granted. But if we are lucky and diligent, they will be there when we want them, when we need them.
That’s how it was with Mark and me. At one time we were inseparable; most of my memories of high-school and college feature Mark in some role. Our recent history, though, was one of e-mail messages and quick lunches, and months of silence in between. Yet, when we did get together, I still felt the same sublime friendship that I remember from 20 years ago.
It may seem strange to many people, people who came to know him later after he’d left that particular milieu behind, but I met Mark in the theater. The play was called East, a “performance of poetry in action”; Mark did sound-effects, I did lighting. It was, perhaps, the worst production ever to grace a stage. The director and author was a moody tyrant who deemed the technical details — including the technical crew — beneath her notice except to assure us that we had failed to achieve whatever contradictory visions had moved her at the moment. It should have been a dreary and frustrating project, but that wasn’t Mark’s way. Everything was an experience. Everything was an opportunity. What the director saw as inadequate Mark saw as a chance to improve. What the director saw as chaos Mark saw as a work in progress. And, though the show was a disaster, in the sound and the lights we created our first work of art, fledgling and flawed, but worth the time and effort because the next one would be better.
In such cauldrons are friendships forged and annealed.
Unlike myself, Mark long ago moved on from theater to other things. Where for me it was a passion, for him it was — a phase. He was always on a quest for new experiences, new adventures, never afraid to let go of the old to make way for the new. Yet he never let go of our friendship. For twenty years that friendship endured. For twenty years we were there with each other, there for each other. We attended each others’ family Thanksgiving celebrations. We stood up for each other at our respective weddings. We hiked on Mount Washington, dove in Monterey Bay. We played guitar together, were in a rock-and-roll band together. We went, briefly, into business together. We saw each other through our first loves, and our first heartbreaks. He taught me that slow and methodical work avoids traps and pitfalls; I taught him that rash and intuitive leaps invite insight.
From the first, from that chance encounter through high-school and through college and until we went our separate ways into the world, we had more than a friendship. We had at times a partnership, at times a symbiosis, at times a gestalt. Mark was a more adventurous, more polished, more disciplined version of myself. And I was a more introspective, more free-wheeling, more relaxed version of Mark. We used each other as mirrors, showing us glimpses of what we might be alone, what we were together.
That, of course, is an untruth. We did not complete each other — we didn’t need to. But that is how it often felt to be Mark’s friend during those personal revolutions that underlie high-school and college and the perilous transition to adulthood. And that is how it sometimes felt still, in moments of uncertainty or fear, in times of transition and chaos.
And now this particular piece of my past, this piece that I’ve so carefully tended and too rarely used, has been lost in an instant. It feels like I’ve lost a brother. It feels like I’ve lost a piece of myself. And I have. Like a phantom limb I can still feel it there, can still feel him there where all I see is a hole in my life.
So be it. For as long as I can feel him, I will preserve that hole even as I heal the wound around it, will keep that space reserved as a place of honor and a sanctuary for the spirit of my lost friend Mark who reminds me to embrace all the adventures life can provide.
© Copyright 1997, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell