Our Way in the Night: Remembering Mark Haunfelner

“When I was told that I had only a short time to live,” Mark Haunfelner wrote, “I faced a choice not unlike the one I believe we have to face as a society. I could assume a posture of resignation, thereby making the predicted outcome inevitable. Or, I could think and act ‘as if’ an opportunity existed to heal myself.”

Mark chose hope, not just for himself, but for humanity. He made his life worthwhile, constructive, and loving  to the end, and he appealed to others to work for peace and seek to preserve and nurture the miraculous gift of life on this planet. He had been a student of philosophy and political science and was very interested in theology too.  He worked in various aspects of community service, was active in campaigns for world peace and nuclear disarmament, and in his brief life made a difference in the world.

My friend Treacy, who was his wife (and that’s her with him in the picture below, holding baby Miranda) wrote a beautiful remembrance of him recently, which made me realize that he has been gone for 25 years…such a stunning span of time.

On his tombstone, beneath his name, are these three words: Writer. Citizen. Friend.


Our Way in the Night

I wrote the following piece about Mark approximately ten years after he died. Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent in 1998, I’m posting it here today as a way of honoring his memory and sharing his story with others. If it inspires even one more person to look up, be better than they were, and proceed with hope and kindness,  it will have served its purpose.

There was a gentle chaos in the wake of his visit–a crumpled ball of wrapping paper, a splash of green and blue ribbon, the book of poems he brought me, a jar of cherry preserves from Virginia. The late afternoon sunlight streamed into the room so recently emptied of him.

I had left my professional work in order to take care of my newborn daughter, and my days had assumed a timeless quality, defined by Miranda’s needs. It was strange how quickly I shed my worldly mantle, becoming someone whose phone never rang, someone who read Goodnight Moon and napped at noon.

Mark knew I would be home. He was gracious in his dying and sought out his friends, not so much to take comfort as to give it.  He carried his wedding album under his arm, a beautiful album from Japan, embossed with two pink cranes. “That’s when I was happiest,” he said, showing me snapshots of the reception at the Miramar Hotel. “If I could have one day back, that’s the day I’d choose.”

We tried to take a picture of him holding the baby, smiling wistfully. It was all nicely framed and perfectly lit–she was remarkably still and didn’t cry. But then the camera wouldn’t work, and so I have it only–but always–in my mind. He asked me to tell her about him someday. He thought maybe he could be a presence in her consciousness, an extra angel or something. I promised I would.

“Sometimes I feel too small to be given such great need,” Mark told me. “It’s hard to imagine that we come together as brother and sister, husband and wife, mother and daughter, companion and friend, only to have the light flicker and die. But I live with the belief that it is the candle we light now that helps us find our way back to one another. The brighter we make the candle burn, the surer will be our way in the night.”

I set out a tin of Danish butter cookies and a pot of chamomile tea. Words tumbled about, small and profound, with long calming quiets between. Mark was certain that some good had come of this. He was closer to his parents now. He recognized the gift of a day, and he still liked to get on his bike or go for a run, though lately not very far. He had seen dolphins from the beach that very morning. He had written a letter to George McGovern and actually received a response. He had heard Elie Wiesel speak in Los Angeles and found it very moving. Mostly, he was happy.

Mark was a person who could offhandedly quote Kierkegaard in conversation, and on this day he did: Above all, do not make yourself important by doubting. “There’s something to what he says,” he told me. “Faced with my mortality and human frailty, I find myself trusting sincerely and really believing for the first time that everything will be okay. The thirsty will drink, the lame be made whole, and somehow our paths will lead us back to one another.”

I walked him to the door, baby drooling under my arm, my heart filling fast with a great, awkward love that didn’t know what to say or how to be. I felt shy and clumsy and I didn’t embrace him. He stood there in the ordinary daytime, looking so like his ordinary self, denying his own pain and courage by his casual demeanor. He had shined his loafers, and he smelled like shampoo. Bougainvillea dripped lavishly from the wall across the road.

I asked him to come visit again soon; he said of course he would.

Mark was 32 years old when cancer took his life. Many years have fled since then, and I have learned that love transcends the fleeting whisper of our time on earth, the pale illusion that is place.  I will not forget the friend who came to my door bearing poems and cherry preserves, and became a story and an angel to my daughter, who knows his name. The universe contains him still, and my steps are more certain in the night, and surely the stars burn brighter for his having lived.

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