A Collision Course with Destiny

Setting My Past on Fire 6:

My youngest sister, who is still one of my eight older sisters, has always been (dare I say) the closest of my siblings. Lisa. Just fourteen months and fourteen days older, she was more like a best friend than a sibling growing up. We played together. Read the Bible together. And for a short time, before two of my older sisters moved out and made room in the five-bedroom house we grew up in, we even shared the same bedroom. At ages 5 and 6, we looked so much alike, people mistook us for fraternal twins. The Bobbsey Twins, they called us, after the book series that was popular at the time. At family gatherings, if prompted, we even sang the Doublemint gum jingle, locked arm in arm, “Double your pleasure, double your fun,” like two identical twins camping it up for the camera in lockstep.

Anyway, as can happen with friends and even siblings, my sister and I grew apart. Eventually she went to business school. I went to art school. She got married and then moved to Florida. I stayed in Indiana. And that was that. We never really spoke much in our twenties. Or thirties. Come to think of it, even into our forties. But a few years ago, she and her husband and three boys had moved to the suburbs west of Chicago. So I found myself on day six of my two week exodus from the Mid-Atlantic and from my past, on my way from Indy to Chicagoland to visit Lisa and her family.

As had become the norm on this trip, and really ever since the killings had taken place just over a year prior, flashbacks from my past were coming fast and furious. Driving north on I-65, as it crossed over US 30, I saw an interstate sign for Michigan City and started to chuckle, thinking back to 1989. My friend Rick’s older sister was competing in the Miss Indiana Pageant in Michigan City, and the two of us were running late to watch the spectacle. Front row seats and backstage passes to see beautiful girls, two years older than us, wearing evening gowns and bathing suits? We were not going to miss it. 

“How fast does this thing go?” Rick asked. 

“I have no idea,” I said, sensing and immediately accepting his less than subtle dare with a side-eyed glance. This wasn’t some wannabe American muscle car, like the Firebird I drove back in high school. That wasn’t cool to me anymore. I was in art school now, and I only drove European speedsters. An ‘84 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible to be exact. You scoff, but this thing had serious zip. I had never tested its top speed on the highway, let alone with the top down. But I was feeling more than up for the challenge. I stepped on the gas and immediately the wind came rushing in from over the top of the windshield. 80. 90. Then 100 miles per hour. The car began to shake, and so did we, from shear laughter. The corn, now as high as the car, flanking both sides of the road as far as our eyes could see, was a blur of green. Now at 110 mph, we were making great time. And then I saw something I didn’t understand. 

“What’s that?” I shouted to Rick, the speed and wind making it otherwise impossible to be heard.  

“Where?” Rick shouted back.  

“There,” I yelled, pointing ahead and to the left at a strange low hanging cloud, seemingly just inches over the top of the tassels of corn. The car was going so fast that I nearly lost control just lifting my hand from the steering wheel for that mere second. I quickly grabbed hold of the wheel with both hands but my eyes remained fixed on the cloud.

“Whoa,” he replied. “What is that?” 

Whatever the dark cloud was, it wasn’t stationary. It seemed to be moving. And fast.  

“If that’s a thunderstorm, we’re headed right into it,” I said with a mix of trepidation and excitement.  

“This’ll be interesting,” Rick laughed out loud.  

The accelerator was glued to the floor, and I wasn’t letting up. And neither was the mysterious mass in the sky, now appearing to be a strange shade of brown. “I think it’s just a dust cloud,” I shouted. “Probably from the fields.” As we drove further, it got closer and closer to the highway. It was as though we had engineered the whole thing, meticulously calculating a rendezvous between the space shuttle and the International Space Station, we on our trajectory, the dust cloud on its own. A collision course with destiny.  

“We’re totally going through it,” I hollered as it came closer, then closer and closer. And then, impact! The rapid-fire sound of a thousand thuds struck my windshield in a gooey splat.  

“Fuckin’ bees!” Rick screamed uncontrollably, as dozens of dead bees and a few live ones got sucked into the vacuum of the open roof. I slammed on the breaks, laying a thick layer of black rubber onto the highway for hundreds of feet. When the car finally came to a stop on the shoulder, we both jumped out and began flailing about, shaking our heads, wiping dead and dazed bees off ourselves and each other. And then the laughter started again, this time to the point of tears.  

“The Bee Killer” – 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit Convertible

Thirty years later, the tears were still coming, slapping the steering wheel in uncontrollable laughter. I hadn’t laughed like that in so long. Then catching a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror, it suddenly felt so wrong. Although it had been over a year since my wife had killed herself and my girlfriend, it still didn’t feel right to be laughing. About anything. I wiped my eyes and sobered up, and the familiar cloud of sadness and grief appeared like a comforting, heavy blanket. Just like that, the tears of laughter had become tears of grief and despair, a disorienting rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows I had grown accustomed to, accepting it as my penitence for loving too much and not enough.  

By the time I turned into my sister’s driveway, an hour later, I managed to pull myself together, checking my red puffy eyes one last time for any stray tears. This overnight visit was just the distraction I needed. Walking up to the porch, I took in a deep breath at the familiar scene. I had never been there before. But the pristine yard. The neighborhood. A bittersweet reminder of the first house Jennair and I had shared some twenty years before.  

Lisa opened the door and after giving her a quick obligatory hug, I handed her two bottles of wine, a red and a white. Minutes later, standing at the center island of her beautifully appointed kitchen, I was greeted by her husband and two oldest boys who I hadn’t seen since they were just kids. Noah, now 19 and Wyatt, now 22, were surprisingly tall and athletic looking. But most strikingly both looked so much like I had looked at that age, not surprising I suppose, given the striking resemblance my almost twin sister and I had shared for so many years. While Lisa began to uncork the bottle of red, I decided to just get it out of the way.

“Well, you’re going to find out soon enough,” I warned. “Last week, before I left Philly, I did an interview for 20/20.” The corked popped loudly, as if timed to be the perfect exclamation mark.  

“You what?” Lisa exclaimed.  

“Oh, and it will air next month. And I wrote a book,” I said, waiting nervously for my sister’s response. I didn’t know what to expect.  It could have gone either way.

“That’s amazing,” she exclaimed, pouring a glass for each of us. “I think that’s exactly what you needed to do. Tell the truth.”  

“To the truth,” I toasted, raising my glass.  

“To the truth,” they returned, clinking our glasses together.  

The truth is I hadn’t known how much I had needed their support until that moment. My decisions to write a book and share my story with ABC 20/20 were fraught with uncertainty. I still had no idea how they might be received. But I just knew I couldn’t stay silent anymore.   

My sister, Lisa and I – July 2019

Later that evening, as I got reacquainted with my nephews at dinner, I reflected on all the things they didn’t know about the world and hadn’t yet experienced. They still had their whole lives ahead of them to shape just the way they wanted. Noah, a Private in the US Army, was about to be deployed somewhere in eastern Africa. And Wyatt, a recent college graduate, was hoping to launch his career as a filmmaker. I wanted so much to warn them not to make the mistakes their uncle had made. I wanted to warn them about every possible hidden danger. But I stopped myself. Life is messy and living your life by trying to avoid mistakes and heartaches isn’t much of a life, I reasoned. So instead I just listened, taking in the wide-eyed hopefulness of their plans and uninhibited aspirations. I envied them. But mostly I was proud of them.   

The next morning, just after dawn broke, Wyatt joined me on a run through the sprawling suburban neighborhood. He told me about an upcoming job interview and asked for my advice. Just be yourself, I told him. And show them what you can do for them. As much as you want a job, don’t accept it if you don’t feel like it’s the right fit. Because eventually, that right fit will come along.  

At a stop light, we stopped to catch our breath. “What are you going to do with your career, now?” he asked.  

“That’s a really great question,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Truth is, I have no idea. But I know I’ll figure it out.” In that moment, I realized that I too still had my whole life ahead of me. A rare chance for a new start.  

My nephew, Wyatt and me – July 2019

Later that morning, leaving my sister’s neighborhood, I pulled over and stopped. And with a smile on my face, I hit the switch to put down the top. It was too nice a day not to. Back on the road, surrounded by corn on both sides and nothing but blue sky above me, I fixed my eyes on the horizon, alert for any unexpected dark clouds lurking above the corn. Cause you just never know. 

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4 thoughts on “A Collision Course with Destiny”

  1. Mark, your sister is beautiful and I’m happy you are reconnecting with your family. In your book you said when you invited Jennair over to watch TV for an evening, your mother had called her a “hussy.” Could there be legitimate reasons Jennair did not like to spend time with your family? After suffering the verbal and emotional abuse I had growing up, I met my husband and I thought I would be loved and accepted by his family but they would make constant mean remarks that I was stupid, or about my looks, and I told my husband I just couldn’t take their verbal abuse. So because he wants to be married to me, he doesn’t see them. The sad thing is is that they say because they are “family” they can treat me however they’d like to- a rationalization counselors say people use to get away with their abuse. It just seems Jennair didn’t deserve to be called names by your mom. I’m not in anyway trying to isolate my husband from his family but if they choose the route of abuse, I don’t want part of it. Could it be Jennair felt the same way? It might help if you elaborated on that rather than just placing all the blame on Jennair.

    1. Agreed Brook! Although the description of Jennair’s ridicule of Mark in his book does leave the impression that she had unresolved emotional issues, and chose to exert control or ownership over Mark maybe in an attempt to keep him in a place she thought he couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to leave her, but was ultimately pushing him away. Yet he does project most if the blame on her for making his own poor choices. He could’ve easily divorced first then pursued Meredith. His mother calling her a husky too is relatable. My ex in-laws were also very critical if me with no reason except judgemental hypocrisy. Jennair, Mark and Meredith each made choices knowing there were innocent casualties to each one they made. Regardless of the justifications each relied on to continue on the path, they were all very very selfish, and any one of them could have changed the trajectory of this horrific end at any time prior to that fateful evening.

      1. Thank you Christina for commenting- it’s helpful to know that I’m not the only one who suffers verbal/emotional abuse from my husband’s family. I am a teacher (which they say I became a teacher ‘because I’m stupid’) and they make constant mean remarks- yet they’re the ones who didn’t go to college or go from job to job. They also spread rumors and claim that I’m ‘crazy’ to get away with their abuse- another tactic counselors say abusers use. I continue to be fascinated with this case because like Jennair, I’m a Midwestern girl from Wisconsin with relatives in Indiana and I have 3 brothers, so I feel like I’m a lot like Mark and Jennair. I give Mark all the credit for sharing this story, because we can all learn from it. No person is perfect and I believe this story can be studied in order to end relationship abuse/violence. If I were Jennair I would have gotten my real estate license (it took only 10 days for the class and test for me for only $400) and I would have traveled and just left Mark behind. Why she chose the path of violence is something we can learn about to prevent it in the future. And the path Mark took shows people that the right thing to do is end a marriage with integrity. There’s a lot of learning to be had here- and it’s because Mark is willing to share his part of the story.

  2. I have looked at this tragedy from all sides for a while now and I have come to the conclusion that no one really knows what your relationships were like except you. It’s very easy for outsiders, like myself, to personalize infidelity and get angry, making snap judgements.

    I’ve tried to feel each party’s feelings and it’s still just an outside perspective. I don’t know who is to blame ultimately but blame doesn’t matter; everyone paid.

    I think there comes a time when you have to admit you’re a survivor and need to pick up the pieces. So, to me, it boils down to this: Just because tragedy struck the last time you sought out joy, you need to not deaden that part of yourself and feel that seeking joy is like putting your hand on a hot stove again. Or that you don’t have the right to have joy. Don’t let Jennair’s final words be the road you have to travel out of guilt. I’m very sorry for her, but it seems to me you don’t owe her that.

    You’re allowed to be happy.
    You’re allowed to be angry.
    You’re allowed to reconcile with the past and quarantine your pain.
    You’re allowed to be successful, guilt free.
    You’re SUPPOSED to forgive yourself and let those belly laughs end with the same kind of tears they started with.

    Best of luck.

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