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The Life of the Party - Dying Stockbroker Alan Marks Is Guest of Honor at His Wake

By Brian Krebs

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, February 16, 1998; Page D01

When you're planning your own memorial service, there can be so many things to consider. Whom to invite, what to wear, how to decorate, where to be buried, what to say, which kinds of flowers . . .

Wait a minute -- "What to say"?

"Yeah, I've prepared a few remarks that I'd like to deliver personally sometime during the ceremony," says 58-year-old Potomac stockbroker Alan Marks, who was recently diagnosed with late-stage mantle cell lymphoma, a very aggressive cancer, and given four weeks to live. "I've even got someone to stand in for me, in case I start to get a little emotional."

Marks was the guest of honor yesterday at his own wake. Some folks might consider the service at the University of Maryland chapel a tad daring, if not off-putting. But then again, life has become somewhat surreal for the Marks family recently. Marks's wife, Pearl, came home excitedly recently from shopping. She'd gotten a big discount. On what, Marks asked. A cemetery plot, she replied. It was a "pre-need purchase."

"It's so strange," Marks said of his newfound perspective, "when we become aware that we're talking about a very short period of time together, how the extraordinary becomes ordinary and vice versa. A good meal or a long walk has never meant so much before."

Ambulatory, animated and not at all what you'd expect to look at for a man with a handful of days left to live, Marks brought an enthusiasm to his wake that was contagious. His main objective, he said, was to transform what certainly could have been a maudlin, morbid occasion into one of levity and celebration. The simple invitations the family sent beckoned eloquently:

"Plans for a memorial service after Alan's death have evolved into a celebration of life. Alan felt that he wanted to be at his gathering. He will do his best to be there. We hope you can be there too."

As the ceremony neared yesterday afternoon, guests could be found whispering politely among themselves, uncertain of what was to come. The attire was somewhat tricky: Not a funeral per se, so we don't wear black, right? But to come dressed in cheerful splashes of color was clearly inappropriate. For an event that was conceived less than a week ago, the chapel filled quickly. The family sent out roughly 500 invitations; a rough head-by-pew count put the number in attendance near 400.

If you had never met Marks, you might have mistaken the man in the olive green vest working the room for just another friendly guest. Marks's mantle cell lymphoma, his wife says, has been a remarkably merciful if deadly disease (he has been in little pain, aside from the chemotherapy). Thus everyone in the chapel was able to see the man as they had always known him. Moving with ease from one well-wisher to the next, embracing some with great bear hugs and smiling broadly, Marks made it a point to welcome just about everyone personally.

"Look at all these people, jeez," remarked Karen Logsden, 53, of Gaithersburg. "I would have to pay people to come in off the street to get this kind of crowd." As a successful stockbroker, Marks had made more than a few of those in attendance wealthy. Yet it was other kinds of riches that drew the audience.

The first speaker, Tom Fahey, gave an eloquent, heartfelt and ultimately complimentary testimony. But there was a palpable feeling in the vast hall that this was going to be a long and somber afternoon.

That was the last time that fear surfaced. Marks's brother, Burt, promptly approached the lectern, apologizing. "I promise you all, the presenters will be a little more balanced from here on out."

The very next speaker, Joe Smart, introduced himself as the honorary emcee of the "first annual Alan Marks roast." And so it went, as a number of Marks's professional colleagues came up with incriminating tales. The remarks were delivered so well that at times it was difficult to tell whether people were crying from the nonstop one-liners or from the heartfelt stories.

Friends and family all had zingers. Lifelong friend Steve Jaffe, commenting on Marks's love of sports -- particularly baseball and basketball -- recounted a story of the three-man stickball league he formed with Marks and brother Burt. "Alan was pitching, I was at bat, and his brother in the outfield. I smacked one way out, close to the fence. As Burt went back, closing in on the fence with his eyes skyward, Alan yells, 'Plenty of room, Burt, plenty of room!' Needless to say, Burt's broken wrist ended the rest of our season."

Smart spoke of Marks's devotion to the Orioles. "Alan would typically arrive at the ballpark several hours early to try and catch fly balls during batting practice. One day, he could not get in early enough, and asked in his charming way if he could use the bathroom. The next thing you know, there's Alan -- out near center field -- going for the homers. . . . I can just picture him at the gates of Heaven: 'Hey, Saint Peter, mind if I use the bathroom?' "

Private grief therapist and family friend Mary Koehl says Marks is setting an example. "What a gift Alan is giving to those who love him," she said. "He won't let his illness or the anticipatory grief of family and friends deny him what he wants to do, and that is to be in charge of his dying process."

 

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company