DON'T IGNORE THAT SMALL VOICE INSIDE.
It was an unseasonably-warm December afternoon in the early sixties and, while my young daughters napped, I took a few minutes to sit on the patio. Consistently tired and weak, I looked for every excuse to rest. Little did I know that in only a few hours, my life would change… dramatically .
My next door neighbor, a high school student, saw me outside and walked over. After the usual niceties, the mannerly young man asked about my health, remarking that I looked weak and very thin. I explained I was still recovering from the birth of my second child and major kidney surgery. The longer I talked the more emotional I became and soon-- was unable to control the tears. The young man, obviously embarrassed, listened politely as I confessed my husband’s many affairs; the financial pressure from supporting myself and my daughters; and my reliance on multiple pills to control my anxiety, my panic attacks, and lingering depression. Promising a solution, my neighbor insisted we go to the high school track the next afternoon.
My first attempt to walk around the track was a miserable failure. Two days later, thanks to my neighbor’s persistence, I complete my first-ever walk around a high school track. Not wanting to disappoint my young friend, I continued following his training suggestions. Every afternoon, accompanied by both daughters, I walked around and around the high school track. Sometimes my young neighbor joined us and other times, his encouragement came in the form of a phone call.
Several weeks passed and my young“coach” decided I needed bigger challenges. He suggested I walk around the blocks in our neighborhood and within ten days, my pace increased from fast walking—to jogging. It wasn’t long before I could jog three miles without stopping.
Each morning at five o’clock, while the rest of the world slept, I jogged the neighborhoods. Near the end of summer, a few days before the beginning of school, my young neighbor/coach stopped to check on me. He seemed happy I’d stopped taking the pills. At that moment, neither of us could have imagined how running would not only save my life—physically and mentally—but would soon propel me all the way to China.
Follow-up: Mark Barrett and I lost touch and years later, my onetime neighbor and self-appointed running coach approached me in Little Rock’s Park Plaza Shopping Center. I heard my name and stopped. Turning around, it took me more than a few moments to recognize the person standing in front of me. The years had not been kind. My once-handsome, adorable young neighbor was no longer young; no longer fit; no longer handsome.
We talked briefly-- mostly about our lives on 36th street-- in a town we’d both left for different reasons. When there was nothing left to say, we hugged, said our goodbyes, then went our separate ways.
Over time, I didn’t reflect on that chance meeting until, more than five years after my Great Wall Journey, I opened an email containing an obituary. My dear, long-ago neighbor and coach, Mark, had, at the age of 48 years old, voluntarily left this world.
At the time, I was in China teaching…too far away to attend the funeral. Later, I learned from a reliable source that Mark drank heavily, took drugs for depression and—after losing a multitude of jobs—was unable to work. Like many of us, Mark had too many demons and too little strength to fight back. I signed the online registry and mourned the loss of my dear friend.
But my involvement with Mark didn’t end with his obituary. Years after living in China, leaving China, and moving to and living in other places, I-- at last-- found myself back in Arkansas. I bought a house in Little Rock, had my storage from more than twenty years delivered, and began yet another....new life.
Unpacking the endless stored boxes from long ago, it became clear that most of the clothes were outdated while many items were no-longer usable.
Stopping by the nearest Goodwill Store’s donation platform to unload my car’s trunk, the attendant said he had misplaced his receipt book; if I wanted a receipt for tax purposes I would need to go inside the store.
While the inside clerk was writing a receipt, I glanced around the store. On the far wall, hanging with a menagerie of photos, plaques, outdated calendars, and empty picture frames, was a classic portrait of a handsome young man. Drawn to the young man’s eyes, I walked closer to get a better view and immediately felt a connection. When the clerk handed me the receipt, I left the store.
That night and all the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the painting. I went back to the store and asked if anyone knew who’d donated the painting and how long it had been in the store? No knew anything except: the painting had been there for months and was marked twenty dollars. The store manager said I was the only person who’d shown interest in the painting so—she would mark it down to ten dollars.
I hung the portrait on an upstairs bedroom wall where it stayed for five years; the identity of the young man in the painting remained a mystery. One night, unable to sleep, I decided to write. Needing a change of scenery, I took my laptop upstairs—to my favorite bedroom—but instead of writing, I found myself distracted by the portrait. I felt the young man looking at me, trying to communicate.
Studying the portrait, I sensed something familiar in the young man’s eyes and was suddenly reminded of my one-time neighbor, coach, and young friend, Mark. Could the man in the portrait be Mark?
I posted a photo of the portrait online-- on Facebook-- asking if anyone recognized the young man. I also posted the name of the artist, Markissia. Almost immediately a new Facebook Friend, living in Tarpon Springs, Florida, recognized the artist as one of his friends and contacted her. Markissia verified she had painted the portrait but didn’t remember the name of the young man in the portrait. Several weeks passed and, unable to think of much else, I searched the internet.
I easily found Mark’s parents, now living in Little Rock, and also found their telephone number. Mark’s father, Milton, now ninety years old, seemed glad to hear from me. I told him about finding the portrait and mentioned tracking the portrait’s artist to Tarpon Springs, Florida. He said he vaguely remembered taking the family to Tarpon Springs one summer, a very long time ago. He said his son Mark, somewhat of a budding artist at the time, had posed for a portrait but no one ever saw it. In fact, he believed his son, Mark, had forgotten to pick up the finished painting before the family left Tarpon Springs. I asked if I could bring the portrait to his home so he could decide if it was, indeed, Mark.
Mr. Barrett sounded interested but commented on being busy and asked if I could call the following week to arrange a convenient time. I called the next week....and the following week… and the week after....and no one answered the phone. I left message after message but my calls were never returned until....
Early one morning I answered my phone and a woman asked to speak to Miss Sally. She didn’t volunteer her name but said she’d heard several of my phone messages and believed I should know the truth.
The woman said, “Mark died in the nineties. His father cleared out Mark’s apartment and stored all his belongs—including a portrait—in the storage shed behind his house. The caller related that only a few years ago Mark’s older brother, Milton, a well-to-do medical doctor in West Virginia, had died-- quiet suddenly.
When Mr. Barrett learned of his remaining son’s death, he immediately cleaned out the backyard storage and took everything to a Goodwill store. The caller said Ms. Barrett was nearly hysterical when she learned of her husband’s actions but could do nothing.
The woman caller, describing herself as a home care worker, said she asked Mr. Barrett how he could so easily dispose of his son’s personal items and he’d replied: “The only reason I stored Mark’s items was because his brother, Milton, wanted them. Well, Milton--my successful son-- is dead and his worthless brother—Mark--died without amounting to a hill of beans. I don’t need any reminders of Mark’s life. Shortly before he died, Mark had the nerve to tell me he was gay!” I thanked the woman for contacting me and hung up.
Who can explain why I was chosen to find the portrait in a Goodwill store or why I was compelled to buy it and bring it home? How can I make sense of the fact a new Facebook Friend “just happened” to live in the same town with the artist and the two of them “just happened” to be friends? Equally coincidental was the unknown home care worker who “cared enough” to return my phone message. By doing so, she solved the complicated mystery of the portrait.
I’ll always believe a power—far beyond reason, reality, and explanation—knew Mark needed someone to care about him; to care about his life and--- about his death. Recently I relocated the oil painting to my bedroom so I can see it every day. Mark, my dear, sweet young neighbor—my running coach from so-long-ago—found his final resting place with me.
PS…Within months of becoming my new Facebook Friend from Tarpon Springs, Florida and connecting me with the mysterious Portrait’s Artist…my new Facebook Friend unexpectedly died. Some truths are unexplainable.