This week has been a little rough. I got a phone call from a dear friend of mine who lives in Ishikawa. His name is Gart. His voice on the phone wasn’t his normal exuberant self. Something was clearly wrong.
“Mark is gone.”
Mark E. was our friend. In many ways, he was the glue that held a lot of people together. He was an instigator in gathering different people and being the host to a lot of lunches, hanging out, game playing, and just being silly together. And then, in a flash, he was gone. He had a heart attack while at the hospital for an unrelated treatment. He was only 55 years old.
I met Mark E. a little more than 25 years ago. I was very new in Japan, just a couple of weeks in. I spoke almost zero Japanese and I was just starting the adventure of being here. I had time off and I could explore the area of Terai town, complete with its endless rice fields, hills and mountains, and little roads that went into neighbourhoods. A new friend of mine, Michael, called me up. He was a couple years my senior for living in Japan. He knew the ropes a bit and he wanted to introduce his friend to me. He said, “You’ll like my friend Mark E. He is very cool and has been here for seven years already. He knows everything! Let’s meet and have lunch together at this eel restaurant in Komatsu.”
Sounded great. I never had eel before and I thought it would be a new adventure in dining. I hopped on the motorcycle which was left behind by my job placement predecessor and scooted off in the direction of Komatsu.
On the way down you need to travel on a main road, called Route 8. It is pretty busy with cars so you need to be a bit careful. I was getting to the intersection I needed to turn and slowed down, making sure to signal. I then heard a groaning of tires on asphalt behind me. I looked in the little rearview mirror on my right handlebar. I saw the grill of a truck.
The only thought that came to my mind was, “I’m dead.”
Then there was impact.
I was thrown from the bike forward and was sailing upside down. My helmeted head hit the road first and then I spun. My knees hit the highway next and I skidded a little. Denim melted away and I rolled a little further until I came to a full stop. I was lying on the busy road looking up.
I’m not dead.
“GET UP!” my brain yelled. So I got up.
Ahead of me, trailing up the front of the truck that struck me, were many fragments of motorcycle lying in a stream of gas. It was a marvellous thing to see. It was marvellous because I was still there to see it. I wasn’t dead. I was, in fact, standing.
I pulled off my helmet, and sure enough there was a pretty good crack right going from the front edge to the top. A man, shaking jumped down from his truck. In one smooth motion he pulls out his wallet and opens it. He is gesticulating to me to take the money inside. I look at the mess on the road. I look at my bloody knees. I realize that I have no idea what to do next. But I am alive, and I am grateful for that.
I am thinking that I might be late for lunch. So, I figure, I may as well go and eat some eels. I wave the guy off and say the one word I think he will understand, “Go.”
He is startled and unsure what to do. I repeat myself and gesture down the road for him to go ahead. He turns and gets back in his truck and takes off. I don’t even look to see where he goes. Slowly, I pick up the biggest pieces of motorcycle and drag them to the side of the road.
Then I go for lunch.
It was great to meet Mark E. He is kind and thoughtful and generous. I am very much enjoying the time with my new friends Michael and Mark. But then the adrenalin starts to wear off and I start to feel achey and woozy. Maybe it was the eel. Or maybe the beer. But I need to call it a day. I told Mark and Michael about my recent adventure and they take it all in. Mark gives me a ride home in his cool Toyota Sera. I felt guilty about being such a mess in his snazzy car. He didn’t seem to mind. I sat in the tub and checked out all my new purple spots up and down my back and on my arms.
It was an adventurous way to start my time in Japan.
Mark and I remained friends for the next 25 years. There were gaps in our connection, due to graduate studies, my unravelling marriage and then divorce, and all kinds of other similar nonsense. But each time we reconnected it was great, and there was no feeling of “Why did you wait so long to get in touch?” None of that. It was a very mature and fun relationship we shared. Mark’s politics and opinions about everything were highly informed, biased, and irritating at times, but he was the kind of man who always separated the person from the opinion. Happy to debate and discuss all matters of things, and would listen when you were persistent. But under it all, deeply compassionate and kind to others, often over-extending himself to accommodate people around him, and fiercely loyal.
I was shocked to hear of my friend’s passing. I surprised myself as I burst into tears. I hadn’t wept even when my own father passed, but Mark touched my life in a very unique and important way. He was a mentor to me, and a guide. He was always quick to laugh, and was ever thoughtful of his friends. He read endlessly and widely. He loved his wife and son deeply. He was a teacher to many students over the years, and despite all kinds of pressure from many quarters often did only what he wanted to do in the first place. He made me laugh, a lot.
He will be missed. And while I mourn his passing, I am also cognizant of something under all of that. I am grateful. I am deeply grateful for a good friend. I am grateful for a friendship that lasted over 25 years. I am grateful to have had the times together that we did. I am grateful to know what real friendship looks like.
Thank you, Mark.