At Abington hospital, a bond born in crisis
Mark Harris works the grill in the cafeteria at Abington Memorial Hospital. Jack Lawlor's wife was dying. He was at the hospital day after day, hoping she'd get better, and every day he'd go into the cafeteria for a steak sandwich.
Mark Harris works the grill in the cafeteria at Abington Memorial Hospital.
Jack Lawlor's wife was dying. He was at the hospital day after day, hoping she'd get better, and every day he'd go into the cafeteria for a steak sandwich.
Mark knows all the regulars, the doctors and nurses. He noticed Jack after a few days in line and concluded that he was visiting a sick relative. Mark tried to be cheerful to him in line, and do what he could - give him extra steak on his sandwich.
Jack was not too lost in grief to notice how hard Mark was working at the grill, hustling, juggling many orders at once, always being cheerful to him - and very generous with the steak.
Mark is a black man, raised in Philadelphia in a series of foster homes, now 42. Jack is a white man, 80, from Hatboro, many years ago the retail advertising manager for this very newspaper.
One day, after lunch, Jack was waiting outside the cafeteria for the elevator back to intensive care. Mark walked by, stopped, asked Jack why he was at Abington.
Jack told him his wife had suffered a second stroke and was declining.
"I could feel his pain," said Mark, "because my own foster mother had just died. She raised me till I was 10. She was the easiest woman in the world to please."
Though the city had moved Mark to a different foster family and expected them to sever contact, he stayed close to her until her last breath.
"He was telling me about her, and tears are coming down," said Jack. "I tell him about my wife, and I'm crying."
Mark rode up the elevator with Jack, sat with him for a while in the ICU.
Next thing, Mark was going up every day, taking balloons, candy, a kind word. "Mark used to bring me a little dish of ice cream, whatever I needed," said Jack. "He's crying along with us all the time. Just a welcome stranger in our lives.
"I was down getting coffee," Jack said. "I told him it looked like it was going to be soon, and sure enough, he was up there, along with a religious person, in the room, and a doctor. They said she would be passing in another minute. There's Mark with us, holding hands, in his white outfit from the grill. He's up there with us until she passed away.
"The hospice people, they were very nice," said Jack. "They said you'd get follow-up calls, and I did get one or two follow-up calls from hospice, asking how I was doing. The person who called me every day was Mark. He started calling me Pops. 'Are you OK, Pops?' 'Yeah, I'm OK.' 'Are you sure?' The person who called me regularly for at least a week or more was Mark."
Jack would come back to Abington, to the cafeteria, every few weeks, right around Mark's break time, and have a cup of coffee with him, meet his hospital friends, learn all about his life, give him advice.
About two years after his wife died, Jack was in the hospital himself. It was sudden. He couldn't alert Mark.
"Next morning came," said Jack, "and I heard Mark out in the hallway. He has a lot of spies, and somebody told him I was there. I'm getting a transfusion. He's saying something to the nurse at the desk."
"Who are you looking for?" she asks Mark.
"I'm looking for my Pops."
"No, I don't think he's here," the nurse replies. There were no older black men on that floor.
"Well, let me go look."
"You can't go looking into patients' rooms."
Mark finds Jack.
"Hey, Pops! How about a steak sandwich?"
A year later, Jack was visiting Mark in the Abington cafeteria and saw Dick Jones, who was then the hospital CEO. Mark was still behind the grill, not yet on break.
Jack introduced himself to the CEO.
"What brings you here?" the CEO asked.
"I have a friend here," Jack replied. "He's the greatest spokesman for your organization."
A year ago, when Mark's sister died, Jack went to the funeral. It was at a big Baptist church in West Philly, near 57th and Arch. Jack estimates there were 500 people there, and he was the only white person. Mark was following the casket in a procession up to the altar. He stopped, walked over to Jack, gave him a hug.
Their friendship has been going strong for six years. Mark writes poetry, shares it with Jack, who says, "It's unreal. It's beautiful."
Jack mainly listens to Mark, gives him advice, tries to persuade him to quit smoking.
"We're like father and son," says Mark.
Jack already had a son named Mark.
Now he has two.