Remembering my uncle, our hero

Uncle Mark Helmet

It’s been over four years since I woke up and learned that my Uncle Mark had passed away. It was just a few days after our birthdays (his on January 12th, mine on the 26th). His passing was sudden, and saddened us all. At only 52, he was the youngest of my mother’s siblings and the closest to her in age. More than half his life was dedicated to the service and protection of others in his adopted country, and to loving and caring for his family.

I first met my Uncle Mark in person when he came to visit us in the Philippines. All three of my mother’s brothers had immigrated to the States, and in a pre-internet age we only saw occasional photos of them through letters they sent. I was very young then, but I remember my sister and I teasing Uncle Mark (or Tito Bobong as he was known to his nieces and nephews) about his “peanut arms”, so called because of their muscles. I remember my grandmother worried about getting American food, but he was more than happy to eat the Filipino dishes he missed.

We saw my uncle again when I was nine and we spent one summer in the States. We stayed in Virginia with him and Uncle Roy, the middle brother, for a few weeks and visited all the Smithsonian Museums and presidential monuments. We even took a road trip out to colonial Williamsburg. Uncle Mark would make us laugh with stories of his time in the Air Force. He had been stationed in Lakenheath Air Force Base in England, and spoke fondly of weekend trips he would take to Scotland on his motorcycle. He snored so loudly on that trip that we all had trouble staying asleep. When we jokingly grumbled about it the next morning, he only smiled broadly and said one of the first things he learned in the Air Force was to wear ear plugs at night so he could block out the sound of everyone else’s snores. We all still have great memories of that trip, and the time we all got to spend with each other.

M_Baban

Nearly ten years later, when I got an internship between my freshman and sophomore years in college, Uncle Mark generously offered to let me stay with him and his family. He was working as a Hazardous Materials Specialist with the Fairfax Country Fire Department at that time, so was only home two or three days a week. Even then, I could see what a wonderful father he was, and how his children’s faces would light up when he came into the house. He would play with them and entertain them by singing or playing music. He would sit with them on his lap or make them collapse helplessly into laughter by tickling them. What I still remember so vividly is his laugh, which could quickly turn into almost an infectious giggle if something really amused him. It was hard not to laugh with him.

Even though he had lived here longer than he had in the Philippines, Uncle Mark never forgot his heritage. He helped organize the Fairfax chapter of the Asian Association of Firefighters and was serving as its president when he passed. He even gave his daughter his given name, Maharlika, which means “nobleman or noblewoman” in Filipino.

One thing all my mother’s siblings share is a love of music. Uncle Mark learned to play the saxophone when he was younger, but he and his eldest brother, Uncle Gene, both shared a love for bagpipes. Apparently they are two of nine Filipino bagpipe players in the country. I would see pictures of him dressed to the nines in kilt, tall socks, and bonnet. You could see the joy on his face as he played.

bagpiper

Today, as we remember all of those who gave their lives in service of this country, we also remember the people they loved and left behind. All those who sacrificed a family member so we could all live our lives in relative peace and safety. Giving big virtual hugs today to my aunt and cousins, knowing Uncle Mark is still smiling and laughing as he watches over us.

Photo credits to friends and family of Mark Baban, who posted such lovely images on his Facebook page

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