Monday, June 04, 2007

A Year

A year ago today, I got an email from my friend Dave Hippler asking me to call him-- that our long-time friend Mark Evans, who we always called "Atwood", for the central Illinois town he'd gone to high school in, had been murdered the previous night.

Mark is the one in the middle in the picture, along with me and The Elk. It was the only picture I know of us together.

I wrote about Mark's death last year.

When Mark died last year, we decided to have a party every year right around his birthday to celebrate his life. This Saturday evening, we had the first one of these.

My friend Tim and I took my truck out to Batavia, where Mike, another of our friends, was hosting the party.

I walked into the party and was greeted by a most welcome sight: dozens more of Mark's friends and family.

Mark's brother Carl greeted me warmly. Last Janurary, Carl had been in town for his job, and he met for dinner with some other friends of Mark and I. All of those friends were there Saturday, and many more.

In January, Carl had confided to us that his marriage was struggling-- it had already been before Mark's death. Since our dinner, his marriage had ended. I was glad that he at least had some closure on that.

Last year, when Mark died, one of the things that shocked me was how few photographs I had of a guy who'd been my friend close to a quarter century. I've since resolved to take more pictures of my family and friends.

This is me with Dave Hippler, or "Dave-o" as everybody knows him. He was the person I found out about Mark's death from. Dave lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and is truly one of the nicest guys I've ever known.

From left to right, Mike, who, along with his wife, hosted the event, Darin and his brother Dane. I hadn't seen Dane in over 20 years. Mike was legendary, when Mark, The Elk and I shared a Wrigleyville apartment in the late eighties, for showing up early to our parties and conking out before the party actually started, falling asleep on a futon we had in our front room, and remaining asleep as the party roared around him. The futon was thus dubbed "The Mike Kauchek Memorial Futon."

Also present were my old friend Jim Reilly and his wife Elaine. Jim was my roommate at Eastern Illinois University and after college. It was good catching up with him. I told his wife a story about how I was walking home from passing my Master's Degree oral exams in Political Science one day in July of 1985 when I ran into Jim, who, unbelievably, was walking home from passing his orals for his Master's Degree in History! He had just returned from a trip to Europe that an art instructor at Eastern sponsored every year. After talking briefly about getting our Master's degrees, Jim told me about his trip, and how he had met this really cool woman in England. That was, of course, her. They left it as friends, but they continued to visit back and forth, until they became a couple and married in England.

In 1991, Jim's parents were flying to England for the wedding, and Jim's mother struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to her. Turned out it was Ben Hollis, who was then the host of a local television show called Wild Chicago. Hollis and his crew were going to England to do a show. Hollis was delighted to discover a Chicagoan who was getting married in England, and so covered Jim and Elaine's wedding on the show that year.

A surprise and delight was the presence of Keith, or "Chico" as he was known, who had been unable to make it to the funeral last year. He runs his own business in Arizona, Arizona Dyna Chip. He showed up with his new bride, who got to hear "Chico" tales for the first time, such as the night he accidentally put his hand through a window and sewed up the wound by himself with needle and thread. (That ties into your "men not going to doctors" theory for sure, Cheer34!)

Mark's father, mother and brother are still struggling with his death, along with the rest of us. I think this outpouring of love and rememberance for their son and brother has been very healing for them.

I found out from Mark's best friend Matt that the police don't think they will able to pin a murder charge on the person who killed him. They think that he also murdered two of the other three guys who participated in the robbery, to keep them from incriminating him. A fourth guy was caught-- he had been picked up on a marijuana possession charge shortly after the killing, and, unbelievably, incriminated himself in Mark's killing in trying to get out of a minor marijuana possession charge. He is, obviously, not too smart. Since he had not actually done the shooting, he was able to plead out to a charge of attempted armed robbery, and drew a five year sentence.

Of all of us, I think Matt is struggling the most. This is ironic, because he was such a rock and a dynamo immediately after Mark's death. It was he who organized cleaning out Mark's house, and many other things. I believe that he put his grief off, and is now coping with it.

I somehow missed getting a picture of Dave Schmittgens, who had had to miss the funeral last year, but was of enormous help in assisting me in composing the eulogy I gave for Mark last year. I found out that Dave has a big change planned. He is leaving his job as an English teacher at New Trier High School (the high school The Breakfast Club was filmed at, incidentally), to take a job as an English Department Chair in Pebble Beach, California, his wife's hometown.

It was a night I'd been thinking about for nearly a year. I both anticipated it and dreaded it. As I grieved so badly in the months following Mark's death, I wondered how I would feel about the gathering that we planned long in advance.

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a show on the History Channel about a World War II battle. They were talking to a veteran who had to be nearly eighty. As he talked about friends that died in that battle nearly 60 years ago, his eyes welled up with tears. Clearly, he still missed his friends and still grieved them. I totally related.

A year later, I can't say I feel good about it all, but I have managed to find better ways to cope with the grief. And I'm really, really glad we had our planned get-together.

A couple of months ago, the Chicago Tribune had an article about new findings in psychiatry about loss and grief. The study found that the biggest problem is that the grieving miss the person they've lost.

I had to laugh out loud-- it took them a scientific study to figure that out?

In April, I had a dream about Mark-- the second dream I've had about him since he died. I didn't realize that it was a dream, and so in my dream, I was overjoyed to discover that he was still alive-- that the report of his death was an awful mistake. I walked up and squeezed his arm to make sure he was really there.

I awoke and realized it had been just a dream. Oddly, though, I actually felt a lot better. I'd been able to see him, to hear his high-pitched voice and to talk to him just one more time. I'd had no idea, the last time I'd actually talked to him, that it would be the very last time I'd talk to him. The dream brought me some closure and some peace.

This Saturday, before I went to the party, I had a busy day. Kim had things to do, and so did I, so I took my stepdaughter with me while I ran some errands. We got to talking and she asked me why I had started blogging.

In my very first blog post, I explained why I was blogging. It had all gone back to an article I'd read in the New York Times about a woman who'd been killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. Her parents had brought back some of the belongings from her apartment to their farm in South Dakota.

Among those belongings, as I mentioned in the post, was a laptop, which they did not turn on and look at until a couple of years ago. On that laptop was a list of goals that this young woman, who was just getting started in her career after college, had made. They ran from the mundane to the adventureous. It inspired me start a similar list. On that list was to start a blog.

So was playing more baseball with my son Adam. Among the other goals were making sure of a secure retirement for Kim and I-- one of the reasons for the career change, as well as reading more, writing at least two books, spending more time with friends-- Tim was one friend I specifically named-- playing guitar more often, to travel more and a bunch of other things.

I told my stepdaughter that teaching her to ride a bike had been on that list. I remembered and began telling her about a picture I took last year. And suddenly could not help crying.

This is the picture. It is of my two children, my son and my stepdaughter, riding bikes. I had taught both of them how to ride, my son some years ago, and my stepdaughter just a couple of weeks before the picture.

It had always bothered me that I'd had to teach myself how to ride when I was a kid. I made sure to be the one who taught my kids. That moment, seeing both of them riding, was one of my proudest parenting moments.

When I looked back on my computer to this picture a few months ago, and I looked at the date, it struck me-- that my friend Mark was killed about 12 hours after the picture was taken. I had no idea, as I went about my day, watching my kids ride, and later watching my son's ballgame, that it would be Mark's last day of life.

And yet, I realize now that I was living like it might be my last day of life-- doing what was important to me, being with who was important to me. Mark would have heartily approved.

When I got my composure back, I decided to tell my stepdaughter why Mark's death had been so rough for me-- that Mark had been murdered. When it happened, I'd told her a little white lie-- that it was in an accident. She's grown up so much in the year since it happened, and was much more ready to hear the truth. I wanted her to hear it from me, rather than find out accidentally. And I wanted to tell her why this guy was so important to me.

Yesterday, one of my favorite bloggers, Bubs, had a wonderful post entitled Sunday Morning Coffee. He recounted sitting with his daughter on a quiet Sunday morning, drinking coffee, and recapped the last couple of days of spending time with his family. It struck me, reading it, how few of these moments we allow ourselves in a lifetime. And these moments are, in the end, what make this sometimes sad, but mostly wonderful life worth living. He gets it-- this is what's important. All the other crap that fills our lives, that competes for attention with those things, we need to keep it at bay and make sure that it doesn't take our lives over-- that we take those wonderful moments with friends and family and make or let them happen.

In coping with losing my friend, I've really reexamined my life. I realized that I had come to dislike my job. I'm glad I took a year and worked with troubled teenagers-- it's been therapeutic in its way-- but am glad it's going to be done soon. Life is too short to be doing something you no longer want to be doing. I have some other plans abrew.

In a year, I've managed to cope with the loss of my friend. I've reprioritized my life. My relationships with my children and with my wife are stronger. My friendships are more important to me than ever.

Friendships that I feared would be damaged, with the memories of a brutally murdered friend hanging over them like a dark cloud, have actually become stronger. Tim, in particular, has gone from being a great friend to one of my closest friends. And he's another guy who's dedicated to his family, and pursuing the things that interest him. He's another guy who gets it.

I still miss Mark every day. I miss seeing his name in my email box with a link to a Clash concert or some funny video. I miss hearing his high-pitched voice talking about history or art or what he thinks is the direction the tech industry will take. I've come to realize that the possiblity of loss is the price we pay to love someone. His death has been a catalyst to refocus my life on the things that are important.

One of the things, in talking to friends afterward, was the realization that Mark had lived his life fully. He had started his own successful web design company, bought a building-- he had planned to sell it soon, and would have made a huge profit on it (his parents sold it for over three times what he'd paid for it-- his neighborhood had gentrified around him since he'd bought it in 1998). The reason everyone loved him so much is that he was the one who lived his dreams, and who made sure we were living life fully, keeping the friendships we'd forged so many years ago intact. The night he died, he'd spent with a handful of his closest friends at a concert by the English Beat, one of his favorite bands.

They say that to live well is the best revenge. I think that to give Mark's life meaning, it's important to live the way he lived-- to spend time doing the things that you want to, with the people you want to spend time with. That's what made him so special and important to us, and what made his life such an inspiration.

I choose not to obsess over the lack of justice in his murder. I believe that karma will give his killer what he deserves. As I tell my students, how many old gang members do you see?

In the meantime, I choose to remember not how Mark died, but how he lived, and to take it as inspiration.

Hey, maybe I should add that one to my list of goals...


Barbara Bruederlin said...

That was so touching and beautiful, Johnny. You've done much soul-searching and evaluation of your life since Mark lost his, and I think that you have your priorities straight.

How wonderful that Mark's friends chose to celebrate his birthday. I almost feel like I was at the party too.

Skylers Dad said...

That was beautiful JY. You have honored your friend in a wonderful way, and I believe that Karma will indeed catch up with his killer. As a friend of mine likes to say, "The world is self-correcting".

Bubs said...

You've done it again, tying so many elements together with such style and humility and kindness. I loved seeing all those pictures, and reading what you had to say about each one. I've also resolved to take more pictures of people I love, but I think I have some catching up to do.

Have you had any more dreams with your friend in them? To me, getting a visit in my dreams from someone who died is a great gift; I've had my dad turn up in several dreams like that where we're talking about stuff, and it's always comforting. I hope you have some more like it.

lulu said...

A beautiful tribute to your friend, not just your words, but your resolution to live your life to its fullest in his memory.

Splotchy said...

Those are some deeply affecting thoughts to your buddy, and to life at large.

I had one of those "this is what's important" epiphanies just yesterday.

It's easy to forget the important things. When one of those moments taps you on the shoulder, it can be especially emotionally moving and powerful.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Thanks for reminding us all what's important, and I hope your healing continues over the loss of your great friend.

vikkitikkitavi said...

I can't imagine, really, dealing with such a sudden and horrifying loss. In fact, I live in dread of having to deal with it. Good on you, boy-o.

And while I don't believe in karma, assholes who live nasty, cruel, violent lives do tend to get themselves killed before too many years go by.

So there's that.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Oh, and can I just say that while your friends all look very nice, I love you for rocking the rock t-shirt over the short-sleeved tropical shirt. Bless you.

kim said...

He must have been in your dreams last night, because you were flailing around the bed quite a bit.

It's a strange practice to take time out from our busy lives to remember the dead for a few moments and then go back to our busy lives, isn't it. I'm glad you tooks some lessons away.

Mark would have loved that party.

Anonymous said...

that's one motherfucking big cigar, dude.

This is a Fine Idea, indeed: gathering together to Remember. I'm glad there was such a turnout and your story was well rendered.

Beth said...

I always enjoy reading your posts about your friends — they're filled with such heart, and warmth, and characters. This is by far the best one I've read. I'm proud that your crowd are keeping Mark alive, and remembering why he was so special to each of you.

busterp said...

Great post. Good tribute. Remember.

'Bubbles' said...

What a wonderful way to remember a loved one!

The process called grief is something, and having people near that will remember with you I think is an amazing help.

Knowing what is important and truly matters to you really helps when life flips you upside down. It helps you figure out where to put your feet to get moving again!

Great pictures!

I love reading your blog, JY!

cheer34 said...

You made me cry, and reminded me of the truly important aspects of my life. Visits in dreams are wonderful. I love reading your posts. Pictures help preserve our memories.

Johnny Yen said...

Thank you.

At the dinner we had earlier this year, friend Eric said something profound-- that Mark would have been angry at us if we'd chosen to remain paralyzed with grief. He'd have wanted us to feel joy again. Like I said, it's the best revenge, living well.


It was strange-- I'd developed the notion that when I dreamt of him, it would me that I was ready to move on. I was right. And you are right-- it was a gift.

Getting a digital camera was one of my best moves-- I've taken more pictures in a year than I'd taken in my lifetime previous, and I'd taken many.

Thank you-- it's the best thing I can do for him, and what he would have wanted.

Our friend Eric, again, at our dinner in January said it beautifully-- he lived his dream. We need to live ours, too.

A week before, my father had survived major cancer surgery. I had a lot of lessons in life appreciation that month.

And yes, it's sure important to listen to those epiphanies in life, isn't it?

Yeah, it's a case of it always happening to someone else usually in our lives. And I truly hope you or anyone else I know or know of has to go through this.

You're absolutely right about that-- "live by the sword..."

More than one person made that comment on Saturday night :)

Big Orange-
Yes, and I indulged in the cigar-smoking, which is a once every year or two event for me. Between that and the couple of glasses of bourbon, I was a hurting camper Sunday morning. I'd have been okay if I'd stuck to red wine and no stogies.

There was definitely something special in the air that night. One of the attendees was someone I haven't gotten along with for 20 years. He seemed genuinely happy to see me Saturday.

I was lucky to meet some wonderful people in college. I think that for most people, their college friends end up being their best friends. I was telling both of my kids this recently.


Anon. Blogger-
Thank you.

I feel like if we let his memory go, it would have been like him dying twice.

Thank you.

It's funny looking at the pictures from this event and compare them to the funeral from a year ago. I feel like I aged a hundred years since then.

Tenacious S said...

Johnny, that was probably the most eloquent writing on loss and the process of grieving that I've ever read. Grief is a strange beast. It has the ability to damage you, but it also has the ability to give you clarity in life. Losing someone you've loved dearly changes you forever, but it's not necessarily a bad thing.

The Elk said...

Hello Kim,

I have to apologize for the welts on your sweetie Mr Yen. At about 0300 on Sunday morning I was attempting to re-attach the broken elastic band on one of my tent poles, when your giggling beloved knocked me on purpose causing the elastic band to zing back through 3 of the sections. As It had taken 15 minutes to attach those three sections, my only reaction was to chase Mr Yen around the backyard whipping him with the Tent poles like Kendo Sticks. Luckily I could not locate the Lawn Darts or it could have gotten ugly....
He was last seen flailing around on the top of other peoples tents looking for entrances. (Hence his flailing in his sleep) He now has a new nickname...The Tent Weasel.

Great party, but I just can't take the hangovers any more...3 days and I'm still out of it.

Mr Yen, My utmost apologies for my actions....Great picture and I still have the Spiro Agnew Puppet somewhere in a box....

Elk Out

silentspring said...

I left a comment on your first post about Mark, before seeing this one. My father died in 1991, and I can still shed tears when I listen to a an alt country band and wish I could tell him about it, or talk to him about trying to learn to play guitar. Missing loved ones who have died is normal, and time only heals so much of that. Anyway, thanks for your has caused me to reflect about what matters, as well.