The Cast of Characters: Mark

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Cast of Characters: Mark
On Being a Mother

I am reminded of a dream I had the summer my son, Sims, was summiting Mt. Kenya. My friend, Rachel Childress, had called to say our dear friend, Thelma Griffin, had had several strokes. I must have gone to bed thinking about Thelma and about parenting a man-child who was hanging from mountains in Africa.

The room in the dream appeared to be a doctor's office or clinic. I knew, however, that it was heaven. (As good as any speculation on heaven.) I, very much still alive, was demanding to know what Thelma would be doing in heaven when she got there. The white-coated "official" said, "Don't you understand? Heaven is where we all do what we're best at. Thelma, of course, will be teaching Sunday School." My heart rested easy then about Thelma. (After all, she did die later and her actual obituary began, "Sunday School teacher for thirty-seven years.")

But the dream continued. The "official" in charge left the room. I eyed rows upon rows of file cabinets and wondered if my file would be in there even though I'm still living. Wild to know what I would be doing in heaven, I sneaked over to the appropriate drawer and quickly found my full name on a file. I took a deep breath and opened it. There---alone in the file---was a sheet of paper with one word on it---mother.

Wow, did I have a bit to chew on when I awakened the next morning. I would certainly not have put mothering at the top of the list of what I'm best at. I'm not even sure my sons would put maternal skills at the top of my best skills list. Although they did tell me as we sat at the Arby's on Limestone in Lexington, KY (do I remember that day or what?) that even though the world would not know that I was a good mother because they were such challenging children, that they, indeed, knew. You don't get many pay-days like that.

Back to my job in heaven---Husband Number Four told me once that I should make a list of all the people I have mothered. Now, we're getting to the core of my emphasis on relationships. The list would be long and is always growing. When I became an adult, at age five, I developed a style of relating that was mostly motherly. This style of relating becomes both the good news and bad news in my relationships. Some people welcome and need mothering. Others do not need to be mothered by me even if they really need mothering. And some need mothering at one stage but need to be cut loose to adulthood at another. Are you getting the picture of why relationships are hard?

But relationships provide the Cast of Characters and that's where the stories lie.

Mark Robert Bartella

In one of my favorite photos of Mark he is standing up holding on to the side of the crib in his blue and green clown-themed nursery. He was such a happy baby that we sometimes speculated that he surely couldn't be much of an intellect and be that happy about the world. Ha! Little did we know of the fierce mind that was to develop behind that silly grin. The happy baby turned into the college boy who would chase professors after class to ask one more question or argue one more point.

That picture was from one of the happiest periods of my life. Mark and Sims were delights at that age, marriage to Bart was fulfilling and life was abundant. What a blessing that we cannot look forward to the pain that is to come.

Later, Mark and I logged hours on the phone during his years in Texas. Because he didn't find many academic peers at Sam Houston State University, he would call me at all hours of the day and night, oblivious to my schedule. Debating constitutional law with him at that very moment was imperative. Then when he had worn me out (or long after that point), he would say, "Now I'm calling Bazz (Bazz Childress, our dear friend closer to his intellectual peer and a conservative) so I can argue the other side of the issue."
Nothing in my rich, challenging life defines me more than my grief over the loss of Mark; hence, my feeble attempt to put our relationship into words is a Letter to Mark.

Dear precious Mark Robert,

Words on a page can not possibly convey the extent to which I miss you. The hollowness of your absence makes my throat ache, makes tears burn and makes my life without you not worth living.

Did I let you know in your short lifetime how extraordinary you were? How loved? How hysterically funny? How smart? How beautiful? How precious? How much you were the restitution for all else that was painful in my life?

Our relationship was delicious…and so damn rich as to make you sick afterwards but you just couldn't stop eating it because the first bite tasted as good as the last. The rock solid foundation of love we had for each other provided a stage upon which we played. We both enjoyed acting and deserved Oscars for our performances. Our bickering made others nervous and uncomfortable but it was intimate jousting for us. The intimacy always just a bit too much for either of us to bear so we both fought for the edge of control.

Remember when Eldred at The Chalfonte Hotel said, "I've never seen a mother/son relationship like this!" I don't even know to what he was referring (except the fact that you were blowing raspberries on my cheek in the Chalfonte Dining Room!) but I knew our relationship was so extraordinary that it was not the least surprising that others would never have seen one like it. It has only been since your death that I learned you openly admitted to others that your Mom was your best friend. And did I ever tell you that your love for me had qualities unlike anyone else who has ever loved me?

I saved an email you sent to me when you were in college in Texas. It started with what is now the ubiquitous Marianne Williamson quote:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous.

We are children of God.
Our playing small doesn't serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel
Insecure around us.
We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.
And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people
Permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

And your email response to the quote:

"Pretty inspiring, huh? I see much of myself in her words. I think you exemplify her ideas. You have inspired me my whole life and I thought you should read this and know how much I love you. You have power beyond measure, and, as a manifestation of God, liberate me. P.S. Read it to Sims."

So how do I grieve a relationship like ours?

In "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion quotes from extensive research on grief. This book is her response to the loss of her husband. One sentence jumped from the page as, finally, an explanation of why your death so devastated me---in ways that all the other deaths I have endured have not. The second kind of grief was 'complicated grief,' which was also known in the literature as 'pathological bereavement' and was said to occur in a variety of situations. One situation in which pathological bereavement could occur, I read repeatedly, was that in which the survivor and the deceased had been unusually dependent on one another. "Was the bereaved actually very dependent upon the deceased person for pleasure, support, or esteem?" (Italics mine) As your generation would say, "Duh!"

When your Dad died and your brother started on his personal journey of misbehavior and self-destruction, you and I turned to each other and grabbed hold with everything in us. As the years went by and we both went on to other relationships, other pursuits, other cities, other growth, we never lost that grasp. That's why it hurts so badly. That's why it's "complicated grief" which I prefer to the term "pathological bereavement." There's enough about me that's pathological without adding another.      

Naming the grief does not help when I am sabotaged by memories---good times, bad times and all the in between times in the twenty-five short years of mothering you.

I walk the campus of George Washington University and pass the Law School where you almost chose to go because of the great scholarship they offered. It's a drive-by random shot of grief over the dream that you could have been there as student when careers unexpectedly moved John and me to DC. You would have loved the conversation and debate over my religious-political work with the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry/Edwards Campaign. You would have been right smack in the middle---arguing both sides about whether religious folks should start a political action committee. You would have pushed me to my limits wanting to obsess over the fine points of controversy.

Another emotional drive by shooting occurs when I'm staring at The Washington Post rather than reading it. The Today Show plays in the background because John can multi-task on computer, newspaper and TV to do his morning Media Digest. The first chords---do you even call them chords in rock music---of Bad to the Bone break through my morning fog. It's the sound track for Matt Lauer in a segment on riding a Harley on the open road. It was the sound track for your funeral service. As teens, when you and your buddies discussed plans for your memorial services, you proclaim that you want Bad to the Bone played at yours. The ministers and I agree that blasting it from the sound system in the holy sanctuary of Central Christian Church is a fitting tribute to your raucous sense of humor and Gen X sense of spirituality. So we did. Hope it was all you intended.
And then there's the anger. Anger at what? God, no. You, no. Life, yes. How can I stop grieving over what was one of the richest elements of my existence? A therapist reminds me that as rich as it was, my relationship with you was not the sum total of my life. True enough. And I don't want my grief over you to short-change my relationship with your brother and his precious new family.

And then there's the depression. Why must it hang around so long and be so heavy on my heart and soul and mind? Is it really a protective armor…protecting me from the depths of grief into which I could actually fall and not be able to pull myself out? Some folks think if I break unresolved grief into tiny pieces that I would find peace ultimately and 'cure' the depression. While this may be true, the extent to which I have done this work in the past reminds me that it is damn hard work! But if I don't do the Grief Work will there always be a part of me that is divided from the whole of me? Or was there or will there ever be a whole me? What does wholeness look like? And, oh by the way, I'm fucking tired of working toward wholeness! Are there people who don't have to work so hard at wholeness? Wasn't being born to Violet and Clarence enough brokenness for any one person in a lifetime? I'm tired of working on this shit! I just want to have peace. I just want to not feel like a hollow shell.

Is it my genetic code that makes everything high drama for me? Am I more sensitive to what has happened in my life than the average bear? Maybe, but many would say I'm stronger than the average bear in handling it. In fact, you said, "If a nuclear bomb went off in the back yard, Mom, you would be the only survivor."

Little did you know that you would be the nuclear bomb.


A friend of mine suggested that I heed Martin Luther King, Jr's admonition to turn my grief into creativity. My reply to her was "On my good days, my writing and speaking is the creativity from my grief. On my bad days, I would say 'screw you, Martin.'" And I would say to my friend who loves me and wants to move me down the road to recovery, "Get back to me when you have buried one of your sons."
Having said that, I also look to the Greek word, krisis, which means a decisive turning point. There is no question that Mark's death created a turning point in my life. That turning point continues to lead me down new paths of discovery about what matters in life.  

updated: 6 years ago


bpetersonSunday, October 17th 2010 4:14PM

Ron, I was doing some maintenance on my site and just discovered your comment. Thank you so much for your remembrance of Mark. How did you find my site? Mark was so funny about his camp experience. He was NOT a outdoor person and yet enjoyed the camaraderie. Best to you!

Ron SpringsSaturday, February 20th 2010 10:17AM


Your post was very moving.  I remember Mark's camp days well, and enjoyed the times I spent with him at Camp Ridgecrest.  God bless!

From IlinaThursday, October 15th 2009 8:11PM

Oh, Brenda. I read this with tears tears tears on my face and in my throat. You inspire me to be a better mom. What a blessing it would be to hear those sentiments from my sons. You are an amazing woman.


Jeremy ColliverThursday, October 15th 2009 1:18PM

I read this with tears streaming down my face and laughing uncontrollably. Thank you!  The memories stream back...standing behind the Rec Hut and while Mark smoked he threatened me that if I ever did he would make me smoke until I puked; watching the door for him as he snuck out from a lock-in to go stand in line for Van Halen tickets; but none more than every time I take communion I am reminded of the time when a group of us were sitting in the balcony at Central and not paying attention and goofing off while taking communion. When it was over a hand clasped me on the shoulder and "took" me outside. He said, "There are a lot of things that we don't pay attention to, but we will always hold the moments with the bread and the cup sacred."

So glad you have these memories of Mark, Jeremy. He was quite the complex character and I cherished the ground he walked on!