Mark Lim and Joel Engardio, 1999

Caramel Apple Lessons

By Joel P. Engardio

My boyfriend died 20 years ago today. We dated for a year while he was healthy and then another year when he was sick with cancer. I held Mark’s hand as he took his last breath.

It feels like yesterday. Yet when I see his photo — where he’s forever 29 — I’m reminded how long ago it really was. I’ve become middle aged and Mark is frozen in time.

I write a remembrance post every year. Sometimes it focuses on the type of cancer that killed Mark, how it was preventable, and what we must do to ensure no one else suffers the same fate. This essay explains all that.

Sometimes I remember the personal moments of Mark’s illness and the challenges of navigating it as a gay couple in the early 2000s when society was less accepting of LGBTQ people and Mark wasn’t out to his parents. This essay delves into that.

Then there’s so much to say about how kind, insightful, and loving Mark was. How he tended to his patients as a young medical doctor just out of residency. His laugh. His good dance moves.

I struggled with how to memorialize Mark on the 20th anniversary. It’s such a big year. What should I say? Most people in my daily life today — and the vast majority reading this post — never met Mark. I’ve met thousands of people in the years since he died while the number who knew Mark is finite.

As I pondered what to write, an email appeared from my old friend Gwen in Seattle. She was my roommate in San Francisco when I started dating Mark in 1999. She knew him well. They could be silly with each other.

“Remembering Mark 20 years later” was the subject line of Gwen’s message. Here’s what she wrote:

“I bumped into a neighbor who lives in my building and he reminded me of Mark, similar build and manner of speaking. Realized that it’s been 20 years since Mark passed and I want to do something to honor him. Maybe a candle ritual, walk in the woods, casting stones into the Sound.

I found the last email Mark sent to our group of friends. I remember weeping every time I read his last message. I read it again today and these words leap out, vital and true:

Please don’t wait for something tragic to happen. If we are to make any sense of this, my wish is that you all can learn the lesson I have learned — and learn it now. Open your eyes before realizing too late what is truly important in your life. If I have learned anything from this ordeal, it is to enjoy life to the fullest and to not get wrapped up in all the chaos of everyday life. Will you embrace this lesson, too? I hope so with all my heart.

I miss Mark and that time in our lives. I’m having a flashback while typing this — our spontaneous trip to Six Flags in Vallejo spurred by my craving for caramel apples! I will use that as a reminder from Mark to create more room for spontaneity in my life and act on it.”

Now I realize the best way to honor Mark today is to share his own words. Whether you knew Mark or not, his parting message to “enjoy life to the fullest and to not get wrapped up in all the chaos of everyday life” is a lesson we can all embrace.

Originally published at https://engardio.com on October 22, 2021.