The Mark diaries

 

October 24, 1991

WINNIPEG: Mark[1] told me today he was HIV positive. We were in his car; he was giving me a ride to a radio interview about the Evy book[2]. We stopped at a gas station so he could fill up, but when he got back into the car he didn’t start it, he just kept us sitting there beside the pumps. “I just got some bad news,” he said. “Though you probably guessed.” It was a quarter to nine: the morning rush was still on, and people in the gas line were honking. I had no idea what he was talking about. I tried the flippant tack. “Bad news is never as bad as it seems,” I said. “Setbacks can be opportunities. Dr. Phil.” He looked at me oddly, then started the car and we moved away from the gas station. About a hundred yards down the street he pulled over and parked. “I’m positive,” he said. “About what?” I said. He just looked at me without speaking. “Oh, Mark,” I said. “Jesus. No.” Or something similar: useless words, just burble. What do you say when someone tells you they have a life sentence on their head? “It’s in remission,” he said. “I’m getting treatment—AZT. But there’s no guarantee.” “Are you sure?” I said. “How can you be sure?” “I even know when I got it,” he said. “He seemed such a nice guy. He was a nice guy. I met him at a club, we danced a bit and then we went back to my place.” He grinned, but his eyes were wet behind his glasses. “It’s not as if the sex was particularly special.” I hugged him for a while, leaning across the stick-shift, his steamed-up glasses knocked askew by my shoulder, the bristles on the side of his head scratching my nose.

July 6, 1996

Mark and Bruce were married today, or at least affirmed their relationship in every sense save the absolutely legal one. They asked me to “officiate” and I talked about the event as a contract of the heart, an affirmation of commitment. They were saying, before us, that they made one another the central concern of their lives. That’s a different kind of love from love of friends or love of family: it’s about loving each other enough to allow them the freedom to be themselves. It’s about compassion, about opening up the heart to another, about recognizing the importance of the identity of another, about respect and loyalty. It’s the kind of love that brings solace to the soul. It was a sunny day, on the rooftop patio of Camilla’s[4] apartment block. Evelyn came in from Winnipeg to be “bridesmaid.” Mark’s face was smeared with protective cream. He and Bruce seemed enormously happy and greatly in love.

September 6, 1996

Bruce has been bringing Mark out to the house in this recent lovely weather. We lift him out of his wheelchair, hook his arms over our shoulders and carry him down to the beach. He’s so emaciated that he doesn’t weigh much; it’s more a logistical challenge than a physical one. He likes to lie in the curve of a favourite piece of driftwood, worn by the tides into the rough shape of a hammock. His dog Zeus snuffles about in the gooseberry patch for while, or flops down at the edge of the ocean, letting the ripples cool his stomach, his long white hair floating in the water. Meanwhile we feed Mark gossip, which he thrives on. He has a lively interest in the illicit and the embarrassing and a sharp and wicked tongue, particularly about members of his West End clique.

October 9, 1996

Mark said today he has been feeling in the past few days as if he was dying—“and, you know, I’m quite reconciled to it. It seems the natural progression. It doesn’t scare me at all.” I blathered on about how he shouldn’t let himself feel that way, never give up, always hope, so on. He gave me that look he gave me when I didn’t understand him in the gas-station parking lot: scrutinizing, reflective. “I guess I might feel the same way if there was a choice in the matter,” he said. “If I was in danger of falling off a balcony, for instance, or stabbing myself with a kitchen knife, I know I’d do everything I could to save myself. But this is different. It’s going to happen, and if that’s the case, so be it. My body and I have reached a state of agreement. We’re giving up.” I found it in a strange way reassuring, as if he were telling me not to worry. I’ve never felt comfortable reading the obituaries in the paper, but this morning I looked them over with a fresh curiosity.

October 22, 1996

Mark died last Friday. He was 44. Complications of AIDS. Today we held a memorial gathering for him. His family members have been astonished by the scale and diversity of the response his passing drew. Part of that had to do with his work with the ballet, of course: he made literally hundreds of friends around the globe. There was also his professional background: we think of him as a Winnipeg man, but he also spent time at the Shaw Festival, at Montreal’s Centaur, at the St. Lawrence Centre and the National Ballet in Toronto … and, of course, looked after the needs of 14,000 performers right here at Expo 86. Everything he did was fuelled by a love of, and reverence for, his artists and their art—Evelyn primarily, of course: he always counted his friendship with her an enormous privilege, and would do anything in his power to ease her way. All his charges knew they could count on Mark. He was fiercely loyal. If you were his friend, you could do no wrong: he loved you in all your imperfections (and if you weren’t his friend, well, he could be sharply funny, too). He had a calm that everyone around him found reassuring in times of stress. He was a natural diplomat, always preferring negotiation to confrontation. Evelyn called him an artist of life. As tour director for the RWB he was a dancer’s dream—fixer, facilitator, father-figure all rolled into one. On tour with him and the company throughout Asia and across Eastern Europe and Russia, I saw how tireless he could be in his support of dancers—his defence of them, his advocacy of them, his delight in the magic they made on the stage. He had contacts everywhere. In Moscow in 1990 he managed the impossible feat of rustling up enough Big Macs for the entire company from the country’s first McDonald’s, which had only opened that week. I remember a night in Bangkok when Evelyn bit into a sandwich at the Giselle intermission and lost a crown on a front tooth. Mark called a cab and whisked her away to some convenient dentist he happened to know—Evelyn, her face thick with pancake white in preparation for the second act, peering anxiously out at the crazy Bangkok traffic—and had her back, her tooth fixed, in time for the start of the second act. The AIDS that killed him didn’t fully take over his life until it forced him to retire from the RWB in 1993, and his response to its invasion of his body was typical. Rather than succumb to despair, he took on the disease as his greatest challenge. Not just in personal terms (though he fought its creeping debilitation until the day he died) but in terms of what he personally could do to lessen the suffering of others with AIDS. His contacts book was never put to better use. In Winnipeg, he co-founded Winnipeg Cares, a benefit for AIDS charities by Winnipeg’s performing artists. Here in Vancouver, where he settled after his retirement, he spearheaded the creation of Dancers for Life. He was all business, but he was all humanity and heart as well: and it is the rarity of that blend, perhaps, that makes so many and such diverse people mourn his loss. He was a lovely and remarkable individual who shared his life and his gifts with unquestioning generosity. Down on the grassy point by the ocean, near his driftwood hammock, is where we’re going to sprinkle some of his ashes, as he requested. It was one of his favourite spots to relax and sunbathe. So he’ll still be around.

December 24, 1996

As of late summer, we have a new addition to the family: Zeus, Mark’s Lhasa Apso pup. When Mark and Bruce were forced to leave their West End apartment they couldn’t find a place that would take a dog, so he came to stay with us, initially for a weekend. But Mark’s sickness became worse and just before he died he and Bruce asked if we’d take Zeus in as part of the family. So here he is, the sweetest little creature, wonderfully good-natured, entirely democratic in his affections. Susan took him several times to the hospital to see Mark in his last days and Zeus would leap up on the bed and lick his face and settle down for a cuddle. She also brought him to the memorial ceremony at the AIDS centre and little Zeus (who knew many of the people there) thrived on it all: a true little trouper. Here in Lions Bay, he has been getting to be a real country dog. When he came to us he was about 14 months old and had spent most of his life in the apartment ghetto of the West End. Even the waves on the beach frightened him. Now he’s all muscled from running up and down the hillside and he can’t wait to get outside and leap all over the rocks and logs by the water.

May 25, 1997

Evelyn, who was in town to dance at the Dancers for Life gala, and a few of Mark’s friends and family came to Lions Bay today to scatter some of Mark’s ashes as he had requested at his favourite spot on the point beside the ocean—a strange mix of celebration and melancholy.

 

 

[1] Mark Porteous, tour manager for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

[2] My biography of ballerina Evelyn Hart.

[3] Bruce Forrest.

[4] Camilla Ross, publicist, sister of Mark.

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