Today marks the 14th Anniversary of the death of my friend, Dr. Mark O’Neill. He departed this world in his prime, after a long illness of which I knew not. It is said life is fleeting. Glancing at this photograph taken at my annual NYC Christmas party, thirty five years ago at which Mark was a fixture, I would tend to agree.
My first encounter with Dr. Mark was when I was in my early twenties. I met him at a nightclub known as “St. John’s East,” in the Hamptons, a string of seaside communities on the east end of Long Island. A mecca for throngs of young New Yorkers eager to escape the concrete jungle on summer weekends, the Hamptons was the place to be if you were lucky enough to score a share in a summer house. To say he stood out in a crowd was an understatement. A cross between a college professor minus the pipe and an amiable St. Nick with his neatly trimmed whiskers and twinkling blue eyes, Mark was not easily missed. On casual occasions he donned jeans and a brightly colored bow tie; on more formal ones, a sharp, impeccable tux, complete with cummerbund and brilliantly colored pocket square. Approaching my sister and me in the packed nightclub, he did a two step as he held a glass of champagne above his head then toasted us with a wink and a smile.
The next Monday morning as I sat at my desk in the small New York ad agency in which I worked, I sleepily answered the first phone call of the day. A familiar drawl that I could not quite place followed, “Kathy, this is a client of yours… from “St. John’s East….” And in those witty words I was forever captivated and a friendship born.
We learned he was a Thoracic surgeon in NYC with a private practice, though his work schedule never seemed to cut into his teeming social life. A dapper fixture at every black tie event that took place in New York city Mark could be spotted dancing in abandon and charming all he encountered. He was a lover of classic cars and on weekends often visited our apartment to take my sister and me for a spin around the neighborhood. He was known throughout the city due to his wide social circle. Uptown or down, he never failed to run into someone he knew. On one occasion, we had stopped at a traffic light outside the famous Pete’s Tavern a historic NYC pub where O.Henry was rumored to have written “the Gift of the Magi.” I was seated on my sister’s lap in the front seat of his bright red MG convertible. Looking out the window, I watched a car pull up on our right. The driver sat studying us with a somewhat puzzled expression, then remarked, “Why, Mark O’Neil, is that you?” Glancing over Dr. Mark waved casually, floored the accelerator and we roared off on that bright and beautiful sunny day.
I loved his quirkiness. He once phoned me to ask the length of a yam’s shelf life as he prepared to cook one for dinner. Yet in all the parties, black tie affairs, horse races, and charity events, wondered if deep at heart, he was lonely.
I think my favorite memory of Dr. Mark O’Neill was from the very last NYC Christmas party my sister and I hosted and from which the above photo was taken. At the end of the night, one reveler began a game of sorts called “The Challenge Dance” wherein the person up would do his or her interpretation of dance in any way they wished. Mark was the last one to go. Standing in the center of my living room, urged on by the clapping and hooting crowd encircling him, he bobbed and weaved up and down simulating what could only be described as a cutting or snipping motion with both hands. When someone called out what what in the world he was doing, he replied in true Dr. Mark fashion, “the surgeon dance.”
The last time I spoke to my friend Dr. Mark O’Neill was at my home in Connecticut a few months before he died. My sister had run into him at “The Hunt” an annual tailgate and horse race which took place in New Jersey. I had not seen or talked to him in a year or so and was so happy to hear that familiar slow drawl… “Hey Kathy, I was lucky enough to run into your sis here at the Hunt. I wanted to call to tell you I missed you…”
I miss you too Dr. Mark, every day.