“Joe has entered hospice care”, the text message said. Though not a total surprise, I was surprised by the catching of a sob in my throat, and the tear that threatened to leak out of my right eye.
My “YOU MUST NOT FEEL TOO MUCH” part of myself, immediately rushed to my rescue. Loyal soldier he, rescuing me from what, I am not sure. I don’t know of any reported cases of anyone actually crying to death, but I believe I could die prematurely because I keep whatever chemicals tears release, inside my body.
Who was Joe? He was my “bonus dad”, I was his “bonus son”. We spoke of that. He and my father knew each other. They liked each other, a lot. After meeting Joe for the first time, my dad said, “I like that Joe guy, he is not like any other doctor I’ve ever met.” So very true.
I met Joe 30 years ago. For many years, including the last seven, we talked to each other nearly every week. A couple of decades ago, he helped me weather my corporate nightmare. He was a mentor and tutor. He was a medical doctor. Right up until the end, he was still reading medical journals. We would talk, argue, and conjugate for hours about what it meant to be a human being.
He performed the intervention on Betty Ford and was the founding medical director of The Betty Ford Center. He tells the story of Betty inviting him to lunch one day and sharing her idea of creating a place where people could get the kind of help she had. He whipped out a pen on the spot and drew what such a center would look like, on the only paper he could find, a napkin. A plan that he had carried around in his head for years.
That’s where he met his beloved wife Sharon who was conducting a staff training. Joe says Sharon fell in love with him at first sight and it only took two years of him chasing her around the world for her to realize that.
He and I traveled together. We conducted workshops together. We took primitive forest service road jeep tours with his grandson through the amazing Black Hills of South Dakota. When his grandson won an Alaskan cruise trip for two, Grandpa Joe was his first choice. Joe carried business cards that described him as “Devoted Husband, Father, and Grandfather.” I penciled in “Friend and Mentor” on the one he gave me.
He tried, without success, to teach me how to play golf. “Too much baseball player in you I guess”, he joked . We settled for mini-golf and had a number of misadventures there too.
He took me to my first Casino, at age 47 and turned me loose. I won big at the slot machines. $1,400 in quarters. When I got back to the car, with pant, shirt, and coat pockets full of quarters, they began spilling out on the seats and floor. He laughed as I tried to stuff them back into my too full pockets. That was when he gently told me that I could have exchanged them for paper money. Joe also informed me that the paper cups next to the slot machines were to put the coins in and that I could have used them to put the coins into. I thought I would be arrested for stealing them. And I knew the mob was in charge of the Casino’s (too much TV) and they would break my legs, or worse, for stealing.
During the Vietnam war, Joe was assigned to a MASH unit. At the last minute he was transferred to another unit. The group he was transferred from was entirely annihilated one week later.
He loved to write songs (“Angels”) and tap dance and juggle and teach everyone else how to do that. He loved to emcee performances. He did a great impression of Lord Windesphere, the (fictitious) great, brave, African wild game hunter. He loved Junior Mints.
Joe joined Sharon and together they grew an endeavor she had started, Onsite Workshops. Joe’s special contributions included a wonderful lecture called “Ripples”, that spoke of how we are all connected; and Decathexis, the ways in which we remain painfully connected to some things.
Several years ago, Parkinson’s Disease came, uninvited, in Joe’s backdoor and never left. We have talked a lot about that. We spoke openly and often about the gradual losses. About his fears, sadness, joys, delights, what he had learned about life. His hallucinations, and mine. Never a word of judgment about anyone, including me.
We talked of his times in Hawaii, Steamboat Springs, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Sioux Falls, Dallas and especially of the precious log home he and Sharon had on a beautiful crest of land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He spoke of the weekly home-baked loaf of bread I would take to their house.
Mostly he talked of his love for his precious Sharon. Of how loyal she remained. Of his fear of wearing her out. Of how she modeled unconditional love, day after day.
Our conversations were one of the few places Joe said he felt comfortable talking about his experiences. What the poets and philosophers have promised I’ve found to be true. The more comfortable I am with my own mortality, the more I have to offer in life and the more of life is available for me to enjoy.
Last Thursday Sharon called me. Though he is mostly unconscious when she called, he was awake. She held the phone up to his ear, and I talked to him. I told him of my memories of us, of the funny times we had together, of my appreciation for the gifts he had so freely given me. He could not answer. She said he smiled. I was glad this was not the first time he had heard these things, only the latest. Sharon read this note to him yesterday. She said he knew it was me.
About 10 years ago I knew that I had to begin making peace with my own mortality. I am still doing that. I believe that facilitated our discussions. It is amazing to me how comfortable we were talking and living in that space. Over the years I wrote to him (and others), letters of thanks and shared memories, and gifts I had received by knowing him and being a part of his life. I am reminded that perhaps the best gift I can ever give another, is making peace with my own mortality, so I can be comfortable with theirs.
Goodbye Joe. Goodbye good friend. I need to sit down and have a conversation with the controller of my tears, so that I can truly honor you.