Saturday, September 2, 2006

In Memoriam, Mark Cassorla

We just got back home last night from another vacation, this one to Texas. This vacation was interrupted by a side trip I had to make to bury my cousin Mark, who decided that he needed to kill himself on Monday morning. It's hard to express all of the feelings this has drudged up. But I feel as if it's somehow my responsibility to try to say something appropriately solemn.

I always thought of Mark as "Marco". I'm not really sure whether this is because I grew up hearing other people calling him Marco or not. As I've mentioned before, I'm cursed with a horrible memory. So I honestly can't say whether anyone else ever called him Marco, although in my mind's ear, I can pretty clearly hear it rolling off his father's tongue. I'm also not sure whether I ever called him "Marco" to his face or whether the nickname resided strictly in my head.

What I can say is that in some sense I always felt closer to Mark than I ever felt to any other relative. I don't know how to explain it except to say that I thought of him as someone with whom I shared a certain spiritual kinship. We hadn't talked much in quite a long time. The last two times we saw each other were a few months ago when we buried his father (see my post from June 19, 02006) and on my wedding day almost three years earlier. The worst of times and the best of times.

We never really did spend a whole lot of time having deep and meaningful talks. But I always felt this bond with him. Maybe it was just that I looked up to him so much. I respected the hell out of him and I admired him. When it was time to pick a college, I think I was in my own way trying to follow in his footsteps by choosing Penn, where he had gone.

Listening to what other people were saying about him this week, it's clear that he was an absolutely brilliant man. I was always aware that he was extremely intelligent. But it's fairly odd to hear so many people, who in actual point of fact probably knew him better than I did, describe him as the smartest person they knew. Not odd in the sense that it comes as any true surprise, but odd in the sense that whenever I was around him he never made me feel stupid. Surely he could have done so. (I say "surely" because given what I heard this week it's fairly obvious that he was not only my own intellectual superior, but probably the intellectual superior of everyone he ever met.)

So I knew him as smart, but not arrogant. I knew him as someone with a terrific sense of humor. I knew him as someone who seemed always to be smiling or laughing. And I knew him as someone who was kind and generous.

In the summer of 1989, Mark was a college graduate with a Masters degree. His next stop was UCLA to get his Doctorate. I was a high-school graduate who had been accepted to college, figuring on going into mechanical engineering. I had chosen to defer matriculation for a year in an effort to get my head on a little straighter.

As it happened, Mark needed to get his car across the country to L.A. And he had a fixed date by which he needed to get there. Mark had a little manual-transmission Subaru and I had only ever driven an automatic. So I took a train up to New York state, where his father gave me a weekend lesson in driving stick. A few weeks later, Mark came and picked me up in MD and we spent a couple of weeks taking turns driving that Subaru across the country.

We veered this way and that. We did some touristy things along the way--visiting a theme park or two, spending a little time in the Great Smoky Mountains, visiting the Grand Canyon, playing some miniature golf here and there, going tubing somewhere in Appalachia. Mostly, we drove. We saw some nature, some vast plains, some big mountains. I remember we took a picture at Voda Road (in Kansas, perhaps?), which for some inexplicable reason struck us both as funny.

The thing about that trip is that it was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. I was extremely depressed at that point, having fallen in love with someone who just didn't feel at all the same about me. One thing that's true of me is that when I fall in love, I do so deeply. (Lucky for me, it hasn't happened often.) And so, to have it be so thoroughly unrequited was absolutely devastating to me. I was miserable, and while I'm not going to go so far as to say that Mark saved my life by letting me come along with him, I am willing to say that letting me come along was exactly what I needed. I needed to get away, and Mark gave me that opportunity. We didn't do a whole lot of talking, as I recall, and what talking we did was not of the heavy "affairs of the heart" sort. But getting away, travelling across the country, was probably the best sort of therapy that could have been given to me.

A few years later, Mark (and Kate, now his widow) came to my rescue again, when I was at art school in a seedy area of Los Angeles and the riots hit. Much of L.A. was burning, including the camera store that I had walked to to buy my first SLR. So where was my safe haven? Where did I escape to? I took a bus out to Santa Monica and slept on Mark and Kate's futon. As it turns out, I would have been safe staying in the dorm. The closest fire I learned of was about two blocks away at a Jack-In-The-Box. But at the time I fled, nobody knew just how bad things were going to get. I, with my naïve faith in mankind, started out initially thinking it would all blow over within a couple of hours of its starting. Turned out I was dead wrong on that one and it got a lot worse before it got better. A lot worse than I ever would have guessed.

So here I am, feeling as if Mark came through and rescued me at the two times in my life when I most needed rescuing, and wondering why I wasn't able to return the favor this time. I know this guilt is all part of the grieving process. And I know that the anger I have towards him for doing this one stupid, stupid, cruel, and stupid act is too. So he's leaving behind three beautiful, wonderful, strong, intelligent kids who now have to finish growing up without their father. And he's missing out on watching them grow up. He's leaving behind a mother who had already endured too much loss in the last few years. He's leaving behind a bunch of people who loved him. It's just not fair. It's just plain wrong.

I remember two specific conversations that I had with him. One was when he told me that to get a PhD in Mathematics (which he was working on at the time), basically you have to do something that nobody else has ever managed to do. This awed me, and I was so proud of him for doing it when he had done it. (I guess it turns out that his doctoral work has since been found flawed, but it was good enough to convince the reviewers, and I'm guessing that very few people on the planet have enough of a grasp of the subject to understand what it was all about, let alone where he went wrong).

The other was when Kate was converting to Judaism, and Mark was studying along with her and said that he found it interesting. He said it in such a way that I gathered that he was fairly surprised at how interesting he found it. And I got the impression that his interest at the time was more as an intellectual interest than anything else: Here's something that's fascinating to study, rather than You know, there's truth here. Given that, I was never really sure whether he had become a true believer or not. I could only guess, based on how they chose to raise the kids. But whatever conclusions he had reached, I trusted him to believe what was right for him. He was too smart for anything else, right?

And on that note, I'm going to draw this to a rapid conclusion. I'm not sure whether confusion/bewilderment is one of the stages of grieving or not. But that's what I'm ultimately left with, when I get past the anger and the denial and the guilt. How in the world could someone so smart come to suicide as the only available option?!?

So long, Marco. You'll be missed.