He brought meatballs.
It was 2017 and it was freezing that evening in December when my neighbor Mark showed up at the side door, a steaming bowl of meatballs in his arms. It was enough to feed twenty people, and though it was almost comical how much food he’d brought, I didn’t laugh at the quantity. I appreciated it. Shawn was so sick that I didn’t really know what else to do besides accept everything that came my way. And the meatballs were so good, so filling, so hot and so full of love. I was really appreciative, but I didn’t write him a thank-you card. It was okay. I knew he didn’t care.
Mark and I had met many years prior, when we moved into the house just across the alley from him and his husband Chris. Claire and Austin were really tiny (Tommy wasn’t even a thought yet) and their son, Grant, was just a bit older than my kids. We’d chat as neighbors do – about life and the weather and the kids’ teachers. I liked Mark and Chris, and we were friends in the way that you are with people who you see every day. I knew that they were warm and thoughtful, that Mark cleaned all the leaves out of the alley and away from everyone’s trash cans every year, and that Chris always brought drinks out on a platter, just to make things fancy. I knew they watched the kids when I needed to go inside and change the baby’s diaper. I knew they were lovely, but I wouldn’t say we were close.
After Shawn died, that changed. Really, it changed because of Austin – he was only six years old, and needed more than I could give him. Every day, he’d wander over to Grant’s house, where he found good snacks and happy parents and a friend who was more like an older brother. I can’t even count how many times Austin ate dinner over there.
Slowly, I started hanging around with Mark and Chris. They’d pour me a drink on Friday afternoon, or offer me and the kids dinner or invite me to hang in their yard. I laughed a lot at Mark’s stories as I sat at their kitchen counter, and Chris always offered me something from the fridge. I loved that they kept our holiday card up for an entire year after Shawn died, and told jokes that made me smile. I cried with them a lot, too, but that was okay. And while I became close with both of them and even with Grant, this blog today is a special one just about Mark, and about all that he’s done for me.
It was a lot – even more than I can put into words. But what I remember the most is how often Mark would arrive at my side door, steaming bowl of meatballs in hand. In so many ways, Mark’s love arrived with my widowhood. In fact, I have proof right here on this blog.
I didn’t realize how much Mark was all over my blog until I started to look through my posts. I worried about Austin wandering around the neighborhood, but really, as I wrote in the post, Brussels Sprouts, he was getting fed by Mark. I worried about being a bad single mom, but the man at the end of the article I wrote for the Washington Post? That’s Mark, counseling me, telling me about being raised by a single mom and reassuring me that I was doing a great job. “You are worried about all sorts of things, I know,” my neighbor (Mark) said. “But you will teach your boys how to be men in all the stuff that really matters.”
The list goes on. On my post The First Day of School, I wrote about how every year Mark would invite us over, and make us pancakes. In 2018, he texted me, “Would you like to come over on the first day of school? We can make waffles and hang out together. I know it might not be an easy morning, so we would love to help you make new memories.” He also did this on The Last day of School each year, and as I recounted it in my post, it was such an important marker for me and the kids. And through it all, Austin continued to live at their house most afternoons, even if Grant wasn’t there. In fact, as I wrote in How My Son Found Family Across the Alley, “When summer arrived, Grant went to overnight camp for a few weeks. The first night of camp, Austin wanted to go over to his house. I told him that Grant was gone. ‘Well, I’ll just go see Mark and Chris then!’ he replied.” He knew he was loved over there.
So did I.
Mark was actually my very first guest blogger! He wrote about how he followed his son’s lead in learning to care for us. “We were just neighbors who mostly found each other in the adjoining alley. But Grant showed us the way to care for this family, not only at the moment they needed us the most, but all those moments that followed. We just needed to show up.”
He was right.
Mark didn’t do anything special, not really. He just showed up day after day, welcomed Austin and the other kids into his house, hugged me when I was down and made me laugh if that’s what I needed instead. He even set me up on a date once! And when the pandemic arrived, he checked on me every day, had coffee with me in the alley, and swooned over my stories of falling in love. And when (my) Chris moved into our house, he welcomed him as though he’d always been here, loved him as though they’d always known each other.
He showed us all love just by being there, across the alley, every day.
If you’ve read my posts for a while, you might think this was the end, the part where I wrap up my ideas into a nice little package. Maybe you’d think this was a blog post I wrote to show you how a neighbor can support another neighbor, even if they aren’t that close at first.
But I write this with tears streaming down my face, because that is not all there is to this story.
I know that life can be cruel – and yet I am still always shocked when something terrible happens to someone I love.
It was just over a year ago when we knew for sure that things were very bad. There’d been signs, but nothing that was truly frightening. But then I got a call from Mark. It was odd, because we never called. If we wanted to talk, we just walked across the alley.
He’d gone to the doctor and his brain had been scanned. And the scan – it was bad. The doctors were going to go in and see what was inside his head, but we both knew what it could be. He didn’t have to say the word “cancer.” He didn’t say much at all before I started crying so hard I could barely speak, promising him we’d be there for his family no matter what. I didn’t say, “it will be okay” because I don’t say things like that in those kinds of situations anymore. I just told him I would be there.
Just like he had been for me for so long.
I want the end of this story to be one about a false alarm, one about a crazy scare that we once had, something we now laugh about over beers in the backyard. I want a different ending.
But it was glioblastoma. And yes, there was a fight – one that he did with grace and humor and love. And over the past year, there were backyard gatherings and hangouts on the front porch and funny conversations in the alley. We got a year that we all knew wasn’t guaranteed, and though Mark and Chris couldn’t be at our wedding, they got to see photos and hear about it from us. I could see in Mark’s eyes that it made him so happy to see me so happy.
We said our final goodbyes before Chris and I left for our wedding, because we didn’t know what would happen. But Mark held on, enough for us to hug a few more times in the alley after we returned from our honeymoon.
And he hung on long enough for him to do one more thing.
Last week, the doorbell rang. There were flowers – a beautiful bunch of white roses and lilies – on the front porch. I opened the card, addressed to both me and Chris.
“We love you so much. You mean the world to us.”
They were from Mark.
How was it possible that a dying man was still bringing love into my house? How was he able to show this love at the very end, wrap his arms around me and Chris and tell us that it was all going to be okay, even when he was the one in pain? Even at that point, how was he still taking care of me?
A few days days later, he was gone. Our relationship, it seemed, had been marked by two great presents: the steaming hot meatballs and the white roses of the bouquet. In fact, as I write this, the flowers still sit on my counter. And yet, just like the meatballs, they will be gone someday.
But Mark is not gone, not in my my memory and not in the memory of those who loved him. People like him live on, in the stories we tell and in the things we learn from them. Yes, I am heartbroken. But I know what he’d say to me, as I sit across the alley from his husband and his child.