Even in Death, Christian Love Conquers, and Signs of God’s Love Abound

The mutual love of Patti Armstrong and her late husband, Mark, has truly been ‘an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.’

Mark and Patti Armstrong
Mark and Patti Armstrong (photo: Courtesy of Patti Armstrong)

My husband and I awoke suddenly at 4 a.m. on May 12. “How is Mark?” Troy asked, prompting me to check my phone for an update.

The previous afternoon, fellow Register writer Patti Armstrong and I had been plotting our next “walk and talk” by text: the way our friendship has been able to deepen through living on opposite ends of North Dakota. Facing a busy Mother’s Day weekend, we resolved to table our talk for later.

Patti texted again not long afterward from the emergency room, begging for prayers. Her husband, Mark, seemed to be having a stroke or heart attack. I prayed from afar, concerned to learn it was an aortic tear, with surgery commencing soon. By Patti’s account toward the end of the night, at hour six of surgery, Mark’s health status was shaky.

After praying for Mark and others, Troy and I turned in for the night, leaving our cares in God’s hands.

My beloved has been through two open-heart surgeries, so whenever a heart issue involving friends crops up, we are especially alert. Still, I assumed Mark had made it through surgery, just as Troy had twice. Reading the update, however, I gasped: Mark was gone.

Death is always a shock, but some deaths are more so than others. I have experienced the deaths of friends in childhood and mother-friends taken too soon of cancer or other afflictions, but this death gripped me anew. Though I didn’t know Mark well, his death seemed impossible. This thought continued: “Mark is an extension of Patti.”

I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of the indelible reality of marriage and its sacramental powers until Mark’s sudden death. Though Patti is the one with whom I’ve journeyed as a fellow Catholic mother, writer and friend, whenever I’ve been with her, either on the phone or in person, Mark has been near, too.

During in-person visits in Bismarck, in the summer, Mark was often outside digging in their garden, or, in colder months, on his cross-country skis — which is also how he got to daily Mass during snowstorms.

“I’d call tonight, but Mark wants to go kayaking,” Patti might text as a reason we’d have to wait on catching up. They always seemed to either be on an adventure or planning one, including the dream trip they took overseas in May 2023 upon Mark’s retirement, ending in Fatima, Portugal, on Our Lady’s feast day, May 13 — Mark’s and son Jacob’s birthdays.

While finalizing edits of What Would Monica Do?, the book Patti and I co-authored, I was hacking through COVID while Patti was on a mountaintop in Colorado skiing with Mark. Social-media photos of their many lively moments with their 10 children, grandchildren and others are colorful and numerous — a vibrant testimony to marriage and family.

But the example of their union that connects most deeply with me was their prayer life. I’d become accustomed to arranging phone conversations around Patti’s and Mark’s nightly Rosary sessions and was partly inspired by them to start a couples prayer routine with Troy. Patti and I always respected the need to abandon our conversations mid-sentence when it was time to pray with our husbands.

I’m grateful to have attended the wake and funeral of Mark at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, the parish where my mother was baptized, my parents married, and where my father was returned to God at his death. The cathedral is a spiritual home to me just as it is to the Armstrong family.

The morning of Mark’s death, my mom attended daily Mass there and saw Patti and Mark in their usual pew. They would have been sitting near the Our Lady of Guadalupe painting Mark had donated to the parish a few years back. I’ve never seen Mark as lively as when he showed me the large, framed piece, then hanging in their home, proudly explaining his devotion to Our Lady.

I’ve learned so much more about Mark since his passing: how he would show up to daily Mass even during the COVID lockdown, watching online from his car outside; about his formidable career in radio broadcasting; and, though I knew some of this before, the dedication he and Patti had to mission work.

They met through the Peace Corps, after all, but their hearts for the less unfortunate never waned. Even as their growing family was nearing capacity, they welcomed two orphans from Kenya into their fold through adoption.

Ronda Chervin, a convert from Judaism, writes poignantly about marital love, noting that when a Christian falls in love with “another of Christ’s creatures ... she will feel she is touching the mystery of Christ as it comes to a visible point in the beauty of her beloved.”

Chervin concludes, “The fate of this spark of mystical love,” and “whether it is to become an ash or a flame,” is determined “by the degree of their love and the depth of their inward commitment to Christ.”

She articulates better what I have struggled to convey in receiving Mark’s death as deeply as I might Patti’s, for the two had become one. Or, as someone at the funeral reception said, “There is no Mark without Patti, and no Patti without Mark.”

I could say much more about what I’ve gained from being near in heart to this family, including their children’s touching testimonies at the vigil; my delight in learning Mark was witnessing the same awe-inspiring aurora borealis as I was, just hours before his death; and their devotion to family. But most of all, I want to thank Patti for her commitment to her marriage and in staying true, with Mark, to Christ, through good times and bad, in sickness and health.

The domestic church is truly a light to the world, as Patti and Mark demonstrated so well.

Patti has a giving faith community surrounding her, and I know this community and her beloved family will keep her strengthened in the days ahead. But there will be a yearning, an incompleteness, that will not be resolved until heaven.

Thankfully, at Pentecost, God doubled down on his promise to remain with us to the end. This was affirmed as we left the funeral vigil on May 17, when a beautiful double rainbow, perfectly positioned to harbor the walkway out of the cathedral, spread across the sky.

Double rainbow in the sky post-wake for Mark Armstrong
Double rainbow in the sky post-wake for Mark(Photo: Courtesy of Patti Armstrong)

Few, if any, doubted its presence or perfect timing, which seemed meant especially for Patti and her family: a reminder that they won’t have to bear this this new cross alone.