The First Goodbye
I think I was eight years old the morning that I came down the stairs and saw my father sitting at the dining table, his head in his hands. My mother intercepted me the moment my feet stepped from the final step onto the ground floor of our home. She knelt so that our faces were evenly met and told me that I needed to be really nice to my daddy today because his mommy had died. I wasn’t sure what any of that meant, really, but I could see that it was a bad, sad thing. I went to the chair in which my father was sitting, leaning on the dining table. There was enough room between him and the back of the chair for me to sit behind him and rest my eight year old hand on his back. This was the only way I knew to comfort him. I had only to let him know that I was there for him.
In that moment I knew the weight of death, even though I was not fully aware of what it meant. I just knew that when it occurred it cast a pall over life.
In 52 years I have had a surprisingly small acquaintance with death (and don’t I know how lucky I am). There have been Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles on both Pat’s side and mine, who died of complications with old age. Pat’s Parents and one brother succumbed to illness. The year we got together, Pat’s best friend Lisa died in a car crash. Our friend Gary was our first friend lost in the AIDS crisis. John John took his own life. Alec and Chris died of illness. Don had declining health due to his age. Steven died after years of bad health and a lengthy hospital stay. Ryan’s death was a surprise, yet, to me (a health and fitness fanatic) his extreme weight lessened that surprise. Nancy was lost to cancer and Nate’s body just couldn’t take any more. We’ve seen friends through the deaths of their loved ones and we have learned that the only really valid thing to say is “that sucks”; and some friends have confirmed that it is, indeed, the only valid thing to say.
Death is something that we all have to get used to, have to prepare for and that always takes us by surprise.
Today’s surprise was a particular one, though. Today I lost a contemporary. Today I lost a friend from college, someone my age who shouldn’t have died but, because of those awful things called cars, he did. It’s very sobering to have someone that you spent your adult growing years with suddenly not be there anymore. And today was my first one. My first friend from college to die. I had no idea that it would affect me this way but when I heard about the car crash that ended Mark Tenniswood’s life, I sat at my computer and, quietly, wept. I wept for my friend and I wept for his husband, Shannon, for whom I am simply crestfallen. Just a year or so ago Mark had come through a heart attack and surgery, only to have a car crash end it for him and his beloved canine, leaving his husband behind, bereft. The entire day I was foggy and in a haze, remembering the friendship we had had in college, the ways we were there for each other and how we helped each other to grow. I thought of how happy I was to be reunited via Facebook and how much I loved visiting his page to look at his wedding pictures and to read news of his work in the theater. I reflected on how much pride I had in him for continuing to pursue his work in theater, something I was never able to do. I have been left with a vacant space in my body, my mind and my heart because I have, I realized, not had a very extensive knowledge of death in my life. The losses I have suffered have been loved ones who were either old or ill and whose death did not come as an immediate shock to me, except for Lisa’s car crash and John John’s suicide. There had been time to prepare. And none of them had been my school mate.
Pat’s mother once told him that your high school friends are nice people to remember but that your university friends are the ones you keep the rest of your life. Thanks to the social network, that can, now, be really true.
The best I can say, on this unhappy day, is that I will remember Mark Tenniswood. I will always remember him, for many things; but I have to admit I have never forgotten this bit of knowledge that has been a part of me every day of my life since college.
In my youth, before the invention of vhs players, my way of capturing my favourite movies for my memory was to use a cassette recorder to tape them, either at the cinema or off the television. I did it with many of my favourite movies from Ordinary People to Heaven Can Wait, from Hello Dolly to Funny Lady. Once, in college, Mark and I were reciting dialogue from Hello Dolly (difficult to do in those days, since vhs had just been available to the public for a couple years and there was no Youtube or other resources from which to memorize dialogue). I was astonished that Mark knew every word and inflection of the movie as we, laughingly, carried the movie quote game to new levels for both of us. I asked him how he knew it so well.
“I recorded it off the tv with my cassette recorder when I was a kid.”
I was never alone, from that moment forward. There was someone else out there who thought the way I did.
Mark Tenniswood, I will remember you. The highest compliment I can pay anyone.
I will remember you.
(The photo featured in this story is one I did in college for a display of the cast of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and it shows – left to right – Daniel Penz, Carolyn Freeman and Mark Tenniswood).