Mom’s Son Mysteriously Died in His Sleep. Now She Keeps His Memory Alive by Helping Other Kids (Exclusive)

“His spirit is still around making things happen,” Nikki Mark tells PEOPLE

<p>courtesy Nikki Mark</p> Nikki Mark and son Tommy at her home in Los Angeles in 2012

courtesy Nikki Mark

Nikki Mark and son Tommy at her home in Los Angeles in 2012

Shortly into their two-hour drive to a San Diego soccer tournament, 12-year-old Tommy Mark turned to his mom, Nikki, and began peppering her with questions about the meaning of life.

“Is it possible to go to sleep and not wake up?” Nikki, 54, recalls Tommy asking as she tried to reassure him that he didn’t need to worry about something like that at his age. “And then a couple minutes later, he said, ‘It must be really hard for a parent to lose a child.’ "

Three days later Tommy’s probing inquiries took on a deeper significance when Nikki walked into his bedroom at the family’s house in Los Angeles in April of 2018 to rouse him for soccer practice and made a horrifying discovery. “He was never late for his workouts,” she says. “But he didn’t wake up. He was gone and suddenly everything changed.”

Amid her grief over Tommy’s death from an undiagnosed heart ailment that specialists still can’t fully explain, Nikki embarked on a journey of healing that involved raising more than $2.6 million and building two state-of-the-art soccer fields that are open to the public and available free of charge.

Related: Grieving Mom Whose 3-Month-Old Baby Died in His Sleep Shares What Could Have Prevented His Death: 'I Carry Guilt'

“The fields aren’t just a way to honor Tommy,” she says. “It’s actually to help fulfill a need for a city that doesn’t have enough playing fields for kids and even adults.”

For more on Tommy's story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

<p>courtesy Nikki Mark</p> Tommy Mark in 2016

courtesy Nikki Mark

Tommy Mark in 2016

In the days before his death, Tommy — an elite player who at age 8 told his parents, “By the time I’m 15, I’m going to Europe to play” — had complained of chest pains. His doctor wrote it off as“growing pains.” Says Nikki, “Pediatric cardiologists told us they’ve never seen anything like it.”

Related: 2 Moms Grieving Sons Lost to Suicide Fight for Gun Storage Law — and Win: 'Every Day Is a Battle' (Exclusive)

On the day Tommy died, as friends began filling up the home Nikki shares with her husband, Doug, 64, an entertainment lawyer, and younger son Donovan, 16, the shell-shocked businesswoman — she has launched several start-ups — wondered how she would move on with her life.

Then she remembered a city-owned plot of land near their home that had been empty for nearly 20 years and thought: “Let’s build a soccer field for Tommy.”

<p>Christine Bjerke</p> Nikki Mark at Tommy's Field

Christine Bjerke

Nikki Mark at Tommy's Field

Before long, she created the TM23 Foundation, named for Tommy’s jersey number, and headed to community meetings in an effort to convince skeptical neighbors and the city to endorse her plan.

Related: Woman Finds Balloon Messages from Grieving Kids, Raises Funds for Their Mom's Funeral

<p> Christine Bjerke </p> Nikki Mark and husband Doug at Tommy's Field

Christine Bjerke

Nikki Mark and husband Doug at Tommy's Field

After the field opened in 2021 and began attracting thousands of players each week, the administrators of the 115-year-old Los Angeles social services agency Vista Del Mar, which offers services to underserved youth and foster children, reached out to say, “We want a Tommy’s Field too,” she says.

By August of 2023 the new field had been built, paid for by everything from profits from lemonade stands set up by Tommy’s friends to the generosity of philanthropists. Nikki’s friends aren’t surprised by what she’s been able to pull off. “Anything she puts her mind to, she accomplishes,” says college pal Tamara Jensen. “She’s just that kind of a force.”

Nikki Mark's book, "Tommy's Field"
Nikki Mark's book, "Tommy's Field"

Now Nikki, whose book Tommy’s Field: Love, Loss, and the Goal of a Lifetime was published in January, is working on a third soccer field, in downtown L.A. “It feels like Tommy is orchestrating all of this,” says his proud mom. “His spirit is still around making things happen.”

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.