Yesterday morning my phone rang with bad news: my friend Mark passed away over the weekend.
I knew someday I would get this call. I haven't spoken with Mark directly for many years, and the recent news I heard of him was rarely positive. Back in the days at OSU, we all partied pretty hard. Mark never stopped. In recent years he accelerated.
Mark had been a roommate, a co-worker, and a good friend; I'd go so far as to call him a brother. Not having been there to witness his indulgences in the latter years of his life, I spent the afternoon inundated with memories of the times we shared.
Like the time he was eating Chinese food, and he gave me a bite. I had never eaten Chinese food before. "Rick, you like hot stuff, don't you?" he asked. Of course I did. "Try this."
He gave me the pepper from his General Tso's chicken. The little peppers that you aren't supposed to eat. The infernal little buggers that make food hot by just being in the same room. Not knowing any of this, I popped the pepper in my mouth and bit down. It was like chewing rope. I munched harder. If he could eat one, I could eat one. Seeds flowed through my mouth, and apparently they were holding blowtorches. The sound of a steam whistle filled the room as smoke billowed from my ears. I ran to the trash can and spit the pepper out, knowing it could cause all the garbage to spontaneously combust but not caring. I didn't curse at Mark or anything, because it hurt too much to breath. Good times.
I'm not the world's fastest learner, so it should not come as a surprise to you that several years later there was a near-repeat occurrence. I happened on Mark enjoying Asian cuisine again - this time sushi - and he offered me a bite. Of wasabi. "You'll like it, it's like guacamole," he assured me, and even used a tortilla chip to scoop up a generous portion. I don't think I ever ate off his plate again after that.
We went on a road trip once. We were going to meet some of Mark's old friends in North Carolina to go camping. We had no real time line and no real agenda, though. Mark came home from work the day before we were going to leave. "Do you want to go see the H.O.R.D.E festival?"
"Where is it?"
"Cumberland, Maryland. We have to leave right now if you want to go."
Ahh, those were the days when you could just pack up and take off for a week on a whim. We drove through the night and kicked off our road trip with some amazing music. There are many stories I could tell from that trip, but two stand out in my mind, and the rest are probably incriminating...
At one point we were driving around Virgina rather aimlessly. We were somewhere outside of Richmond when we both ran out of cigarettes. Miles of highway passed beneath us as we searched for an exit so we could buy more. We were both engulfed in hardcore nicotine withdrawal when we saw something up ahead. A giant pillar, a hundred feet high. Too small to be a building. As we closed in on it we could read the black letters against the red and white background: MARLBORO.
Yes, it was their manufacturing plant. This fit in perfectly with our agenda-less travel plans. We stopped and took the free tour. And at the end of the tour, we each got a free pack of cigarettes. In times of sadness and loss it is important to remember that sometimes fate smiles on us all. Just hold on and keep heading down the road.
(NOTE: That plant makes enough cigarettes in 2 1/2 minutes to reach from Richmond, VA to San Francisco, CA if they were laid end to end. That's an impressive amount of cancer. It's even more impressive that I actually remember that fact. Also worth noting, I quit smoking many years ago, the day after my bachelor party. No patches, pills, or special gum. I used the only thing that really works: will-power.)
Later, on the way home, we were driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mark was behind the wheel. A light rain was falling. We were both tired; neither of us spoke. I saw something in the road ahead, lying in the middle of our lane. As we got closer, I could see that it was a puppy, perhaps a beagle. Its eyes were open, and I looked right into them as Mark drove over the dog's lifeless body, careful not to hit it.
Several minutes passed in silence. I turned to Mark. "Are you still thinking about that puppy?"
He nodded. Several more minutes passed in silence, both of us contemplating life, death, and how cute puppies can be. And regardless of circumstances brought that puppy to its end - lying in the road, in the rain - it looked peaceful.
Mark, wherever you are, I hope you also found peace.
And I'm still thinking about that puppy, too.