I’m sitting here in a motel room in Indian River, Michigan this evening. I’m at the end of a two week course towards becoming a Wilderness EMT, and eventually teaching wilderness medical courses. Tomorrow I will take my written test, and then start the journey home.

Until two weeks ago, I had not flown on an airplane in over twenty years. I had never been this far east on my own. I had never seen fall colors in the northern deciduous forest.

When I left home, several important things were going on in my life. My father was in the hospital in fairly serious condition. He has since been released, and is home again, although he can no longer navigate stairs. He’s 81, and I worry that he may not ever regain everything he had, before this sudden illness overtook him. The week before, a friend and neighbor a few years older than I am died pretty quickly, of cancer, only a month after being diagnosed. And a good friend, someone I have known for 28 years, is also, right now, dying of cancer, after fighting it and beating it back for ten years or so. She is still here, but only just barely. It’s only a matter of time now.

Part of my WEMT class was 34 hours spent working on ambulances and in the emergency room. While working on the ambulance as an EMT student last weekend, I saw my first dead human body, outside of a funeral.

A man, approximately my age, had decided that life was not something he wanted to do any longer, and on probably one of the nicest afternoons in northern Michigan all year, he went outside, parked his truck a ways away from his modest home, and spread a blanket out on the grass nearby. The sun would have been shining, and the weather was fantastic. Everyone I met was talking about how they were finally getting the summer they had been waiting for for months.

The man sat down on the blanket, facing a row of old apple trees, loaded with fruit. He took his deer rifle, a Remington pump action 30-06, placed the barrel against the roof of his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

I’ll spare you the details, but many of you can probably imagine what the end result was. It was not neat and clean, although I am certain this man felt no more pain. Not even for a moment. His mother, however, will feel pain about this day for the rest of her life. Guilt. Remorse. She will miss him. I checked her vital signs, and held her hand for a minute, and listened to her cry and chastise herself. And then I stood in the driveway with the LEOs from three different agencies and waited for orders about what we would do next. I looked at the body. I helped the LEOs look for the shell casing. I was careful not to step in any of the brains and skull fragments. Not because it mattered to the law at that point, but because it seemed like it would be rude. One of my mentors, an old time paramedic who knew the victim’s mother, picked an apple off of one of the trees and ate it. I wished I could do the same. They looked delicious, and it certainly did not matter to the man laying in the grass any more.

When I get home, I may, or may not make it to see my dying friend in person again, before she is gone. I am sure she wishes she was not sick. Was not dying. Was able to watch her son grow up, leave home, start a family, and become a man. Was able to live out a happy life with her husband who loves her.

And nearly at the same time, I have this image – I will ALWAYS have this image – of a sad man, whose name I know, and will never forget, in a remote driveway in rural northern Michigan, who decided there was nothing more he wished to see. That he had seen enough. I don’t think I will ever forget what he looked like, laying there in the grass, near the apple trees, on a blanket that he had laid out for the purpose, still holding his deer rifle in his hands.

No judgement. Just observations. And wonderment. And sadness.


  1. Mark,
    Wow! Thanks for being there, being observant, being articulate and being brave enough to share—no wonder you’re such a great photographer. I just had no idea what a good writer you are, too. You need to take this to the stage: THE MOTH!
    Jenny Owen

  2. Suicide is the damnedest thing. When I was twenty a friend of mine used the same method—and caliber—to take off the top of his head on the front porch of his parent’s house. It was a beautiful day. I was on brain detail. I scooped up the shell of his skull, and its puddled and clotted contents, and put them in a green MJB coffee can. He had lovely long red hair, some of which also went in the can. With my Schrade Old Timer I dug the slug out of a beam above the porch wall. I have it still. I don’t why, but I sometimes hold it and think of him.

  3. Very thoughtful and well-written account, of a life-changing experience in MI. Thanks for sharing. May this be a reminder to all of us that read this, 1. life can be short, live every minute of it with intention and 2. be kind, because someone is always having a shittier day, month or year than you are.

  4. Beautiful, haunting, provocative blog, Mark. Thanks for sharing. You are a gifted writer.

  5. I just got word via email that my friend Brenda died early this morning, at home, after a nearly decade long bout with breast cancer. It’s not even possible to describe how deeply she will be missed by her family and friends.

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