On my 28th birthday, my boyfriend Mark took me to see his parents and childhood home. We flew from San Francisco to Chicago and Mark’s younger brother drove us 20 miles to a subdivision of ranch houses. The oak trees were turning color.
Mark’s mom was in the driveway, waving. Mark’s dad was in the front yard, tending to the low wall he had been building next to the shrubs since retiring. He greeted us with the idea that he might want to raise the wall by one stone’s level.
He stood by as Mark hugged his mother and she began to cry.
Mark thought all that summer of 2000 about telling his parents he was gay. We had broken up once over it. I wanted to date someone who was out.
Yet I understood how Mark’s mom, a fundamental Baptist, would panic that the rapture would leave her son behind. My own mom, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, believed she wouldn’t get to see me in paradise. She had been in mourning since I came out.
Still, I felt dealing with disapproving parents was a less empty and isolating experience than trying to connect with family from the closet.
Mark didn’t come out on the trip to Chicago that fall. A week before, Mark had been diagnosed with liver cancer. He was 30. The tumors were aggressive and inoperable, which ended his plan to ever explicitly say he was gay. He didn’t want his family thinking he might go to hell.
Dinner the first night in Chicago was a combination of beef stew over steamed rice, adobo, spring rolls and vegetable stir-fry. Mark’s parents were Chinese who immigrated to the United States via the Philippines. They joined a fundamentalist church to fit in with their Midwest neighbors and became true believers.
Mark was raised in a strict hybrid of Christian and Asian cultures. Part of what I loved about him was that, like me, he challenged his upbringing to seek his own identity — even if it was cliché that we met in San Francisco.
After dinner with Mark’s family, a hastily arranged birthday cake was presented and I awkwardly blew out the candles. My wish was that Mark would get better. Then I thought, “I’m only 28 and I don’t know if I can handle this.”
I realized how much I loved Mark for his ability to think of others over himself. A year earlier, Mark surprised me with a birthday party — my first at 27. I never celebrated my birthday as a child. Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t allow it.
Mark’s parents visited San Francisco often, staying weeks at a time. We endured shared meals and TV-watching in Mark’s apartment while he endured chemotherapy. His dad complained about my table manners.
When the experimental treatments failed, Mark chose to return to Chicago to die. There was no cake on my 29th birthday. I left my job and went to live with Mark’s parents and help in his hospice care.
My relationship to their son remained unspoken. But when their pastor stopped by, I shook his hand and watched his eyes narrow as he deduced who I was. My mom would call to see how I was doing. She sent a card to Mark’s parents and Watchtower magazines to me.
When Mark lost the ability to speak in the final days, his mom found me sitting alone, sat next to me and sobbed. I put my arm around her.
Every day I would wear Mark’s favorite leather jacket, a birthday present I had given him. His dad asked if he could try it on.
I reluctantly handed it over and was relieved when it didn’t fit. But he tugged and pulled. “It fits OK,” he said. “I don’t have much of my son.”
I told him to keep it.
I never heard Mark’s dad say he loved his son. But I knew his dad once wore a football helmet in a hailstorm to pick up a pizza, because he had promised his kids pizza for dinner.
At the funeral home, the undertaker determined the relevant floral signs of “Son” and “Brother” and put away the “Husband” banner. Then Mark’s dad asked, “What about ‘Friend?’ Do you have one that says ‘Friend?’”
Knowing who Mark was
A month after Mark died, I returned to Chicago for his brother’s long-planned wedding. I was included in some of the group pictures and managed a smile. But I was sad that Mark would never have the chance to marry — and disappointed that I might not, either.
I haven’t seen Mark’s family since his brother’s wedding, though I have seen Mark’s grave five times. Mark’s dad sent me a letter saying he knew I was gay and I was no longer welcome in his home unless I repented.
I wrote back to say I would always be willing to share the parts of his son’s life he didn’t know and what interesting things Mark had done. We haven’t communicated since.
Mark died in 2001, but I believe someday his family will get to know him. Maybe when the children of Mark’s brother are grown, they’ll find old photos and wonder about their absent uncle and the Caucasian man next to him.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Lim died at age 31 of liver cancer caused by chronic hepatitis B. He was the victim of an epidemic of hepatitis B that disproportionately affects Asian Americans born to mothers who lived in Asia. The virus is passed at birth and often undetected until it is too late. The Asian Liver Center at Stanford University estimates one in 12 adult Asian Americans are living with chronic hepatitis B and don’t know it. Before Mark died in 2001, he worked with the Asian Liver Center to educate others. Today, San Francisco Hep B Free Bay Area is dedicated to providing free and low-cost hepatitis B testing and vaccinations to Asian and Pacific Islander adults. In honor of their annual fundraising gala and the anniversary of Mark’s death October 22, Joel Engardio re-published this essay from 2009 that originally appeared in USA Today.
Learn more about Mark’s illness in this recent follow-up article by Joel Engardio, which describes what is being done today to ensure others do not suffer the same fate.
Originally published at http://www.engardio.com on October 21, 2019.