By Todd Franko
It was just my son’s homework assignment.
But it quickly — albeit subtly — became a reminder of how a simple gesture can resonate beyond its original intentions.
The Dobbins Elementary School class assignment for my fourth-grader, Max, was to identify yourself through 100 things in your home.
One, for example, represented how many guitars he has.
Two is how many brothers he has.
The assignment continued through No. 100.
It is tough for one fourth-grader to consider all of the quantities in his life, so his homework quickly became a family project after dinner one night.
(We also used some creative accounting. I don’t think we have 37 light switches, but it seemed reasonable and became our answer, as did forks for the number 26.)
We arrived at 68, and my 12-year-old son blurted an answer without hesitation.
“The year Uncle Mark was born.”
It was a startling answer only in that my sons had never met my brother.
Fourteen years ago, he died at age 27.
End of story.
But it’s not that simple for folks who live on in the shadows of a loved one’s death.
The shadows are there if that loved one lived a long, healthy life and died ready for the end, assured of a life fulfilled.
But the shadows are darker and more pronounced if the loved one wasn’t ready and didn’t fulfill all of his dreams and aspirations.
That was Uncle Mark, for sure.
His tale is a tale endured in many, many families.
Memorial Day Weekend is a period to remember and reflect on those who died for their country.
I try to. Some years, I’m better than others.
But in that reflection, I also remember Mark.
He did not die for his country. But this weekend is significant in that it is when he died in 1995.
As a community and a country, we grandly remember our soldiers with stoic ceremonies, and it is rightfully so.
For families such as ours, the tributes are quieter, more personal and often cloaked in ways that reflect either the personalities or the untimely circumstances. The various reflections happen throughout the year — their birthdays, their death days, the holidays, etc.
As it turns out, my kids know Uncle Mark largely through my Yahoo sign-on: mark68.
Some people do tattoos; some folks do memory gardens. I remember shopping for a home one time and seeing a shrine of sorts to a young deceased person.
And I have an e-mail sign-on.
I didn’t think too hard about it when I set it up years ago. It was a spontaneous choice.
I didn’t foresee it being a reminder for my sons.
My sons also know Uncle Mark through pictures around my parents’ home.
There is also the annual trek to the cemetery at Christmas to place a wreath at his grave.
And there are the stories.
In the 14 years since his death, talking about Mark has become easier.
Early on, there was a sense of hesitation in bringing up Mark’s name. It was never a forbidden practice. It was just an issue of human nature and knowing that speaking of him stirred sad memories — even in the funniest of Mark tales.
In recent years — no surprise — it’s become easier and more normal to talk about Mark in a tone that would indicate that you just talked to him.
Our family’s grown in the 14 years since three brothers became two.
But if that homework assignment was mine on the Memorial Day weekend, the No. 2 for me would still be represented by the number of brothers I have.