Year after year, the same people show up, and over time, a community is formed, a community of sweaty, obsessive, slightly deranged folks who regard the gym as a second home. In our particular community, Mark Parris was the mayor.
Mark was one of the very first people I met when I moved to Waynesville. He approached me in the gym one day, asking me what I did and where I was from, and about half an hour later we were still talking on subjects ranging from politics to college basketball to the tenuous state of rock and roll music in the age of hip hop. Could Led Zeppelin find an audience in a world sucking on Vanilla Ice? We had our doubts, and the very idea had us shaking our heads in mutual disbelief. What had the world come to? We didn’t know, but as long as we still had our stereos, our old records, and the gym, all was not lost.
Soon enough, I found that I looked forward to seeing Mark in the gym to continue our conversation, to hear about his family, to tell him about mine, to catch up on the latest crazy thing or ponder the fortune of the Tar Heel basketball team. Within a year or two, Mark not only knew how many brothers and sisters I had, he knew their names and what they did for a living.
Unlike so many people you meet, he had a genuine interest in other people and a sincere curiosity about their lives. In all of these years and during our countless conversations, I never once had the impression that Mark was simply waiting for his turn to speak or in any particular hurry to get the conversation over with so he could get back to his bicep curls or the treadmill. He was one of the few people I have ever met who was fully and truly present in each moment I spent with him, a quality so rare that it takes some getting used to. When much of what passes for conversation these days is so rote that it might as well be automated, it is refreshing, even addictive, to talk with someone who is actually interested — and interesting. Mark was both.
Of course, as mayor of “gym-town,” Mark needed to be physically fit, and was he ever fit. Most people limp or lumber into their sixties. Mark sprinted by it, thumbing his nose like a schoolboy getting away with something as he passed by. He was always wearing out a treadmill or a StairMaster, drenched in sweat, smiling and shining like a jack-o-lantern, somehow easy and furious at the same time as he chased whatever ghosts that the residents of gym-town are compelled to chase away, perhaps the ghosts of advancing years that whisper rocking chairs and acting our age to our bewildered ears.
Everything about Mark was a rebuke to the ravages of aging. The years piled up like dish plates, and Mark just ran faster, lifted harder. He was a physical specimen, a poster boy for vitality, Exhibit A of what it is possible to look like and feel like, even in your sixties.
And then cancer came calling. As Emily Dickinson said, “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me.”
Just three weeks ago, we heard that Mark was in Johns Hopkins and was being treated for cancer. By the time we got the details last week, it was too late to say “goodbye.” We sent him a message of love and support on Facebook Wednesday night, but just a few hours later he was gone. When a man with that kind of presence is suddenly gone, the resulting absence is so profound that it shakes your faith in the very ground beneath you. It’s as if he left an invisible hole that any of us might fall into at any time.
How is it possible that we will not see him in the gym again? Who else is going to sing “Layla,” seemingly unaware that the rest of us are not wearing headphones and that all we can hear is him, singing off key, but no less passionate for that? How will we ever get used to driving again in downtown Waynesville without hoping to get a glimpse of Mark walking his big dogs, the pack of them jerking him this way and that, a roiling sea of fur and lolling tongues, Mark barking orders that the dogs blissfully ignore?
I will miss so many things about Mark: his wit, his intelligence, his warmth, his genuine love and concern for others, his slight touch of goofiness, his refusal to yield to stereotypes or trends, Father Time, or even traditional ways of saying so long once the jig is up. Let other people settle for standard organ music and the usual hymns at their funeral service. Mark’s family was ushered in to the beautiful, ethereal Led Zeppelin classic, “Over the Hills and Far Away,” and just a few moments after they were seated, when the band came crashing in on top of the acoustic guitar with power chords and drums, I saw his son pump both fists. Rock and roll. It was a perfect moment, a perfect service, and I could easily imagine Mark smiling through it all, singing along, slightly off key and loving it anyway, in the moment as always.