Closing a Door to the Past

Setting My Past On Fire: 1

As the one-year anniversary of the tragic killings that had forever changed my life and the lives of so many others approached, a recurring conversation ran in the back of my mind. “What are you going to do?” I asked myself. “You can’t just stay here hiding forever.” While my cramped, one-bedroom apartment in suburban Philadelphia had been a quiet refuge for the past year, a place to hide, to grieve, to cry, to write, and wonder why, I felt like my growth and my healing there had come to a standstill.

Then it hit me. I needed to set my past on fire. That seed had been planted two months before while reading the book The Last Arrow by Erwin McManus. As a boy, after an electrical fire had erupted in the family house, the author’s mother lamented the loss of his brother’s trophies, promising they could be fixed. “If those trophies are the highlights of our life,” his brother told him. “Then our lives were not worth living, going forward. Why waste time reclaiming the past when it would be much better to focus on creating the future?”

“I need a new start,” I declared. “I need a radical change.”

“I’m sorry, Jennair. I have to move on. To start a new life,” I said out loud as I pulled the door shut one last time. “It’s time to set the past on fire.”

As that thought echoed in my mind, I couldn’t help but picture the 10’x10’ storage unit just a mile down the road from my apartment, packed front to back and floor to ceiling with painful memories of my past. Furniture. Appliances. Bikes. Boxes and boxes of keepsakes, and more than 20 years worth of birthday cards inscribed with handwritten notes. I hadn’t been there since the day I put the padlock on the steel roll-up door and walked away, just two weeks after that tragic day. As painful as I knew it would be to open that door and see all those memories again, I knew that keeping it all was keeping me from moving on.

As I slowly walked the dimly lit corridor, tripping one motion sensor after the next, the network of fluorescent lights overhead flickered to life with an audibly electric buzz. Approaching unit #383, I could hear my own breath quicken, and a sick, uneasy sweat washed over me. Fumbling with the key, I finally managed to release the lock and set it on the floor to the side. I reached down, grabbed the handle and pulled the door open. But I couldn’t look.

Bracing myself, eyes closed, I slid down against the steel door of the storage unit behind me, planting myself onto the cold polished concrete. Then I looked up. Staring back at me was a giant Jenga puzzle of stuff, packed precariously into the tight space without an inch to spare.

Finally, I mustered the courage to tackle the Jenga puzzle that was my past. Box by box, piece by piece, I began the painstaking process of going through it all, deciding whether to sell it, donate it or throw it away. While it wasn’t easy to sell the stainless refrigerator Jennair and I had bought together, it was nothing compared to parting with more sentimental pieces. I couldn’t stand the idea of Jennair’s armoire desk, or the entertainment center she had treasured, sitting in the house of a complete stranger. I decided to let friends have them at a fraction of their value or just give them away.

The solid cherry armoire desk that my wife had sat at every morning went to a young couple who are about to start their lives together. The entertainment center to one of my newest and most respected friends. And my bed to a teenage daughter of one of my closest friends.

Letting our things go felt liberating, and yet I was riddled with guilt. In my heart I knew this was something my late wife wouldn’t have wanted, something she could have never done. For years I had begged her to downsize, to part with the many things we had accumulated over our 24 years together. “Who knows when we’ll ever be able to afford these things again,” she had protested. And so it was that I relented, as every purchase we ever made was added to our lives, until every move became a mammoth task, every city we lived in required yet another storage unit, just in case we could never afford these things again—things we had no space for. Things we had no need for.

It took weeks. But finally, as I stood there looking into the empty 10’x10’ space, the once-packed storage unit seemed almost cavernous. Cold. Devoid of life. And I felt the same way. But it was done.

“I’m sorry, Jennair. I have to move on. To start a new life,” I said out loud as I pulled the door shut one last time. “It’s time to set the past on fire.”

I walked to my car, carrying nothing more than my keys. The conversation running in my head had changed, almost imperceptibly. “After the fire, comes new growth,” it said.

“Bring it on,” I answered.

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9 thoughts on “Closing a Door to the Past”

  1. I learned about your story through the 20/20 ABC documentary on YouTube ‘The Affair’. I am single, 29, and have never married. However, I can completely empathize with this idea of you wanting to set your past on fire, as well as how inevitable it is for objects or artifacts to become transcendentally infused with a person’s memory or history over time. I wish you best of luck as you move on with your new life. Do not let your grief, pain, or past hold you back. A verse from the bible in 2 Corinthians 5:17 states the following – ‘Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.’ Best of luck bringing more golden retrievers to people’s homes !

  2. I just watched the replay on 2020 on ID. I could tell you loved your wife. I’m so very sorry for your loss. These types of programs are always so difficult because they’re short, and things get left out. I can relate to the devastation that Jennair felt. The desperation you feel when the life you’ve had and the person who knew your deepest and darkest, who you trusted with everything, shared everything, dreamed and planned everything with tries to discounts it all. It’s very heartbreaking. Thank you for trying to understand your part in all of this.

  3. I fell so very deeply for Jennair. I suffer from depression also and I would not have been able to deal with my husband leaving me for another woman. I hope you are able to move on with your life but, I also hope that you never forget the anguish you caused this poor woman. The thought of the pain she must have been feeling cuts me to the bone. Think about those you may hurt beyond repair before fulfilling your own selfish wants.

    1. Dang! This man has paid the ultimate price and continues to do penance. What do you want for him—a hair shirt?

    2. I feel the same as you, Lisa. I just told my husband that had I known Jennair during this time-I would have done anything to take her pain away myself. Anything. Why couldn’t Mark walk away from Meredith? I think of the book/movie The Age Of Innocence where the woman the man loved more than his fiance said to him, “You cannot leave May (fiancé) to be with me, because you would be taking away what I love in you most – your inability to be cruel to anyone.”

  4. For me, this was a sociopath-that kind of stalking can only be done by a sociopath, talk less of the homicide. This is not even about depression for me. My sister had to put up with a sociopath for just under seven years and for me, sticking with a sociopath is not about love. It is about folly! Mark, you are special. In my search for help for my sister before she finally gave up on her marriage, I came to the conclusion that there was none and it was foolish for a mortal to hang around hoping for a better day. My counsellor friend tells me that once she starts to sense that she has an NPD case before her, she discontinues the process, refunds the monies paid to her and tells the normal party to get out of that situation or they will end up taking their own lives…A troubled soul and a depressed person are not one and the same thing. There is no help for NPD in counselling so separate those issues. You said she managed the counsellors? That is what they do. Now is as a good a time as any to let Jenair go. You should have done that a very long time ago. And you were faithful for over 20 years? You are not a cheat, but a human being.

  5. Mark, I have read your book twice. I saw your interview, your story on 20/20 in 2019 and then again in early 2020. I was glued to the TV and I don’t think I blinked. Even the music they used in the interview when they showed pictures, fit so well with the kind of tragic story it was. I remember thinking, there is more detail to this and I have to know about all of it. I thought to myself, I have to get this book as soon as it comes out. It was everything I wanted the book to be and more. So much to say, so much to comment about so many things. I have to tell you, I had so many emotions throughout reading this whole book. I could feel the love, the happiness, the unhappiness, the madness, the sadness, the despair. You all were so vulnerable, so real. What a story! It is true, you had to tell this story. It just had to be told. I want to say this in the friendliest way possible that after reading this book, I loved Jennair, I loved Meredith, and Mark, I loved you too. Each of you, beautiful people in your own way. I had so many mixed feelings for all of you. Marriage is hard, even sometimes under the best circumstances. So many things to consider and learn from this story. I do have to say Mark, there has to be a movie made, there just has to be a movie made on this tragic story.

  6. When I first watched the 20/20 program regarding this case I thought you were a very selfish human being, but then my mind changed when I saw your Dr. Oz interview where you stated that you did have a regret and that was that if you could go back, you would not have had an affair with Meredith. You also stated that you did love Jennair. I wish you only the best for rest of your life. We all make mistakes in this world. I hope that both Jennair and Meredith are resting in love.

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