Walking in His Shoes

Mark Busse 1977-1995

Mark Busse

You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.
-Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States

Mark August Busse is perhaps not a household word, but I want you to hear his story, for it is both an account of courage and of compassion. Here is his story.

Mark Busse of Reardan, Wahington, at the age of eighteen, was diagnosed with a rare, inoperable cancer. Although in the final stage of a terminal disease, Mark ignored the pain and tried to cram a lifetime into his last summer. He played in Spokane’s Hoopfest basketball tournament. He water-skied. He drag-raced the jet-black ‘68 Camaro given him by the Wishing Star Foundation. He commemorated his eighteenth birthday with his first trip to a casino. He began his senior year of high school and, though barely able to stand, attended a football game just a week before he died.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know what he really went through,” said Bonnie Long, Reardan High’s athletic director who was also Mark’s confidant at school. “He never griped about his cancer. His philosophy was, ‘Suck it up and do it.”’

That tenacious spirit won him legions of fans.

Near the end of his life, Mark Busse spoke of his funeral. He said that he did not want the typical “chin-dragging in-the-dirt” funeral. He wanted “no sappy crying and no sissy flowers,” he told his parents as he neared the end.

What Mark wanted was for everyone to be filled with joyous memories. He wanted people to have memories of a young man who idolized basketball star Michael Jordan, to have memories of a spirited young athlete who earned varsity letters in football, basketball and track, and to have memories of a once-energetic kid who reacted with cocky optimism and a mischievous half-grin after life dealt him a lousy hand.

When he died, more than eight hundred people attended his memorial in his home town, a farm community with a population of just 525.The service was held not in a church, but appropriately on the school’s old basketball court where Mark worked on his jump shot and warred against rival schools. Despite his wishes, there was a flower or two and more than a few tears as his loved ones bid him a deeply moving farewell.

But that is not all there is to Mark Busse’s story. Mark’s courage, as inspiring as it is, is only half of the story. His courage was fueled by a gang of amazing friends who never deserted him. And that is the rest of his story.

When Mark Busse began chemotherapy, the treatment made his hair fall out and he worried about going to school with a bald head, thus making him stand out among the 180 high school student population.

He had little to fear. Mark and five of his closest buddies gathered at a house one Sunday night and took turns shaving each other’s head.

“I really appreciate this,” Mark said at the time. “When I told my friends they didn’t have to do this, Josh (Jenkin) said, ‘Shut up. I’m first.”’

The “Mr. Clean look” quickly caught on. Soon the halls of Reardan High School were bobbing with smooth, round, and bald symbols of support.

A photograph appeared in the local newspaper showing the completely bald Mark Busse sitting on the steps of his high school. (see below) A startling sight, yes, but that is not what is significant about the picture. All around Mark were his classmates, some twenty-five of them, all of their heads were bowed towards the camera – and all of them were bald! Twenty-six bald teenagers!

Shortly before he died, Mark called his gang of bald-headed pals together one last time.

“The room was full,” said Mark’s father. “He joked, said goodbye and then asked everybody to come shake his hand.”

They did, but no one would leave.

Mark looked at his weeping pals. He realized that it was time to take the sting out of yet another bad moment.

“Aw, don’t be such wusses,” he scolded them, flashing that half-grin of his. “If you’re not gonna leave, then sit down. Let’s watch some TV.”

I believe that Mark Busse had the best kind of friends that anyone can ever have. His friends, even though they were not sick, and even though they had no reason to shave their heads, did so in order to feel something of what their friend was experiencing.

Mark’s friends took time to identify with him. For at least a moment in time, they walked in his shoes and showed him that he was not alone. They gave to him a sign of compassion that he could treasure for the rest of his life, however long or short that may be. It was a sign that made real to him and to others their love for him. They walked with him in his difficult journey. But that is what love and compassion are all about. Right? Of course, right!


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