"We're one, but we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
Dateline: Montgomery, Ala., Room 306
The universe consists of two simple facts:
Universe Fact 1: If you are talking while you are ironing, whatever it is that you are saying is the truth.
Universe Fact 2: Love Wins.
So when I walked into Mark Menendez's hotel room to do an interview for the Toyota Trucks Championship Week and found him ironing, I scrounged around my briefcase for some journalist long-skinny note paper, stole his hotel room pen and waited for the truth-telling that would be coming my way.
Didn't have to wait long. Maybe give or take a crease or two:
"DB, I used to be a complete, selfish jerk."
To hell with the tape recorder, from now on I'm bringing an ironing board to every interview.
As he is ironing, he is taking the sales tag off the pants. His new socks are still stuck on those crazy little hangers that the retail giants stick them on ... so you can hang your socks up?
Mark has on shorts, a sponsor T-shirt, a sponsor baseball cap, and is holding what seems to be a sponsorless iron.
When he talks, the iron glides to a complete stop, cotton-iron setting blazing away on the new polyester pants.
During our 45-minute interview, he irons one pair of new pants, one golf shirt that looked kind of new, and almost a pair of socks. I knew when he absent-mindedly put the socks on the ironing board that he was talking from his heart.
We talked about his wife, Donna, his two young children, 4-year-old Max and 5-year-old Caroline. We talked about his life-threatening illness, and we talked about what he once was, "a selfish jerk."
And during this perma-press moment, I watched and listened as he turned into a selfless man.
"Do you sell fish?"
If you don't have baby burp stains on your shirt, you could be a selfish jerk.
If you get out of the house on time in the morning and your socks match, you could be a selfish jerk.
If your shower doesn't have lotion stuff that smells like daisies or "Morning Dew in Spring" dripping off your shower holder, you could be a selfish jerk.
Mark Menendez had none of these, ergo, he was a confirmed selfish jerk. For 38 years. "It was just me and my dog Barkley ... and the dog pretty much took care of himself," he said.
"I didn't get married until I was 38."
"He was 39," Donna, his wife back in Paducah, Ky., told me when I called her after the interview to check some selfish jerk facts.
"We actually knew each other since the second grade ... went all through school together, graduated together, but after graduation I didn't see the guy for 20 years," she said.
Normally at this point I would start calling them "childhood sweethearts," except for the one small fact that they weren't.
Donna married someone else.
Mark got a dog.
I'm sort of fast-forwarding through their life here, but after high school graduation, Mark becomes a pro fishing guy, and Donna moves to France.
Then the universe stepped in via coach seating.
Somehow, an airline not known for actually getting your luggage to the same place as the lug-ee, manages to sit them TOGETHER, like right next to each other. Two people that COULD HAVE BEEN childhood sweethearts when in fact neither of those said people at that time in their lives had any sweethearts at all.
"So I'm coming back from living in France and I'm on this plane to Paducah, Ky.," Donna said, "and who is sitting next to me but my old friend from childhood, Mark, so we start talking."
Turns out, this plane flight is exactly one month before their high school's 20th class reunion.
"Mark asks if I'm going to go to the reunion, and I said I was," Donna said, "and then he asks if I would be going with anyone to it, and I said I wasn't, and I find out he was going to go, and go alone as well, so we decided why don't we go together."
Just so you know, Mark never told me any of this and is probably reading along now to his horror.
"During the flight I asked Mark what he does, you know what he does for a living, and he told me he was a professional fisherman," Donna said. "So I says to him, that's very nice, so you sell fish to all the local restaurants?"
That right there is the first sign of the wheels coming off a selfish jerk.
"Well, in the month leading up to the 20th reunion, Mark and I decide to get together to better know each other," Donna said, "and when he comes over to my house that first time he brings with him a whole bunch of bait, bass fishing magazines, and Googles himself to show me that he doesn't actually sell fish to area restaurants."
A year later, they were married.
Something selfless this way comes
"It felt like someone had stuck a dagger into the base of my skull and the point was sticking out through my eyes."
The year was 2005, Mark and Donna now married with a 6-month-old girl, Caroline, and another little one, soon to be Max, on the way.
Mark was on a lake practicing for an upcoming tournament. He never made it.
"I had this horrible headache, horrible," he said. "I thought my eyes were going to explode. I was out on the water and had just called Donna to pick me up at the launch, which was just a couple of minutes away. As I took off to meet her there, all of a sudden my field of vision shrunk down to almost nothing. It was like looking through this tiny tunnel and I was out in the middle of the lake."
Mark stops ironing. The iron stays in place on his pants. He's looking directly at me, but I know all he is seeing is the lake, feeling the pain ...
"So I go to my GPS and I blow the screen up as big as it goes and I stick my face right onto it so I can see the image and I slowly follow the track back to where it says the dock is because I can't see where I'm going without it," he said.
At the dock it takes Mark three times to get his boat lined up right so it can be loaded. That's a huge admittance, because for these guys, getting the boats on and off the trailer is second nature, a given, and to miss once is almost unthinkable, three times is unmistakable -- something is wrong.
"I told Donna we need to get to the hospital," he said. "Something isn't right."
So they go, spend some time in the ER and get sent home with some pain medicine.
But the pain in Mark's head gets worse. In desperation, Donna calls home to a family friend, Mark's dermatologist, who after some joking realizes that something may indeed be very wrong.
"He tells Donna to do two tests," Mark said. "One: Have me lay down on my back and put my chin on my chest. And when I try and do that, I start screaming in pain. Two: While still laying down, try to lift my leg at a 45-degree angle ... and again I start screaming in pain."
And then the family friend/doctor tells Donna this, "You get Mark back to the hospital right now and you walk in the emergency room door shouting meningitis."
This time they took spinal fluid out of Mark's back and it came back positive for viral meningitis. He spent the next 16 days in the hospital.
"I don't remember much of it, but I was told the first few days there were touch and go," he said.
And there stood Donna holding their 6-month-old daughter, and another child on the way.
When Max was born, life took another strange turn for Mark and Donna.
"When Max was born he was born with pustular melanosis, which I was told was normally benign, but because I had just had meningitis, it might have been caused by that and could be very serious," Menendez said. "All I kept thinking was somehow I caused this to him."
To describe the feeling that somehow something you may or may not have done caused this to your child is impossible. While Mark didn't say it, my guess is that at that exact moment, he was no longer a selfish jerk.
Within hours of his birth, they took Max from the neonatal unit and put him on a plane and rushed him off to the Trauma Unit at Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Ky.
Because of the urgency of the diagnosis, Mark and Donna only have one picture of Max at birth ... in the picture he's only an hour or so old, he has tubes and wires everywhere, and it was the only time she got to hold her baby son before he was jetted off to Louisville.
When Donna and Mark got up to Kosair Children's Hospital, it took 10 days of tests before they knew that Max's condition was benign and that he would be fine, but it was during that period when they stayed in the Ronald McDonald House ... for $10 bucks a night. "Plus I had to do chores," Mark said while putting the ironing board away. "My chore was to vacuum and straighten up the TV room every night."
Turns out it was a life-changing chore: "I knew Max was going to be fine," he said, "but not so with the other parents and their children ... one had heart problems ... another lung issues ... all life and death matters. I'll never forget it."
And he hasn't.
Every year, their children, Caroline and a now completely healthy Max, combine their birthdays and have one big birthday party/fishing tournament around the pond in the front lawn of the family home in Paducah.
"We had so many kids they had to fish in two flights standing around the pond ... perch ... all sorts of fish were flying around everywhere. The kids and parents had a blast," Menendez said.
All they ask of the 40 or so kids who attend, and their parents, is that in lieu of birthday gifts, they all bring a donation for the Ronald McDonald House that will be used specifically to help pay the nightly cost of a parent to stay there.
"Last year we were hoping to raise 70 bucks to pay the cost for an entire week for some parent," Mark said, "but we raised $350 dollars ... enough for a month's stay. We are hoping this year to raise even more."
Two years ago, on Mark's birthday, Donna Menendez had a stroke.
In the hospital ER, they told her they needed to run additional tests to see if Donna also suffered a heart attack.
"They told me it would take about three hours of testing," she said, "and I told them I had to leave and could I possibly come back the following Monday for the tests."
Stunned, the medical personnel asked her what would be so important that she would possibly put her life in jeopardy to do.
"It's my husband's birthday, it's his day and we are having a party," she said. Mark was sitting in an examining room chair and "pretty much melted when I said that."
Luckily, Donna stayed, and tests showed she had a hole in her heart, that has since been operated on.
And through all of this when asked about his recent years of living selflessly, Mark responds, "It's a miracle, all of it. Believe it or not, I'm the luckiest man in the world."
Sitting on the bed with the ironing all done, Mark told me that his favorite group, "my Beatles," as he called them, is the group U2, and he suggested I listen to their song, "Where The Streets Have No Name," in the hopes a quote from that song would frame his story.
But he also told me that this year at Lake Dardanelle in Russellville, Ark., where he won the tournament, he listened over and over to another U2 song called "Magnificent."
And that, my friend, is your song because of what you said about your wife, Donna.
"The love Donna has given me has been so supportive," Mark said. "It's actually the first time in my life I truly know that I have a life partner I can share this game of life with."
"Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar"
And the selfish jerk was no more.
Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.