Requiem for a friend I’ve never met

I didn’t feel much like blogging last night, but I felt as though I had to, even if it’s brief.

Yesterday was one of those crappy days where there were a lot of problems that didn’t relent, so much so that I was completely occupied and didn’t check my e-mail until the evening. It was at that point that I wish I hadn’t. What I found in my in box was a whole slew of e-mails informing me that a friend had died.

Mark was a friend I had never met.

One of the odd things about the Internet is that it is indeed quite possible to become virtual friends with someone, forging a friendship that lasts for years, and never actually meet him physically. When such a friend dies unexpectedly, you can be almost as sad as when a “real” friend dies. The loss can actually feel almost as profound. In this case, my friend’s death also presented a strange situation. Mark was intensely private, at least on the blogs. This insistence on privacy was almost certainly because he had many enemies (one in particular was particularly vicious), enemies who came to detest him. That’s because he was an even more tenacious fighter of quackery, particularly anti-vaccine and autism quackery, than even I could ever claim to be–and he had been at it for a much a longer time than I have. For instance, when I first encountered Mark, it was on the Usenet newsgroup alternative (m.h.a.). He had been an active participant, a skeptic and supporter of science- and evidence-based medicine long before I had ever even realized that there was an anti-vaccine movement, and it was back around 1999 or 2000 when I first discovered m.h.a. He even taught me, newbie that I was then, a thing or two about how to deal with the quacks who infested that newsgroup, some of whom continue to infest that newsgroup to this day. When I abandoned m.h.a. in 2004-2005 to become a blogger, eventually, he followed me and has commented on this and other blogs under various pseudonyms since since at least 2005.

He was also a relentless advocate for special needs children and a devoted father of two such a special needs child, one with cerebral palsy who was confined to a wheelchair and another with ADHD. I remember one e-mail exchange, when he described to me the first vacation he had had in at least a decade because there was no one else to take care of his child. He never complained, and when Mark wrote about that child, the love shone through clear as a summer sky as he would describe his child’s progress and accomplishments. He didn’t attack just anti-vaccine quackery, either. Rather, in a truly wholistic approach, he viewed the anti-vaccine movement as but one of the many threats to the health and well-being of special needs children and advocated for measures to improve the care and education of these children, so that they reach whatever potential they are capable of. It greatly saddens me to think about what his children will do now that he is gone, particularly the one with cerebral palsy.

Learning of Mark’s death by e-mail and on Facebook, and having seen that it was verified by several fellow bloggers who contacted his son who had announced his passing on his Facebook page, I now have a bit of a dilemma about how to pay tribute to him. I don’t think that, even in death, Mark would want me to “out” him by linking his real name to the pseudonyms under which he posted here and on other blogs, as much as I would really like to. Yet, he did post under his real name on m.h.a. back in the day–continuing even until just before his death–and I daresay that most of my readers who knew him knew his pseudonyms as well. They knew when it was him posting comments on this and other skeptical blogs. So, given his influence on my early skeptical development a decade ago back in the cesspool that was that wretched hive of scum and quackery on Usenet known as m.h.a, I think I’ll go back to the source and refer to Peter Bowditch’s announcement of his passing.

Farewell, Mark. I never got to meet you in person, even though for eight and a half years I lived within about 80 or 90 miles of where you lived. Now I will never have that opportunity. Yet, I feel as though I really did know you for 10 years, and you will be missed.