Yesterday I guided a dead former friend’s older brother to the favorite lake of the departed, a lake he’d swim in for literally hours at a time, a place I’d hiked to many times over the years. Sunny and cool, it was a perfect day to carry Mark’s ashes up the small mountain and scatter them in a beautiful lake.
The trek also gave us six hours to talk, and remember, and flesh out more details of a convoluted, vexing, largely miserable life. Made me think about what’s left of each of us after we die — the impact we had on the people closest to us. You can see the last of Mark’s mortal remains in the grey splotches at the edge of the lake at the bottom of this photo:
Mark had many good people in his life at various times, though virtually nobody by the end. His brother was one such person, but they had a falling out three years earlier, hadn’t spoken since. His other brother never broke things off with him, but was quite dismissive. His ex, who he rejected after she was insufficiently moved when his 98 year-old mother died suddenly, is a good and generous woman who hosted Mark’s brothers for two weeks as they tried to put the dead man’s affairs in order. His favorite cousin, a beautiful spirit twenty years younger than him, a kindred soul he loved and wrote long. soul-baring letters to (until the family intervened to let the adult know they thought his flourishing quasi-romantic correspondence with a teenager was inappropriate) — they’d finally had a fatal falling out too. Me and him? At one time best friends, but for years estranged, finally virtual enemies. I literally cannot imagine what the guy’s laugh sounded like, I hadn’t heard it in that many years. All I can recall of him now is his churlish glare. Nice legacy.
I’ve discussed him with several people who knew him pretty well. We are hard pressed to recall any unreservedly fun times with him (though our Corsican friend — among the first to repudiate him after three brutal strikes — shared some fond memories). What we all recall is the familiar three act play he was compelled to act out over and over. Act one: new person or thing — amazing, the best, the ultimate! Act two: warning signs of imperfection, Act three: traumatic, unendurable betrayal.
Mark was demanding, famously so, of all of us and of himself as well. He was a perfectionist continually disappointed to be living in a world of fallible hacks where perfection is almost never seen. He always sought the highest expression of perfection and was continually disgusted to find only the sorry human equivalent — flawed people, disappointing, aging, doomed to wither and die. Old age depressed him terribly, though he was completely crushed when his mother died before she was even a hundred.
I learned two truly terrible things yesterday, one on the ride up, the other almost at the end of our hours together. Each with a horrific image to go with it.
Mark had a business, selling food made in a dirty commercial kitchen his friend the inspector gave him a pass on. The new inspector was less inclined to overlook the black mold, the filthy deep fryers, the unwashed ventilation hoods, the old worn counters the pad thai and breakfast burritos were made on. Mark’s workers were badly underpaid, all of them, and when they worked overtime they were never paid extra, as the law requires. He was able to get away with making them work 12 and 15 hours days (when necessary) because the workers were for the most part undocumented or otherwise vulnerable to coercion.
His two longest tenured employees, a Salvadoran couple who had worked for him since 2002, made a claim, shortly after he died, for unpaid overtime since 2002. He had sponsored them for green cards and so they owed him, but now they were demanding their due. As part of a settlement, Mark’s brothers paid them severance of about a year’s wages and let them take what they liked from the kitchen and from Mark’s house. They pulled up in a pickup truck and filled it at least twice. They cashed the checks the brothers wrote for them after they signed the release, then started a lawsuit for the back wages since 2002.
Horrible image number one, right out of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas eve nightmare conducted by the silent, terrifying ghost of Christmas future. After Mark died, people he’d openly exploited for years, people who justifiably hated him, gleefully rummaging through his possessions looking for things of value. All of the things he collected, cherished and loved, fingered and pocketed by people intent on recouping something from a man who had taken ruthless advantage of them. I can imagine faces beaming maliciously as one of the defrauded holds up some cherished object that could be sold for $300. $300 they’d been cheated out of by nickels and dimes over countless long days in a filthy job.
The final horrible image was of his last moments on this earth. I learned of this toward the end of our trip yesterday and it is maybe the worst of all.
Mark lived with an apparently lovely young woman, a Muslim from Morocco, a religious woman. They’d been together for four years, since he’d hired her, and it was unclear what the nature of their relationship was. She did not consent to be photographed, she was very religious. She wanted to marry Mark, but only if he converted to Islam. Mark was never going to convert to anything. And so they lived together in Mark’s cluttered house, though one can only imagine the details of their arrangement. Shades of the Salvadoran couple in that she had no legal status in the U.S. and she lived under Mark’s protection, to a large extent.
His housemate had called at 5:30 to tell Mark she was on her way home. He said he’d see her soon. At 6:00 she arrived to discover his naked, dead body.
The moment of his death. Naked in his computer chair he was following his new practice for achieving perfect clarity. The theory has been popularized by “Ice Shaman” Wim Hof, teaching practitioners to push past boundaries to a fuller existence. Part of it, apparently, requires teaching the body to go without oxygen for longer and longer periods. After a round of deep breathing, you hold your breath for as long as you can then rush into an ice cold shower (or plunge into an ice bath) where you breathe for your life and emerge feeling energized, with no further need for caffeine. Mark, over the course of several months of diligent practice, was apparently up to four minutes without oxygen in his quest for perfect clarity. This theory was exactly the kind of dramatic shortcut to enlightenment that greatly appealed to Mark.
Try holding your breath for as long as it takes to read this next paragraph (I’ve already had two or three lovely, life sustaining breaths myself) and see if you can follow the logic of striving for perfection this way. After a short interval without oxygen you feel a desperation to breathe (you’re at about ten seconds now). You must resist this desperate feeling as the mortal weakness it is (I made it this far holding my breath, but hold on to the end, you can do it!) — put all thoughts of an oxygen deprived brain out of mind. After a time your lungs feel like they might burst, but pay no attention to that, the theory demands you exceed what you falsely believe to be your limits. Your heart may begin screaming, twisting in your chest, no worries. Nothing to fear but fear itself, and the rewards are fantastic. (30 seconds, come on, come on, you can do it…) Two minutes and twenty seconds, let’s go for two and a half. Now we’re up to four.
In fairness to Wim Hof, and the many who swear by his techniques, Mark’s death probably had much more to do with Mark’s rejection of science and doctors than it did to the health enhancement techniques Hof advocates. Mark apparently hadn’t been to a doctor in years. He was overweight, aggravated, fighting with everybody. His arteries may have been only a hairsbreadth wide when he began this demanding regime of holding the breath and plunging into ice water.
Picture the unimaginable horror of the devout, modest Muslim woman, finding her beloved housemate naked in death. The medical examiner noted that the discoloration on the skin over the naked cadaver’s heart was a clear indication of death by heart failure. There were other signs as well. The heart apparently gave out. It was not a stroke, the signs would have been different, reflecting some terrible agony at the end.
In the end this man who stubbornly refused to believe, in spite of a lifetime of evidence, that the world was a viciously unfair place, where the ecstasy of perfection was at best fleeting, where betrayal by anyone you love was inevitable, where all flesh withered and people aged and became grotesque, might well have held his breath until he died.