As the school got geared up for the annual basketball competition Win Mumby, a familiar face was back, standing on the main court with a microphone, looking as cheerful as ever, smiling and announcing the teams which were going to be taking part in the competition.
It was Mr. Ajay Mark, head of sports and student life coordinator, who had just returned from the United States.
Except for his hair becoming a little more grey, he looked as lean and boisterous as ever. There were whispers in the crowd: “He looks the same!”
Mr. Mark had just returned from the United States after fighting stage three to four lymphoma and had been away from Woodstock for about a year.
However, the moment he was back, he plunged right back into work, organizing Win Mumby and inter-house cross country, which had been delayed just so that he could announce the winners of the race in assembly, a tradition which has been going on for years now.
“It felt like I had never gone, you know,” he recently said with a warm smile on his face.
“I consider myself a very active person, and I love organizing and coaching various sports and events, so it is great to be back!”
Mr. Mark’s return was emotional.
“I almost feel overwhelmed. I have had such a warm welcome back from everyone. Students, staff, people from all along the hillside have come to see me and greet me,” Mr. Mark said.
“My advisor group particularly welcomed me back very warmly.”
Such a response is no surprise considering that he has spent 37 years at Woodstock, interacting with generations of students.
“You can describe it as a lifetime, as my parents, my wife and even my niece and nephew have worked for the school, giving almost a total of 140 years in service, something which I consider a very meaningful achievement,” Mr. Mark said.
Having been an athlete all his life, Mr. Mark accumulated numerous achievements. He was the fastest runner in all of Mussoorie at one point, he played various sports at college and state level, and rollerskated from Mussoorie to Amritsar, a record which has still not been broken in India.
Mr. Mark has also been an integral part of the sports program at Woodstock, coaching every sports team. “I coached the senior boys basketball team for 30 years, and I have also coached various sports such as hockey, cricket, cross country, soccer, table tennis, badminton, and even swimming.”
However, he believed that the biggest achievement of his life is his loving family, consisting of his two daughters, Ayesha Mark Carlson, Class of 2002, and Serena Mark Holmgren, Class of 2005, who currently live in Duluth, Minnesota, United States, and Mrs. Sanjaya Mark, head of community engagement.
His family was integral in his recovery over the last year.
It all started when Mrs. Mark had a slight eye infection and decided to see the eye specialist at Max Hospital in Dehradun.
“You know how often when a family member is getting something checked, so you come along and get yourself checked just for the sake of it,” Mrs. Mark said. “That’s why Mr. Mark also decided to come along as he was feeling that his eyes were a little watery.”
“The initial thought I had was that because I do a lot of biking, my eyes must have just been a little watery because of that and I did not worry about it much,” Mr. Mark added.
The eye doctor took one look and saw a very slight growth under the left eyelid, something which could not be noticed with the naked eye.
“The doctor suggested to us that there is an expert coming next month and that we should go and consult him about this growth,” Mr. Mark said.
As October ended and the true fall season began to emerge, Mr. and Mrs. Mark went to Dehradun to see the eye specialist that had come from all the way from Delhi.
“After taking one look at my eye, he told me that there was something wrong and that I should do a biopsy,” Mr. Mark said.
The very same day he did a biopsy, and the doctor immediately told him that something was wrong with his body and that it would be best if he did a PET (positron emission tomography) scan.
Shock and disbelief followed the doctor’s consultation, Mrs. Mark said. “I really did not expect for this to happen at all. It was me who had a red eye and was going through the scare of not being well.”
She added, “Mr. Mark has always been so fit, he lives a very healthy lifestyle and never drinks or smokes, so from being totally fit to being diagnosed with cancer was a real shock for us as a family.”
Through the results of the scan, it was obvious that Mr. Mark had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“At the time we were planning to go to America for holiday, but after this news, we canceled our tickets,” Mr. Mark said. “We immediately started looking at the best doctors and hospitals around and we decided on CMC (Christian Medical College), Ludhiana.”
During this time, a lot of people questioned Mr. Mark on why he was choosing Ludhiana instead of flying out and getting his treatment abroad. “The oncologist over there, Dr. Joseph John, is the best when it comes to the treatment of lymphoma, hence we decided to stay in India.”
Not leaving any stone unturned, the Marks even consulted many specialists in the U.S., who all suggested that treatment in India was the best option.
“We were extremely lucky that the right people came at the right time for us, and that the Lord was watching over us,” Mrs. Mark said. She explained that she was grateful that the treatment was in Ludhiana, which made it convenient for Mr. Mark to come back to Mussoorie and recover at home.
Mr. Mark’s father, too, had cancer: one of the throat and he, too, received his treatment in Ludhiana. “Knowing that I had lost my father to cancer in the same city really took a toll on me, but my wife really supported me and made me believe that everything was going to be fine,” Mr. Mark said.
The chemotherapy started in Dec. 2018, and Mr. Mark had a total of six sessions, once every three weeks. In the time between the sessions, Mr. Mark returned to Mussoorie to recover at home.
“The first and second session went well; however, after the third session of chemotherapy, I had started to have a lot of side effects,” Mr. Mark said. “I started to lose all my hair, something which I was expecting but it was still a huge setback for me.
“But at the time, that was the least of my worries. Chemotherapy is something which really saps all your energy, and it was extremely tough for me.”
Mr. Mark described Mrs. Mark as his pillar at this time of adversity: “She was always by my side and did not even leave me for two minutes. I am really blessed to have a life partner like her.”
At the time of the third session, Mr. Mark also started to lose a lot of weight, where his weight plummeted down from 83 kilograms to 62 kilograms at one point. He also started having a bad case of hiccups, which would often make him lose a lot of sleep at night.
“It was a very tough time for me, but the positive environment and people around me really helped me to recover fast,” Mr. Mark said.
Traveling to Ludhiana was also extremely arduous, as the eight-hour drive is not an easy feat when an individual is very weak.
However, the Marks found a car which had a back seat that could recline fully, a feature that was something that was really helpful for their travels. “It is almost as the Lord was watching over us, and helping us out every step of the way,” Mrs. Mark said.
As well as being extremely fatigued, Mr. Mark also had to be very careful with the interactions he had with people. Due to chemotherapy, an individual’s body becomes extremely weak and can easily get prone to sickness; therefore, even catching a slight cold could be extremely dangerous.
“There was a period where I wasn’t allowed to have many visitors,” Mr. Mark said.
After all six chemotherapy sessions had ended Mr. Mark went to the States to spend some much-needed time with his children and grandchildren, and he says that it was “probably the most vital part of my recovery, being with my loved ones.”
“Through this [cancer] I have realized that the God of the good times is also the God of the bad times. The Lord is always there and His faith and the positivity and support from the people around us was the reason we were able to get over this situation as a family,” Mrs. Mark said.
When Mr. Mark arrived back to school in late September, students and staff were delighted to have him on campus.
Especially delighted was Mr. Eric Roberts, the head of the travel office, who knew Mr. Mark for 39 years.
“Mr. Mark and I go way back, I remember being young and playing sports with him and watching him win several races in Mussoorie,” Mr. Roberts said.
When asked about his initial reaction to Mr. Mark’s diagnosis, Mr. Roberts said, “I just started praying. I was a little worried but not too much because I am a firm believer and I knew that God would find a way.”
During Mr. Mark’s chemotherapy, Mr. Roberts was supportive, sending positive messages on WhatsApp every day and calling to check in regularly.
“I am a cancer patient myself, so I knew what he was going through and I wanted to be as helpful as possible,” Mr. Roberts said.
Mr. Mark’s family was also helpful.
“My children wanted to come down to India immediately when they found out, but I did not want them to see me in that condition,” Mr. Mark said, adding that his family was vital in his recovery.
“I have learned a lot over the last year. I went through an experience that I thought would never occur in my life and I realized a lot of things,” he said.
“The most important thing I learned was the importance of family and the relationships that one builds over the years, as in times of trial those are the things which will help you. You know, money is something which will always be important, but there is so much more to life than just money and people should realize that it is the family and relationships that you have which are actually important,” Mr. Mark said.
Mrs. Mark too said that the help of friends and family was vital to Mr. Mark’s recovery and that without them, it would have been tougher for him to recover the way that he did.
“It is not about how much you earn, or how much you can afford, but it is the relationships that you have in your life which matter,” Mrs. Mark said. “Christian logic always says that, when there are good times, everything makes perfect sense but, in the hard times, people start questioning why me? It is important to stay positive in the hard times. God is always there, I am a strong believer of that.”
Asked for advice in times of adversity, Mrs. Mark said, “My advice to the community would be that never think of the worst in hard times because you get mentally exhausted and are not able to deal with the problem, think positively and everything will work itself out.”
Mr. Mark added, “My friends and family were the ones that pushed me on and helped me overcome this.
“Positivity and relationships are key.”
Edited by Dhrubhagat Singh
Feature photo by Mikko Aoki
Family photos courtesy of the Mark family