Bad news via the Internet by Sharon O’Donnell

Recently while looking up some business contacts on the Internet, I came across someone who graduated from Duke University. That made me think about an old friend of mine who went to Duke at the same time I was going to college at UNC-Chapel Hill just 8 miles away back in the ‘80s. The two schools were so close in proximity that during my freshman year, our female dorm had a ‘mixer’ with a Duke fraternity over at Duke. I don’t remember how that was arranged; but back then Duke and UNC were not the bitter rivals they are today, primarily because their basketball programs had not reached the national prominence they have today.

The Duke frat party was where I met Mark. He, like most of the guys there, was from New York, while most of us UNC students were from North Carolina. He was sweet and actually talked to me about my writing. Mark said he wrote too, and that he’d like to read some of my work sometimes. I couldn’t tell if that was just a line or not, but I didn’t think it was. Later, I found that it definitely wasn’t. Mark was very honest and gentlemanly – plus strikingly handsome at 6 feet 3 with blue eyes and blond hair. He drove me home that night because the girl I rode with disappeared. Mark was serious about his studies, and he wasn’t really eager to get into a relationship at the time. But we did go out several times, including to my own pledge formal dance.

We dated romantically off and on, but for some reason neither of us really fell head over heels for the other one, and that was okay. I dated other people, and I assume he did too. It really seemed more like we were meant to be friends than anything else, but we stayed in contact throughout the next 3 years while he was at Duke. He invited me to a play over on Duke’s campus once, and I’ll never forget how handsome he looked that night. The last time I saw him was at the end of my junior year just as he was leaving Duke to head to law school up north; we went to see The Sound of Music together. He knew it was my favorite movie, and he’s the only guy I’ve ever known who liked it a lot too. When he kissed me good-bye that day, he told me who knows what would have happened if we had met another time. His way of saying that he wasn’t ready for a commitment, and oddly, that was fine with me.

I can’t remember exactly what happened after that. I think we wrote a few times. And then a year or so later, the summer before I met my husband, he asked if he could send me a novel manuscript he had written so he could get my opinion on it. I was honored that he cared that much about what I thought. I loved his story – which was loosely based on his college days, though I did give him a few bits of advice from a woman’s perspective. He wanted me to mail the manuscript back to him with my comments, which I did. We exchanged letters some more, and then after I met my husband, the letters gradually stopped. We lost touch.

I’d typed in Mark’s name before, but nothing helpful ever came up. But I decided to type it again since I had Duke on my mind because of the business contact. I clicked on a few of the links that popped up, but it wasn’t the right Mark. Then I clicked on one and suddenly a website for a cemetery popped up. Well, that couldn’t be the right one, I thought. I almost clicked out of it, but right then I happened to notice a listing that included Mark’s full name. I realized it was a listing of cemetery plots. My heart in my throat, I clicked on it, and there in front of me on the screen was a tombstone with Mark’s name and there – was his birth date too. I remembered that was definitely his birth date. And the date of death was in 1991 – just five years after our last letters to each other. I stared at the tombstone, tears coming to my eyes. He had been gone so long, and I hadn’t even known it. I’d had my first son in 1991 already, while his life ended. I couldn’t comprehend it. My mind flashed back to the Duke frat party when he’d introduced himself to me, smiling. How could he be gone?

I found out a few weeks later through the relative of another girl Mark dated after college that he had died in a small airplane crash – that he himself had been flying the plane. I had never even heard him express a desire to become a pilot, so that took me by surprise.

I found myself wishing that I had kept a copy of his novel manuscript so I could read it again. His thoughts, his experiences. Mark was a special person, and I’m sad that we lost touch – sad that news of his death had to come to me via the Internet the way it did. He was one of the good guys. I’m so sorry we won’t have the chance to renew our friendship.