Mark Sullivan/WireImage
January 22, 2016 11:00 AM

With his chiseled jaw and easy smile, it’s no wonder Nathaniel Marston found fame as Dr. Michael McBain on One Life to Live. But his friends, family and the fans who he’d stop in the middle of New York City’s bustling streets to chat with remember him more for the warm way he’d greet them: a bear hug.

About 100 mourners gathered during Marston’s memorial Saturday in N.Y.C’s grand Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, and those who gave eulogies all remembered how he’d envelop everyone he met in his arms.

Speaking to PEOPLE in a pew after the service, his mother Elizabeth Jackson explains that after the soap star died, doctors revealed his heart was reversed, resting in the right side of his body because of a rare condition called situs inversus.

“So when he was hugging you, it was directly heart-to-heart,” she says. “That’s why his hugs were so special.”

Marston died Nov. 11 after spending nearly two weeks hooked up to a ventilator in the hospital and being paralyzed in an Oct. 30 car accident. He was 40 years old but looking for a fresh start in Hollywood after kicking the drug habit that had ground his acting career to a halt.

Despite rumors at the time of the wreck, police say Marston was sober that night and likely fell asleep at the wheel.

“He struggled, as many of us do, with demons,” says Jackson of her son, who moved out to Nevada to live near her after completing rehab in N.Y.C. “He was struggling with drug addiction, and so he went into a treatment program, and he came out to me, and he was doing really good. The moment of redemption for Nat happened just before he died.”

Humble Beginnings

A single mother, Jackson gave birth to Marston when she was just 16 years old and trying to make it as an actress herself.

“It was hard, but he was always the reason I got out of bed in the morning, and he was grateful for every little thing,” she tells PEOPLE. “And he was smart beyond comprehension. He had like a 160 IQ, he spoke four languages. He spoke Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and English fluently. He had a photographic memory he was just bright and he was kind and he was a good little boy.”

Nathaniel Marston and Elizabeth Jackson
Courtesy Elizabeth Jackson

“I did the best I could do,” she continues. “I was a little kid. I was a baby. He was my best friend, he was my pal, he was my buddy. He taught me everything I know about love, responsibility, kindness, compassion, empathy.”

Born in Connecticut but raised in Hawaii, California and New York, Marston was discovered while working at a Beverly Hills bakery and landed a role on As the World Turns in 1998, earning a Soap Opera Digest Award nod. He joined One Life to Live in 2001 as Al Holden and, following outcry over the character’s death, began playing Michael through 2007.

Marston’s on-screen relationship with Kathy Brier, who played Marcie on the show, was an especially electrifying storyline. At the memorial, Brier sang “Hallelujah,” his favorite song, as the clergy led a processional of candles.

Those who worked with him say his stardom never changed him.

One fan wrote to Jackson after her son’s death with a heartwarming story from nine years ago.

“My wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and it had taken a toll on us, especially my daughter, Kayla. As a distraction getaway I arranged a visit and walk-on role for my daughter on One Life To Live,” he told her. “While there we met Nathaniel, who was so kind to all of us and spoke to Kayla at length about acting. None of the actors knew we were personal friends of the producers. Many of them just looked down on us as ‘extras,’ but your son was sweet, kind and personable. We have always used him as an example of how you treat someone no matter who they are, to our children.”

A Falling Star

Beloved on set, Marston had two highly publicized brushes with the law.

In 1999, he was arrested for attacking an ATM machine in Manhattan. Jackson defends her son, saying he lost his temper because he had a cab waiting outside to take him to a job and the machine ate his card.

“He was a generous, kind, sweet, gentle soul who was larger than life – and had a big temper, he got in trouble,” she says. “Who doesn’t?”

Jackson says Marston returned to the bank and apologized – and that’s when police took him into custody. “But nobody tells that story,” she says. “It doesn’t sell newspapers.”

Then, in 2007, Marston was let go from One Life to Live after a brawl with three taxi drivers. A court found him guilty of resisting arrest in 2010.

His mother says she believes the substance abuse began in 2003, when he fell from a roof, smashing his heel and breaking his back. He began taking prescription medications.

“I think the hardest thing for Nathaniel was that he didn’t know how much he was loved,” Jackson says now. “I think because he was an empath that he felt other people’s pain, and that caused him pain. … I think he felt people’s spiritual pain, and I think that’s where his demons came from.”

But inside the resplendent cathedral, it was clear how much he is missed – by the crew and costars from his soaps who recalled his humility and friendliness, and by the diehard fans who he invited to annual mixers well after he left their television screens.

A Second Chance

In 2012, Marston moved to Gerlach, Nevada, after getting clean and found new life in the rural community where Jackson also lives.

He decided to give back, spending time with children at the local Gerlach School where there is now a scholarship set up in his name.

“He played with them, he signed their homework folders, he taught them how to brush their teeth and floss, he took them swimming,” Jackson says of his relationship with the students. “He inspired them to believe that they could do or be anything they wanted because Nat was a famous actor, and he made so little of that all the time.”

Josh, the father of a pupil named Lokai, wrote a letter to Jacskon about Marston’s impact.

“Your son was one of the greatest beings that I have had the pleasure and opportunity to know,” he said. “Nate always took time for kids, was always patient with them, and simply enjoyed their presence and honored them by playing with them or teaching them every time he had the chance. It is a trait that I truly respect and seek in others whom I wish to surround myself with. For him it was completely natural, and this is true beauty. Your loss is the entire world’s loss, but simultaneously we were all blessed to have had the opportunity to feel his presence while he walked this planet.”

One Christmas, Marston cooked and delivered 100 dinners and handmade cards to everyone in the small town, including the chef at Gerlach’s only restaurant.

In the winters, Marston fed cows on a nearby ranch, and the day of his accident, he excitedly told his mom about a new labor opportunity in the Smoke Creek Desert. He promised her he’d save money for the both of them and vowed to return to show business and audition for TV.

“He was on track, and he was ready to roll,” Jackson says. “He was ready to go back to pilot season. He said, ‘Mom, I’m gonna buy you a ranch and we’re going to raise the most beautiful cattle that you’ve seen in your life. I finally found something that I love to do beside acting.’ ”

“And he said, ‘and we’re going to get some foster kids and we’re gonna mentor them, and we’re gonna pay it forward because Father God has been so good to us,’ ” she adds, crying. “And he goes, ‘I finally get it.’ ”

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His Tragic End

The day of the crash, Marston was supposed to go to his mom’s house for tea. She recalls being angry and worried when he flaked – until the phone rang.

“He said, ‘Hi Mommy. I’m calling you to tell you that I love you and I know how much it hurts you when I just blow you off.’ He said, ‘I don’t ever want to hurt you again,’ ” Jackson says, tearing up. “And he said, ‘So I’m calling to tell you that I love you and I’m just too tired to come drink tea right now.’ And we talked for an hour and I told him how proud I was. I said, ‘You see how this is? Nobody’s mad no hard feelings I am so proud of you.’ I said, ‘Nat, you have turned a corner. You’ve been sober, and you’re ready to go back and get your career on track, and I can’t wait to see you on Sunday so we can have our family dinner.’ ”

That meal never happened. While driving to help a friend in need, Marston’s pickup truck flipped. He was not wearing a seat belt and flew through the windshield, according to Nevada Highway Patrol.

He broke his shoulder, ribs and five vertebrae. Jackson actually drove past the wreckage on her way back home through Reno, but without her cell phone, she had no idea her child was the one injured.

“I saw all this stuff out in the desert and I thought, that looks like Nat’s sleeping bag,” she says. “I was like no, and I got home and there were these two calls. It was horrible.”

Though her first instinct was to suspect her son had relapsed, Jackson says she quickly realized “the rumor mill” was wrong.

“He was sober,” she says. “The police said he was sober, and I went to talk to the officers before I left to come [to New York], and they were like, ‘No, your son was sober.’ And they tested him in the hospital. He was sober.”

At the hospital, Jackson learned her son was dying. He needed a machine to breathe and, even if he recovered, faced life as a quadriplegic.

“He wanted to fight,” Jackson says, but a surgery to relieve pressure on his brain and procedure to try to stabilize him both failed.

Jackson explained the dire circumstances to Marston, who was mentally cogent but could barely talk or move.

“I said, ‘Listen son, you’ve got a ventilator in your throat, and that’s how you’re breathing. I need you to listen to me like you’re never listened to me in your life. Do you understand? You know you’re in the hospital, right?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Honey, how can you go through a windshield and be thrown 100 ft. and not have a mark on your body? You even still have your teeth.’ And you know what he did, he went like this,” she said, smiling slightly. “I said, ‘I’m not lying to you, you’ve still got those teeth. You’re as Hollywood handsome as the day you were born, pal, but I need you to listen to me.’ And I told him about the two operations, and tears started streaming down his face.”

After a fight for power of attorney with Marston’s estranged wife – who Jackson says left him after he was fired from One Life to Live in 2007 – and the hospital, she bid him goodbye and honored his wishes by removing the ventilator Nov. 11. Less than 20 minutes later, he was gone.

“It was a very sad story,” she says, “and I’m grateful I had those two weeks with him, that I could tell him how much I loved him and ask for any forgiveness.”

Honoring Nathaniel

During his health crisis, Jackson posted regular updates on his condition to her Facebook page, finding solace in the prayers that poured in.

“He touched so many – I had no idea,” she says. “I knew he was loved, but he hasn’t worked on One Life to Live since 2007 and then all these people took that journey with me on Facebook.”

The N.Y.C. service was the last of three memorials, all open to fans.

Producer Vincent De Paul gave a remembrance during the memorial, recalling how he met Marston on the set of As the World Turns and worked with him on what would be his final project, the 2011 movie Walk a Mile in My Pradas.

Nathaniel Marston (left) and Vincent De Paul
Courtesy Vincent De Paul

“We all mourn the loss of a great actor, friend, and family member,” he says in a statement to PEOPLE. “He was always so encouraging to his cast and crew on set. What a liked man who had such a deep and kind compassion to all that he encountered. … He could memorize his lines so easily within minutes. Everything about him was on a trajectory of a Hollywood star.”

As for Jackson, she is comforted by her younger son, Ikaika. After posting a Facebook status about a baby boy Marston had fathered, she’s reconnecting with her grandchild. (“I’m in contact with him again,” she says simply, hoping to protect him.)

And the grieving mother believes that the rainbows that have colored the sky throughout her travels since Marston’s death are his way of saying he’ll always be with her.

“We don’t have a lot of time on this earth and we never know when our last moments are going to happen. Nathaniel was always kind to people,” she says of his legacy. “Take that time to be kind to all the people that you love.”

To donate to Nathaniel Marston’s scholarship, make a a check out to The Gerlach Booster Club – Nathaniel Memorial Scholarship and mail it to the address below:
The Gerlach Booster Club
c/o Judy Conley
P.O. Box 180
Gerlach, Nevada 89412

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