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Long fight against a shifty foe

July 20, 2003 1:08 am

PERHAPS ALL of our advancements in science, medicine, and technology have heightened our frustration when we're faced with issues we can't fix or even understand.

My friend Mark battled mental illness for more than 20 years, but the best efforts of big-city doctors were no match for its insidiousness. They might have finally begun to help, but they could never heal.

Mark and I started our careers together in 1976 with a chain of small newspapers on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He was a sports writer there, but a few years later decided to advance his career by taking a job as police reporter in newspaper-competitive Tidewater Virginia.

We stayed in touch well enough that I knew he was being pressed by his editor to be more aggressive on his beat. I knew Mark was not the sort to assert himself that way, but I was not prepared when he called one morning to say that he had done away with his editor.

He had not, of course, but so began a saga of evolving diagnoses and changing medications that ended when he died last month at age 48.

When Mark and I were starting out on the Shore, it so happened that the company was doing a lot of hiring at the time, and many of the new staffers were around the same age and unattached. We grew into a close-knit group, becoming friends as well as colleagues. Though we've gone our separate ways over the years and many of us have families of our own, enough links in the chain remain that we've generally kept track of one another's whereabouts and well-being.

Many of us shared concerns about Mark. He reached out with letters, and we would write back. I suppose his situation prevented him from joining us in the Internet age, so he was for some of us the last true pen pal.

Over the years he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, then manic-depressive, which now is referred to as bipolar. I lost track of all the medications he said had been prescribed for him.

He eventually tried to return to work as a sportswriter with our former newspaper on the Eastern Shore. It was an admirable gesture by that company, providing Mark with the head start of a familiar setting with familiar faces.

But it didn't last long. Mark soon returned home again to Philadelphia for treatment. At one point, a group of us paid him a visit and took him out to a Phillies game at Veterans Stadium.

In spite of it all, we discovered Mark had retained the sharp wit and cynicism that had made him a newspaper natural. His mind vacuumed up facts and statistics in a way that would make any sports fan envious.

He recalled the details of the times we shared with uncanny accuracy. In his letters and in our phone conversations he would recount the events of a particular evening that I had long since forgotten. Those times when he was quiet I know now he was taking it all in; when he saw the humor in something, we would all know from his unmistakable laugh.

If it was so baffling to us why this illness would target our friend and trouble him so, it must have been wrenching for him to see a normal life as something to which he could only aspire.

Unable to drive or hold down a paying job, he volunteered for years at a Philadelphia hospital, helping others while doing his best to keep his own mind occupied.

It was obvious from his letters that he took pride in that work, and it was also clear from the matter-of-fact descriptions of his treatment that he was never about to give into his illness.

Though we had traded letters since, the last time I talked to Mark was when he called last fall to say his mother had died. Throughout his illness, she had helped him along, so I knew her death was difficult for him.

He had been through so much over the years that when he was feeling physically sick last month, I'm sure he felt it was something he would work himself through. But it was more serious than he knew. By the time he sought medical help, the blockage in his intestine had become infected, and the infection had spread to the point that doctors were helpless to do anything but relieve the intense pain.

As I was enjoying the first day of a week's vacation at the beach, my friend in Philadelphia was dying. The next day, he was dead.

In the weeks since, Mark's legacy has been to bring our circle of friends closer than it has been in years. There's even talk of a reunion. He would appreciate that, because for so long his letters had made him information central. With his passing, we realize how much we miss one another and how much we will miss Mark as we recall fondly the times we shared and learn more about where our lives have taken us.

That doesn't make us special. On the contrary, we're typical of old friends whose ties are renewed upon the death of one of their own.

We just didn't think it would happen so soon.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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