‘Getting to know Mark’
Mum and I waited and waited for a reply from Marks adoptive family in Australia but still nothing came. We obviously respected their emotions and feelings completely; they too had lost a much loved son and brother and suddenly after 5 and a bit years the long lost family come searching. I have no doubt they may have been a little suspicious of us too; what did we want? and why now?
Gloria was desperate to know who and what her son had grown up to be? Watching her struggle with her grief was truly awful. Whilst my Dad Bill had the biggest and kindest heart he was also a big tough Scotsman who was known to lack empathy, his way of dealing with these things was to bury his head in the sand and not talk about them. My sister also was completely disengaged with the whole issue and if Mum tried to talk to her about it she would just shoot her down in flames and tell her she didn’t want to talk about it. This hurt Mum deeply.
Likewise, she couldn’t tell other family members, friends or neighbours “my son has died” because very few people even knew she had a son. So just like the adoption itself 42 years earlier, once again Gloria found herself grieving her son in a lonely prison of silence and it was agonising for her.
Every time I spoke to her or visited her I got the full on gush of “Michael, Michael, Michael………….” I’m not going to lie, it was hard going and emotionally draining at times, but knowing I was her only outlet for her grief I always let her talk, cry, rant and express her pain, loss and frustration in whatever way she needed or wanted to do. I was very lucky as I had good friends back home who were always there to listen to me when I needed to do the same.
When I found out that Michael’s name had been changed to Mark I very easily adapted to referring to him as Mark (something which I shall now continue to do in this story). For Gloria however, he was always Michael, that was the name that she had given him and in her heart that was never going to be changed.
It was about 5 weeks after we had been notified of Marks death that I finally received a copy of the adoption papers from the TV production company in Sydney. This was the first time that I personally actually knew what his adoptive surname was and at this time I immediately started to trail Google to try and find out any information I could surrounding his now full know adoptive name ‘Mark Christopher Sullivan*’ (*surname changed to protect the identity of his adoptive family).
Remember that I had been told my brother had died in 2003, a time when the internet was still pretty much in its infancy compared to where we are now, and before any of the major social media platforms had even been thought of, it appeared that Mark had no digital footprint at all.
All I had was a year of death and the fact he died in the United States. It wasn’t a lot to go on. For about another 6 weeks I trailed websites, searching for obituary notices both in the USA and Australia. Finally I found a very small obituary notice from a funeral director in San Francisco: Mark Christopher Sullivan born on 9th December 1964 – died in November 2002.
The name and date of birth matched, but the date of death was 2002 when the researcher told me he had died in 2003. It HAD to be him though. I immediately fired an email over to the funeral home and gave them a little background to the story and asked if they had any further information, how/where he died etc, was her buried or cremated?. I received a response within hours but with the funeral home saying that as the death was over 5 years ago they would need time to look out his file.
True to their word they called me just two days later and I spoke with a lovely lady who confirmed that they had indeed dealt with Marks funeral, he had been given a direct cremation and his death certificate listed AIDS as his cause of death. She went on to tell me that they held contact details for a man named Clint who was his executor and gave me the telephone number and email address which she held on file from his funeral.
Again after 5 and a half years I didn’t know if the contact details would still be valid, and I didn’t know who Clint was – was he Mark’s partner, a friend or perhaps even his lawyer?. I sent a long and detailed email, again treading cautiously as I knew that my out of the blue communication may raise some suspicion.
I waited a week but didn’t receive a reply. I didn’t know if he had received the email so being the incredibly impatient human that I am, I decided to call instead. Clint immediately picked up the phone and confirmed that he had received my email but felt he should contact Marks family in Australia to notify them of my existence before replying, he was also still waiting a response from them.
This was the phone call that began to change everything. Clint was the nicest, sweetest, kindest and most engaging person I could have ever wished to speak to, and with his warm Tennessee accent I could have listened to him for hours. He confirmed that even with the differing dates for Marks year of death that this was most definitely my brother. He had moved to the USA from Sydney around 12 years earlier, he knew he was adopted and had been desperately searching for his birth mother, even at one time coming over to England to look, but believing she had lived in London at the time she fell pregnant with him as this is what the nuns had told his adoptive parents.
Clint and Mark were not partners but the best of friends, they along with another Mark ‘Mark 2’ had all met several years earlier, the 3 of them as gay men from strict and not 100% accepting backgrounds had all found themselves in America’s LGBT capital San Francisco and had become ‘brothers’. The love they had for one another shone through in abundance.
Clint went on to tell me more about Mark’s teaching career. He had been a much loved and very gifted middle school teacher at a private Catholic girls school in San Francisco and later acting Principal. He had a very bright future ahead of him but had to give up teaching in the latter stages of his illness. He had been diagnosed as HIV positive at the age of 28 and died at the age of just 37. Clint assured me that Mark had received the very best medical treatment in the USA, being under the care of leading specialists of HIV and AIDS related illness. He had also tried all kinds of alternative therapies as well. In Clint’s words “we laughed together, we cried together, we prayed together, we meditated together…and we smoked weed together!”
Clint also told me how Mark was a great singer, he sang in a gospel choir at the Glide Ensemble in San Francisco and was also a founder member of the East Oakland Gay Mens Chorus just across the Bay. Having sung in numerous choirs myself over the years this gave me an instant connection with Mark. He was also a passionate traveller, just like me (and of course Gloria) I knew from speaking with Clint just how well we would have instantly clicked and how much we had in common.
We chatted for what seemed like eternity and I shed both tears of sadness and tears of joy as pieces of this jigsaw started to slowly come together. We ended the conversation with Clint saying to me “your Australian brother may have passed, but you now have two American brothers in myself and Mark 2” and how true to those words would prove to be.
Just a few days later I received a beautiful email from Mark 2 which again reduced me to tears and made me laugh out loud as he shared stories of my brothers life and the antics which they shared.
I had so much information which I could finally share with Gloria and it brought her a huge amount of comfort as I recalled the detail and stories which both Clint and Mark 2 had now shared with me. She didn’t seem to bat an eyelid to the fact that Mark was gay nor that he had died of AIDS, but in our fairly sheltered world, neither of us had personally known anyone who had died with AIDS before. Mum was open minded but again had come from this Victorian and Catholic upbringing where being gay was a sin, so although she never verbalised it I think it was yet another case of “what would the neighbours say?” and something which she carried quietly and inwardly. She did speak of her sadness of the judgement which she now knew that both she and her son had been subjected to and how this ‘sinful sex’ had not only created Marks life but also ended it. It was both cruel and unfair for both of them.
Mark 2 quickly got copies made of some of the photos he had of Mark and sent them over in the post. Suddenly for the first time I was able to not only share all these stories and memories with Gloria, but to also show her photos. After 42 and a half years, she finally saw her sons face again, but this time as the beautiful man he had grown in to.
Just a few days after receiving the photos, yet another envelope dropped onto my door mat, it had Australian postage stamps on it, I opened it – it was a letter from Marks adoptive Mum.