A photo of Mark, taken in my living room in early February 1990
There are two things about today's post that are out of character for me AND for Bao-Bao's Blog: 1) it has nothing whatsoever to do with Thailand, and 2) it's pretty rare I share much of anything from my personal life. However, this 9th anniversary of my friend's death on 9/11 has been more on my mind than others, so I thought I'd share the following as "writing therapy", maybe taking away some of its power.
Remembering my friend Mark Bingham
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 at 7:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, a United Airlines jetliner carrying my friend Mark Bingham and 43 others ploughed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, joining the thousands who became innocent victims over an almost incomprehensible week of horror, intensely emotional moments and unbelievable tragedy and loss.
Grief is a somewhat personal thing; everyone deals with it in different ways to different degrees. While I also lost two co-workers who met their fates aboard the first plane that slammed into the World Trade Center tower I was not nearly as close to them as I was to Mark and I came to terms with losing them far more easily. I am still today saddened when I think how I lost my friend Mark.
The day after the initial tragedy I was shocked to hear he was gone. I saw his picture on the news; the "gay rugby player from San Francisco" who had phoned his mother from United flight #93 to say he and some others were going to try to stop the people who had hijacked their plane. From all reports pieced together after that call, it's apparent that they did - but they (and those they left behind) paid a dear price for it.
I hadn't seen Mark since his college days, a decade before - but there he was, in a graduation cap and gown: that big grinning face of his filling my TV screen. For weeks afterward I had those “memory flashes” I usually have after losing someone I’ve felt close to at one time or another in my life. As scatterbrained and forgetful as I can be, I certainly had a number of them of Mark, and for weeks wished I could have had just one more of his wonderfully strong lift-you-off-the-floor hugs. Not so much for my own comfort (although I'd have taken that, too) but that it would mean there'd been some mistake and he was still alive and living life to its fullest, as was his way.
I first met Mark in the beginning of 1990, while struggling through a very dark year of my own life. In an attempt to get out of myself and do some good for someone else (something I’ve always found to be beneficial when I’m depressed) I’d placed a personals ad in the "Gay" section of a local free weekly newspaper under an old pen name, seeking new friends and people who could use a mentor or someone to talk to. Not liking how the paper charged to reply to ads by voicemail I’d opted out of that and listed my post office box instead.
This was years before email was common, and I was surprised when over 100 people sat down and wrote multi-page responses to that 20-word ad. I answered every letter, listened while many talked on the phone (some completely falling to pieces at being able to finally share their "gay" thoughts), met a few dozen in person for coffee or a meal and still count a half-dozen or so as friends to this day. One shared life with me for over six years.
Mark's letter told a story that will be familiar to many reading this today: he felt very alone in his "closet" and said if anyone in his family found out about his homosexuality that he'd probably have to kill himself. We spent many, many afternoons talking about this over the next six or seven months until he went back to college and - my advice no longer needed as often - we began to drift apart. He charged into his future, hoping (as many of us do) that he'd find a way to be "successful at something" as he put it, and I took tentative steps into what would become a relationship with the person I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
I am so very thankful that I was able to help Mark along and encourage him to share his secret with people little by little until he felt ready to really tell the ones he feared telling the most. I was so glad to hear at one of his memorials that he finally did, near the end of his college days. I can only imagine the help he must have been to others he met past that, sharing what I had shared with him. I have heard so much about what a positive and supportive man he was.
Within three years of us losing touch with each other he’d graduated from UC Berkeley, having been three-time National Rugby Champion with his teammates there. After graduation he went on to acheive success with his own public relations firm with offices in San Francisco and New York. How strange that it was while coming home after business and a friend’s birthday party in New York that he unknowingly made the choice to board a plane scheduled by a handful of madmen to be a suicide mission. I’d guess most people he left behind would have been less surprised to have had him lost to running with the bulls in Pamplona - as he'd done just months before - or doing something more crazy than simply boarding an airliner for home.
At his memorial, Mark’s former partner Paul described him as being a bit like a Labrador retriever, bounding through life. I had to smile when I heard that, because it so well fit the young man I knew. Oftentimes Mark would ride his bicycle over to visit and I’d always hear him bounding up the stairs well before he’d knock on my door and I’d open it to collect that big hug he was so generous with.
Mark: if what I believe about reincarnation is true, I hope your new life is going more smoothly than the one I was a small part of. Perhaps somehow, somewhere we'll meet again.
I'd like that.