My brother, Mark, passed away 21 years ago, tomorrow, just a few months shy of his 40th birthday. He was artistic and smart, filled with curiosity and imagination. I suspect if he’d been born in 2005 instead of 1955 he would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but ADHD wasn’t something my parents knew about, and the manifestations of Mark’s curiosity (I want to know how a radio works so I’ll take it apart!) were not celebrated, but were instead punished. I think my parents had good intentions when it came to raising their children, but sometimes the upbringing and temperament of a parent may put them at odds with a child at the opposite end of a behavioral spectrum. I’m afraid this was the case with Mark and Dad.
In his early adolescence, Mark was a faithful altar boy and an avid boy scout. I don’t have any concrete verification, but given his unusual sexual behaviors and his alcohol addiction, I would not be the least bit surprised to find out that a priest or scout leader had sexually abused him. His sexual identity and substance abuse were a constant source of conflict for Mark for the remainder of his life.
After more than two decades living as a gay man, Mark married a woman. I don’t think I ever understood it. It did not appear he was particularly happy in the marriage. I don’t know if it was the fact that he and his wife, her two teenage daughters, the daughters’ babies, and at some points the daughters’ boyfriends all lived together in a 2-bedroom/1-bath apartment, or if in marrying a woman he was trying to be something he wasn’t. Whatever the reasons, his life did not seem to bring him much joy.
He’d also had some serious medical issues concerning his heart. I don’t know the full nature of them, but he’d had a heart valve replacement in 1993. He should have quit drinking and taken better care of himself. With the heart issues, I’m pretty sure he should have been under a doctor’s regular care, and probably on some meds, but none of that was part of his routine.
Mark called me on Good Friday, 1995. One of the first things he asked was, “Do you think Mom knew she was going to die?” (Our mother had a hysterectomy due to uterine cancer in 1970. The doctors said they thought they’d gotten it all, so there was no need for chemo or radiation. They were wrong, and five years later she wound up with cancer throughout her body. She underwent chemo for a couple of years with a local physician in San Rafael, but that stopped, and my parents told us that Dr. Carrigg had done everything he could with the drugs he had access to, and he was sending Mom to UC San Francisco for some different kind of treatment. A few weeks later, before any trip to UCSF, she died. Was there really any further treatment to be had? Or was that just a story the doctor told my parents, or my parents told their children?) So when Mark asked if I thought Mom knew she was going to die, I said yeah, I thought so. A priest had come to our house the week before she died. We weren’t the kind of family that had priests come to the house. Some families are, but we weren’t. So yeah, I think Mom must have known.
It was early afternoon, but Mark had been drinking and continued to do so during our phone conversation. As I spoke with him, I was cleaning house, doing the dishes, trying to get ready for my sister and her family to come for the Easter weekend. Though it lasted about an hour, I don’t remember much of that conversation, other than the initial question about Mom, and the end of the call. My kids, aged 5 and 2, had pretty much been left to their own devices while I was talking to Mark, but finally I could ignore them no longer. “Mark, I’ve gotta go. I’ll talk to you later.” He replied, “Yeah, maybe.” Those were the last words Mark said to me.
My sister arrived a few hours later, steaming. It seems after Mark hung up with me, he called her. Like I said, he was drinking while he was on the phone with me, and then with her, and one of his more “choice” comments to her was “If you hear of somebody jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge this weekend you’ll know it was me.”
Four days later, the Tuesday after Easter, my dad called with the news that Mark was dead. No, it wasn’t the bridge. He’d died in his apartment. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask how. We buried him a few days later, in the plot right next to my Grandma and Grandpa Brown. It was comforting to know that he was right next to Grandma. She loved Mark very much. She loved all her grandchildren.
Mark was my next older brother, five years older than I. Growing up, I really didn’t ever imagine Mark would make it to his 30th birthday, but he made it almost to 40.
For many years, I didn’t know how Mark died. I couldn’t ask. I was too scared to hear the answer. One time I even went to the vital records office in Marin County. I walked into the office and stood there. I had three death certificates I wanted – my great-grandparents, Mary and Tom Bradley’s, and Mark’s. I didn’t have $45 to spend on the three records, and I couldn’t decide which one I wanted, so I turned and walked out with none.
In 2008, a few months before my father died, I was finally ready to find out how Mark died. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to ask Dad, still afraid of what the answer might be. But I wrote for the coroner’s report. The medical cause of death was “cardiac dysrhythmia due to marked cardiomegaly from left ventricular hypertrophy.” The coroner’s verdict was that “Mark Damian Kircher died due to or as a consequence of natural causes.” The complete drug screen detected only maprotiline, an antidepressant, in his system. No blood ethyl alcohol detected. Natural causes. I was relieved to finally know.
Thinking back to Mark’s question from Good Friday 1995 about whether Mom knew she was going to die… I think Mark was looking for the answer about himself. He must have felt signs from his failing heart and wanted to confirm those signs meant his own end was near.
I’m sorry we lost Mark. I wish my children could have known him. But I am glad that he is finally at peace. Love you, Mark.
 Office of the Coroner, County of Marin, Coroner’s Report in the Matter of the death of Mark D. Kircher, Case No. 95081, dated April 18, 1995
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.