Mark B.

By: Caleb Daniloff

His name was Mark. He was born in Northport, New York, and last February he died in Boston, of an overdose. He was 28 years old. In between those facts are so many others, too numerous to name. As a kid, he was afraid of the moon. In his early twenties, he found Jesus, holding his grandfather’s hand as he passed, and later led weekly prayer groups in the men’s ministry at a local Baptist church. Even as he toggled between addiction and sobriety, he helped people find recovery. Mark’s friends described him as “someone who would do his best to make you crack a smile in a dark moment, even at his own expense,” that he had “a brilliant mind for business,” and was always “radically himself.” To his family he was, simply, “our beautiful boy.”

Patti and Mark Bergbuchler

When I heard the news, I was crushed. I didn’t know Mark, but I knew his mother, Patti, a fierce-loving Italian woman with a smile as big as her New York accent. She is a fellow ambassador at Herren Project. And she and I had been traveling the same road. Our kids were about the same age. My daughter had just gotten sober when we met. At the time, Mark was living in a “gated community,” as Patti liked to put it. Prison, she explained with a wry smile. We were all pulling for Mark, for Patti.

I drove down from Boston to New York for the funeral with several other Herren Project folks, some of whom I didn’t know well, but all of us touched by addiction—one had lost a relative to the disease, another came out of the womb hooked on heroin, one had lost his driver’s license for life after one DUI too many. Other HPers were coming in from Rhode Island, New York, and Chicago.

As we sped closer to the Northport, anxiety about the service began gripping me as I feared it would. I had braced for a moment like this many times and used to write my daughter’s obituary in my head. Now Patti was on the other side, and I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to say. I felt a kind of survivor’s guilt, even though I know, as parents, we’re never really out of the woods. My head was swimming by the time we opened the church doors.

I beelined for the bathroom before the service. I had stashed a couple of Ativans in the coin pocket of my pants. I dug around with my finger but came up with nothing but lint and dust. I couldn’t believe it, as if someone had plucked them out. Were they buried in the seam? Had they been crushed during the ride? I took my seat in the pew, and dug around one last time, about to wet my fingertip, before realizing that I was acting like the addict I used to be, desperate to dull my feelings because they were making me squirm. I glanced at the altar, ashamed. How disrespectful. But then a calm washed over me, as if a voice was whispering, it’s OK, feeling is the foundation of human experience. Go ahead, otherwise what’s the point? Maybe it was the spiritual setting. Maybe it was because my heart was beating outside my chest. Maybe it was Mark.

Then the service began. The priest led the procession, with the family solemnly following the wheeled casket. Patti walked tall, arm draped around Mark’s younger brother, Sean, who was sobbing. Later, when she spotted all of us HP folks sitting in the pews, she let out a little gasp and covered her mouth with her hand. Mark’s ex-girlfriend sat in the row in front of us, her head on a friend’s shoulder much of the time. Patti read the eulogy in a clear, tender voice. Her accent was pure love. She described a compassionate young man, handsome with blue eyes, one who always shared what he had with others, devoted to his family and friends.

“But the torture of addiction overwhelmed him,” she said. “He was scared, ashamed, embarrassed, felt alone inside, overpowered by pain, anxious, and conflicted.”

You could almost hear the tears hitting the church floor and the shoulders shaking. Back at the altar, her son helped turn the pages.

“Each time he faltered, he desperately tried to pull himself up,” Patti continued. “This took tremendous courage and perseverance. Sadly, in the end, this disease robbed him mentally, spiritually, and physically.”

Meanwhile, the disease can rob the rest of us of our sight. Its presentation can be so extreme, dramatic, painful, and destructive, that everything else about a person gets overshadowed, all the light swallowed up. Before long, eyes turn away, and hearts grow cold.

As if hearing these thoughts, Patti cleared her throat.

“We will NEVER let addiction define our beautiful boy—he was much, much more to all of us.”

After the service, we gathered at a nearby Italian restaurant where we met family members and friends and heard more stories, including the one about the moon. Patti explained that “I would tell Mark there was a man in the moon. ‘Do you see his face?’ And then he felt that ‘he’ was following him and watching him. Mark was a very literal child and even as a man.” Over the years, the family expressed their love for each other by saying “I love you to the moon and back!” There was more laughter and more sorrow. Patti told us how she called Mark’s cell phone, which the police never recovered, and a stranger answered. When Patti identified herself, the voice said, “Oh shit” and hung up. The torture, the not knowing, would continue.

Patti Bergbuchler Caleb Daniloff

We all hugged Patti tight and a few hours later, found ourselves back on the road to Boston as the light was starting to drain from the sky. A burnt orange sunset was followed by a sudden snow squall and we didn’t speak for a while. Then the darkness took hold and we started telling stories, some that we had shared with very few people—what it’s like to find someone who has overdosed, to see your best friend get killed, to zip up a body bag. But also what put us on the path to healing, the beauty of the Herren Project community, the strength and grace that Patti displayed even though we knew she was wrecked inside. Mark’s service had stripped away any artifice, cracked each of us open and what spilled out lit up the cabin. By the time we got off the Mass Pike, we were changed, no longer strangers or mere Facebook friends, no longer just connected through our experiences with addiction and running adventures, but bonded by our naked, indispensable, and common humanity.

Patti and Caleb

Addiction may have cut short Mark’s time, but as Patti reminded us, it was but a small part of his story. And hardly the final chapter. In a mere twelve hours, I learned a bunch of lessons: to remember to let yourself feel, to open yourself to other people, and to your sense of awe, and that even if you don’t know what to say, just showing up can make all the difference. Lastly, keep looking up. In a world of darkness, the light of the moon is often enough to illuminate your path. So, thanks, Mark.

This Sunday, I’m tackling the Big Sur Marathon in California, a bucket-list race that was canceled on me several times because of the pandemic. Winding along the Pacific coastline, it has the reputation as one the most beautiful—and challenging— courses. I’m dedicating the experience to Mark, and will carry his spirit with me. As someone who is perpetually under-trained and prone to injuries, I’ll need all the support I can get. So I’ll be looking up, looking for my man in the moon.

It would mean the world to me, and even more to Patti, who loves Herren Project more than you can imagine, if you would consider supporting the cause of recovery by donating to Herren Project. Help us help others find strength, hope, and support, no matter where their journey takes them.

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Thank you for listening, and for seeing.

If  you are a person or have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Herren Project is here to help. Our team will walk with you through our individual treatment placement and/or family support services that these donations support.