Your love echoes around the world
In April 2010 my daughter Georgia and I boarded a plane from London to San Francisco. Georgia was only 12 at the time and looking back I realise just how much emotion she too was carrying for a girl of her age but boy did she carry well. She was my tower of strength, my companion and my constant during a very turbulent time.
Two weeks in San Francisco lay ahead for us, I was emotional, excited and a complete bag of nerves. Clint, along with his partner Jeff were already living in the Bay Area at the time, Mark 2 was making a 10 hour drive up from his home town in Palm Springs. I think we all carried a sense of excitement and emotional anticipation.
From the first time Georgia and I met these 3 beautiful men any worry’s or fears I had been harbouring just melted away. We had already been communicating for around two years and forged a strong foundation, but meeting in person compounded this instant loving connection and over the next couple of weeks we laughed together, we cried together, we listened and we talked. I could write a whole book on just that one visit so trying to condense it into one chapter already feels challenging. What I will say though is that so much of that trip was felt on such a deep level that I shall never fully be able to portray it in words.
For me it was somewhat of a pilgrimage and a journey of discovery. For Clint and Mark 2 they had lost their brother 7 and a half years earlier and grieved hard for him. Having walked that dark tunnel of grief both before and after Marks death and emerged through the other end into a land of light, they were now re-walking in Marks footsteps again, returning to the many places they had been together, sharing stories of both his living and his dying, facing triggers, facing memories (both happy and sad ones) and finding themselves being dragged backwards into that tunnel of grief. They didn’t HAVE to do this, yet they walked that path for us – to show us Mark; to share with us his life, his loves, his achievements and his fears. To this day I am not sure they fully realise the huge debt of gratitude I/we owe them. I have never been in the presence of such love either before or since.
It is said that you can tell a lot about a man from the company he keeps and on meeting Mark 2 and Clint and quickly discovering how loving, generous and fun they were, this was an instant reflection of the person that Mark was, the friends he attracted into his life, and the love that he was enveloped in to the very last day of his life. Jeff didn’t meet Mark personally as he met Clint after Mark had died, but he was a huge part of the profound and magical time we shared together during those weeks on the Bay.
Our Mark had lived in San Francisco for the last 12 years of his life, he was just 28 when he was diagnosed as HIV positive and 37 when he died. I have been given the honour of reading from Marks own diaries covering some of those years. I am not going to share much of that here as that’s his personal thoughts and memoirs, but I will say that it included a raw reflection of fear, shame, stigma, bewilderment and the loss of a bright future which should have laid ahead for him.
Mark was a victim of a huge AIDS pandemic which ripped through the soul of the gay community in San Francisco from the late 1980’s. It robbed us of 1000’s of lives, and for Mark2 and Clint they hadn’t just lost one friend/brother, they had lost dozens.
I wasn’t a part of that world and I admit that HIV/AIDS wasn’t even on the radar for most of my life, nor for those within my social network. It’s only subsequently as I have become a part of my brothers world that I have come to understand the depth of loss, fear and grief which consumed not only the gay community of San Francisco but so many others around the globe.
Naturally during our visit to San Francisco we did a lot of sight seeing; the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Street Cars etc, but much more of our time was ‘Mark-seeing’. The boys took us to so many places that Mark lived and loved, from his favourite park with Japanese Botanical Gardens, to eating at his favourite restaurants, they took us to schools where he taught at and showed us the apartments both in San Francisco and across the Bay in Oakland where he had lived…and died.
The boys told me that they had lost touch with Mark’s former parter Alonzo with whom he had shared many years of his life with, although they were not together at the time of Marks death. They believed he was still living in the Bay Area though. I then managed to find Alonzo on facebook and after dropping him a message he invited us to his home and once again openly shared so much of my brother with me; their first date, their first kiss, their most loving moments to Mark’s hissy fits when he wasn’t happy with something!!! Alonzo had also kept the many hand written love letters which Mark had sent to him on the occasions he had returned to Australia to spend time with his family. To see my brothers handwriting for the very first time and read his own words was both powerful and deeply moving, it somehow brought him to life much more than photos had and made him very ‘real’ . Over those two weeks I truly felt I got know Mark and finally had a relationship with my brother. Maybe not the relationship I had dreamed of having for all those years but nevertheless I built a very tangible and visual relationship finally knowing who and what he was.
Gloria obviously took huge comfort from this too and although she wasn’t with us in person to share the trip, she was naturally very much a part of the journey. I sent her back texts and emails on a very regular basis, sharing every intricate detail and story whilst they were still fresh in my mind.
I could tell that even though Alonzo and Mark had separated as a couple quite a while before Marks death they had still retained a very close friendship and even in that moment 7 years after his passing Alonzo clearly still lived Mark dearly. He reminisced about how every year on Mark’s birthday he would buy him a dozen red roses and how they would slow dance in the kitchen to their favourite song. In the years since Mark’s death Alonzo would still go to Mark’s old apartment, leave a red rose on the door step, then go home, put their song on and still slow dance in the kitchen ‘with’ Mark as his birthday ritual.
To know Mark had known such love and to know that this love still continued beyond the grave was phenomenally beautiful.
Alonzo already knew his illness too was now terminal but had been given anything between one and seven years to live. He told me “Mark taught me how to live well, and he also taught me how to die well, when my time comes I hope I can be as brave and as dignified as he was and to experience death in the same beautiful way”.
At the time of meeting Alonzo it was very difficult to understand his speech as he was suffering with mouth cancer. He explained that just a few months earlier he had undergone surgery to remove half of his tongue. The cancer had already spread to his lungs and he had been diagnosed as HIV positive many years earlier, before he even met Mark (although this was not how Mark contracted it) so was also immunity compromised.
Mark had died just after American Thanksgiving in 2002, it was his favourite time of year. He loved the coming together of friends and family without all the material trappings which also come with Christmas.
When Mark was dying and no longer conscious his friends still gathered next to his bedside to celebrate thanksgiving with him. They sang to him, they talked to him, they prayed for him. When he died on 29th November he was surrounded in the love of his friends and family from both the USA and Australia. Iris, Peter and Melanie had all flown over to be with him.
When I return from San Francisco I continued to keep in touch with and correspond with Alonzo, but almost exactly a year later I saw tributes flood onto his Facebook page and realised with the deepest sorrow that he too had died. I take comfort that in a better world Mark & Alonzo still slow dance together among the stars.
On our first visit to Clint & Jeff’s apartment Clint pointed out an urn which sat in his living room, “that’s your brother” he said and handed it to me to hold. For so many years I had longed to hug and hold my brother, and suddenly he was here in my arms, nothing more than cremated ashes in an urn and yet the rush of love I felt in that physical connection is something which still stays with me to this day. Clint went on to explain that at Marks own request half of his cremains went back to Australia to his family there and the other half stayed with Clint in America. “Now it’s time to return him to his birth family” Clint then added “I KNOW this is what he would want” I was completely speechless, this was the very last thing I had been expecting and yet it mean so so much, more importantly I knew how much it was going to mean to Gloria.
Another of the most profound moments of our visit was Easter Sunday morning when Clint and Mark2 took us to the Glide Memorial Church – this is a church to which the likes of it I have never experienced in my life, they don’t have services, they have ‘celebrations’ and welcome people of every diversity and orientation. Hilary Clinton has been known to frequent this church, but there are also drug addicts, homeless people, very openly gay people, and ALL people for whom none of us really need labels, it is the most accepting and non-judgemental experience I have ever attended and the world would be a much better place if there were more like it. This is the church where Mark used to sing in the Gospel choir, where he found ‘his tribe’ and where his friends became his family. This celebration includes a time where people are invited to stand up and openly share their stories. Clint stood up and said “many of you will remember your friend and choir member Mark S……..” he went on to share the story of Mark’s search for his birth family, and how 5 years after Marks passing he had received a telephone call from a lady in England who was Marks sister, and now she and her daughter (Marks niece) were here at the Glide sitting right next to him!!!!! Cheers and applause went out from the choir and from the entire congregation. To this day I don’t know how Clint found the inner strength to stand up and tell that story, because myself, Georgia and Mark2 sat their all sobbing like babies.
My only disappointment for the trip was that when I looked up details of the Oakland Gay Mens Chorus of which Mark had also been a founder member, their next concert was a week after we were leaving. I would so loved to have seen them sing, but that would have to be perhaps for a return visit.
The two weeks went by way too quickly, it had been an emotional rollercoaster but one of beauty, friendship, love and joy which I was determined were going to overcome the loss and grief. Perhaps inspired by a quote from Marks own diary when he was reflecting on Thanksgiving a year before he died, and wrote “I am also thankful for HIV/AIDS because it has brought angels into my life, angels I would not have otherwise met”. I tried hard to live by his words, as because of his death these angels Clint, Mark2, Jeff and Alonzo had all come into mine and Georgia’s life, and shared with us (and in turn Gloria) something which I can never fully portray in writing this story.
All too soon it was time to say some tearful goodbyes though, Mark 2 was leaving the Bay to drive home to Palm Springs and we were due to fly out the next day to return to England. With a heavy heart I logged on online to check-in for our flights, but check-in was denied. Cutting another long story short we quickly discovered that the Eyjafjallajökul Volcano had erupted in Iceland, sending a plume of volcanic ash more than 9km into the sky and forcing U.K. airspace to close.
After a whole night of not being able to contact the airline over the phone, we made a trip to San Francisco airport and after queuing for over 3 hours we were told that the earliest flight we could get home on would be two weeks later! Were we sorry about this??? Like heck we were. The smile on Georgias face got bigger and bigger when she realised she was going to miss the first two weeks of the new school term, and another two weeks in California in a new hotel which British Airways were going to pay for along with $100 dollars food vouchers per day was music to my ears.
As we returned to downtown San Francisco Clint came to meet us so we could move our luggage to the new hotel. “This was all your brothers work” he said “now you can go to the Oakland gay mens chorus (OGMC) next weekend, it was meant to be”
And so it was, we had another glorious 2 weeks in California, some of it still in San Francisco and a few days down in San Jose staying with some family friends whom we hadn’t had time to see in our first two weeks, and of course we got to see the OGMC in concert, another experience I shall never ever forget. As they ended their performance with a spine tingling rendition of “What a wonderful world” tears rolled down my cheeks. Clint put his arm around me and hugged me tightly. It IS a wonderful world and I wanted to continue the adventures which Mum and Mark had started. The travel genes most certainly ran through all of our DNA.
When the time finally came for us to return home I packed up my most precious cargo, Marks ashes and carried them close to me in my hand luggage with additional documentation which Clint had given me. We said our final goodbyes to Clint & Jeff at the airport and made our way through security. As we presented our tickets for final inspection at the boarding gate, the machine beeped and the staff member said “wait one minute please.” Of course the worst was going through my mind, with all the confusion with our earlier cancelled flights I assumed there was going to be an additional problem, but in less than a minute the airport assistant said “you’ve both got a free upgrade to business class”! That was the first time in my life that I had ever flown business class and both Georgia and I were beaming from ear to ear. “That was Mark” I smiled to myself “he didn’t want to fly home in economy”.
On return home I had a beautiful new urn made for Marks ashes, on the lid was a sunflower (apparently his favourite flower) and around the side a beautiful image of the Golden Gate Bridge and panoramic view of San Francisco. On Mums next visit to us, I handed her the box, “I can finally hold my baby in my arms again” she whispered with tears in her eyes. I couldn’t even reply to her, I just nodded as I stood there in silence. Gloria was finally reunited with her son, but not in a way that either of us had ever visualised.
Gloria loved the San Francisco urn though and she said “can you have one made for me when I die please, only I want Sydney harbour on mine because that’s where a piece of my heart will always be”. I promised her that I would make it happen.
A piece of my heart had always been in Sydney too, yet at the age of 40 I had still never stepped foot in Australia. I knew this now needed to be the next step in my own personal journey and so 10 months later Georgia and I once again boarded a plane, only this time we were heading Down Under to meet Marks adoptive family.
Copyright 2022, Terri Shanks