The Day the Music Died

I got the call a little after 7am this morning from a mutual friend in Chicago: “Mark is dancing in eternity.  He’s not suffering any longer.”
I’ve just lost the most faithful friend I’ve ever had, or that I expect I’ll ever have.  Actually, I never expected to have this one.  But I suppose friends like Mark are never expected.  
Mark was diagnosed at age 56 as Stage 4 of a rare lymphoma and told he’d have 3-4 more years.  That was almost three years ago, so this was not a surprise.  When he was beginning life’s end game a couple of months ago, we changed our September vacation plans to travel back to Chicago for a second, and final, extended visit.  Two amazing things occurred which I’ll never forget.
I introduced Mark to the music of a budding Christian singer-guitarist back when we lived in Chicago 30 years ago, Bob Bennett, who lived way out in California.  Mark got hooked and knew virtually every word to every song, and these became part of the soundtrack of our friendship together and of Mark’s life.  Bob sings of brokenness and grace, and Mark was well acquainted with both, so Mark would said that Bob was “singing my life with his words”, as the lyric goes. We’d sing Bob’s songs together when he’d make his annual winter visit to SoCal.  Through God’s amazing grace to Mark–and me, I was able to surprise Mark and arrange for Bob to come to Chicago while we were there, to give Mark a private concert.  Mark was stunned; he alternated crying, singing and shaking his head.  Bob did this for no fee, simply as an act of love for a guy he’d never met, at the request another guy he’d never met.  When  I emailed Bob about the idea, I innocently mentioned that I know a friend of his–who as it turns out has been Bob’s best friend for 40 years.  I think that’s all Bob needed to read, as he called me 30 minutes later and had already been looking at flights.
The other unforgettable memory came from another prompting.  I knew we were choosing to visit Mark while he was still alive and coherent, in lieu of attending his memorial, but I also wanted to honor Mark that day in our absence.  I knew immediately that I needed to write a eulogy…and read it to Mark while I was there.  Reading it aloud was terribly difficult, yet one of the great honors of my life. How often do we get the chance to express our love and appreciation to someone as clearly as we do in our remarks about  them after they are gone?
I seriously choked up multiple times, and then went out to the kitchen and wept hard.  Mark, usually the emotional one, sat quietly, mostly watching me…and apparently listening.  When I finished, he was silent.  Then Mark, who has always been my most faithful editor, said in a voice that was commanding yet barely audible, “Don’t…change…a word.”
I thought I’d share my remarks here as well.  I do it only to honor my dear friend, and maybe there’s a lesson for the rest of us about friendship from the way he modeled it.  What a great privilege it has been for me to experience it; it’s also a privilege to testify to it.
Mark came to light up our lives when we moved to the Chicago area 30 years ago.  We were in the Calvary Baptist Church library, and he was holding Matthew, his first son, who was a toddler at the time.  I still remember that first encounter.  And I remember how Mark was dressed…as I recall, Mark was wearing a coat and tie that day for some reason, but what I’m certain of is that he was dressed in a smile.  This was before the days when Mark was the official or unofficial greeter at the church, but Mark never needed a job description to be welcoming, and we were new to the church and eager for friends.  
He had me at hello.
No matter how many friends Mark already had, he was always happy–no, hungry–for more.  Mark was always ravenously interested in people, his appetite for building relationships was never satiated, and as far as I know, his compassion inbox has never reached “FULL”.  
So there may well be fifty other people in this world or even in this room who would say that Mark Archibald was their closest friend.  Mark was that kind of guy.  All I know is that he was mine.  And I feel like my heart just slammed into a brick wall, and now it lies bleeding on the side of the road.
One of the reasons I know Mark was my best friend is that we didn’t agree on everything.  I could drive him crazy, though I’ll never know why!  Close friends walk that fine line: on the one hand, you want to fully show that you respect the individuality and rights of the other person to have his or her own opinions; on the other hand you care so much about them you want to be of one mind on everything, to share the same ideas and concerns you have.  I’m blessed to count many friends, friends all over the world.  Yet Mark, alone, was uniquely concerned with knocking me upside the head.  As parents, none of us exercises the same level of concern for other people’s kids as we do our own; and that added level of concern is the measure of our love.  I’ve always, always known that Mark’s concern was the measure of his love for me.
And truth be told, I wanted to knock  him upside the head sometimes, too.  Which means he’s not actually a friend at all…he’s a brother.  And not just to me; he was a dear friend to our entire family.
Mark loved our kids like no friend I’ve ever had.  Ben and Karey actually have a special code with Mark, a song they’d sing when they’d talk with Mark by phone or see him… Robert Palmer’s classic rocker, “Bad Case of Loving You.”  One or the other would invariably start the conversation by belting out, “Doctor, doctor, gimme the news…”
I found out the other day that Mark even had our granddaughter Taylor’s phone number in his cellphone…and that her name is spelled out using the baby language her siblings used when she was little…”Tay-wer.”  
How much must someone be a part of your life for them to do stuff like that?  …to know–and remember–the pet family names of your… grandkids?  Can you imagine having a friend like that, who takes that level of interest and shows that level of love to your loved ones?  It’s simple: our loved ones were Mark’s loved ones too.  Every one of them made special efforts to see Mark when he’d come to California for his annual visit, and they’ve all been praying for Mark these past few years.  I’ve always felt bad that I didn’t have the chance to invest similarly in Mark and Debbie’s kids. They were younger than ours, and we moved away to California just after Jeremy was born.  Even so, Matthew has a special section in our family’s urban legends.  And sometimes I think, even though he’s so much like Mark, yet Matt could be a blood relative of mine: the way he plays the piano and sings is almost identical to me.  Early this summer we came for a visit, and on the last evening Matthew and Lara came for dinner.  Matthew and I sang duets to Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes and traded off playing the piano accompaniment, one song after another until we’d exhausted the songbooks and our voices.  We had a fantastic time that I’ll never forget.  But more immense than the joy Matt and I experienced, I looked over and there was Mark in his chair just bursting with pride and joy and contentment.  Finally as we ended with some worship songs he couldn’t take it anymore, and during “How Great Thou Art” he began singing along at the top of his failing lungs, sucking in oxygen from his nose-tube so he could keep going.  It was incredible.
That was Mark, giving all he had to give, and then pushing himself to give more.
I think Mark’s most singularly attractive character trait was beyond his love, his friendliness and even his humor, though every one of those was a defining trait that made Mark the amazing person he was.  Rather, what attracted me most and for so long was his humanity.  Mark was so terribly human, and he embraced his humanity.  He was fallen, he knew it and he thanked God every day for grace.  He made mistakes, he dusted himself off, he beat himself up, he questioned himself, he muddled through… and he kept on muddling even through the darkest times.  Isn’t this why King David was such an intriguing character and probably the #1 personality and star of the Old Testament? He wasn’t perfect, but he was real, and he wasn’t private about his failings.  
Like David, or Peter, Mark was a man after God’s heart.
Mark clung fiercely to the hand of God, and with his other hand, he held on just as fiercely to the rest of us.  We got to experience Mark’s life with him, and he made himself comfortable in our lives.  And as the most faithful editor of my writings, he coaxed my guts out onto paper by accepting me and challenging me to be real, too.
He was exactly what I would want and need in a “best friend.”  That’s not a phrase I ever saw myself using. To have had that relationship with Mark is beyond my hopes.  That it doesn’t continue to the end of my life is heartache.  The fact that it continued to the end of Mark’s life is my gift back to a friend who has given me far more than I could ever repay.

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