Some couples fall in love. They meet, look into each other’s eyes, date, break up, and then get married. Some couples meander into love. They start out as best friends and move down the togetherness path gradually. They take their time, break up, make up, and eventually end up saying, “I do.”
With Joe and me, our default setting was love. We never once looked at each other and said, “You are the one,” and we were never best friends.
I was raised in the west Texas town of El Paso. When I was five, we visited some Chicago friends, and I knew the moment I looked out the window of their high-rise, I would grow up and live in Chicago. At around the same time, Joe’s childhood dreams included living in the Southwest and chasing tumbleweeds across the desert. I moved first.
Joe was attending classes at the Carl Jung Institute. I was in charge of running the classes for the instructors. Each Tuesday night, I would make announcements, coffee, and check people into the class. Joe and I hung out together after each class. I would clean up, Joe would watch, and we would talk about the mysteries of alchemy, archetypes, and our shadow sides. After each class, Joe would suggest we have coffee sometime. We never did. When the last class ended, Joe asked for my phone number and said he would call me for a coffee date. I did not wait for the phone to ring.
Six months later, I wandered down to the basement cafeteria of the building where I worked to buy a coke and some French fries. As I walked back upstairs, I collided with Joe, who had just bought coffee. We worked in the same building. As Joe mopped hot coffee off his jean jacket, we visited for a few minutes. Joe suggested we get together for coffee. I smiled and gave him my phone number – again.
By default, Joe and I did have coffee. We ran into each other outside a neighborhood Starbucks and learned we lived a few blocks from one another on the same street. We had coffee, Joe took my number, and this time he called me.
Joe and I did not date easily. We fought often and broke up regularly, vowing it was over. A few days after one particularly passionate fight in which we had both ended our relationship in unison, I grabbed a bus home from work. As I walked to the back of the bus, there was only one empty seat. It was next to Joe.
Joe and I were more than opposites. For the most part, we had very little in common. I don’t drink. I’m not a fan of rock-n-roll. I prefer quiet over loud, one-on-one over crowds. I’m on time, a finisher. I lose my car keys frequently. I am usually happy and seldom skeptical. Joe, by contrast, loved rock-n-roll, drinking too much, and blasting a radio in every room. He never lost his car keys, never finished things, and never worried about being on time. Joe liked the darker side of life, and questioned everything. We shared a sense of humor, but not the same one. Joe could beat a dead horse into reincarnation. I have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to rehashing a movie, or what someone else really meant.
Joe shared with me that when he was in his early teens, he worried that God would call him to the priesthood. Praying hard each night, he would ask God to please call someone else. He once told me he would have prayed less if he knew he was getting me instead of the priesthood. I was quick to point out he was not exactly the man of my dreams, either.
If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
Joe and I never talked about marriage, and we never talked about children. I had never met Joe’s family. He had briefly met my mom. We were both surprised when I became pregnant. We stumbled through my pregnancy and fell in love with our son.
Joe and I accepted we were destined to be together. We took fate’s hand, leaned into love, and for the next thirteen years lived together for better and for worse, for richer and poorer, and in sickness and health. I was not expecting the “until death do we part” until we both reached old age or killed one another.
It’s almost one year later and I am looking at the kitchen window. Tomorrow it will be replaced. The frame and window are separating, the insulation is non-existent, the screen is tattered and torn. As I look out into our backyard, my mind rewinds to one year ago, Tuesday morning, June 2nd, 2009
We woke up happy. Cole got ready for school. I let my dogs outside and fed them. Joe fixed Cole’s breakfast and sandwich lunch. Joe was taking Joey (the Beagle) and Max and George (the Golden Retrievers) home after he dropped Cole off at school, and before he went to the gym. I gathered their belongings. If there was anything unusual about this Tuesday morning, it would have been how easily, effortlessly and on time Joe, Cole, and the dogs left for the day. I kissed everyone goodbye.
Joe called me after he dropped off Cole, when he was on his way to drop off Joey, Max and George. We visited about our upcoming trip to Italy and the repairs being made to his car. Before we hung up Joe said, “I love you so much.” In return I answered, “I love you, too.” Joe had planned to go to the gym, but called me a short while later to say he was coming home because he did not feel all that great. When we spoke the second time, I was in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher. I hung up the phone and stood looking out the kitchen window. In all the years I had known Joe, I had never heard him say, “I don’t feel great.” Joe was seldom sick and never complained of feeling sick. I often called him the “wellest” man in the world. A wave of uneasiness flooded through me as I stared out into our backyard. I pulled myself together and brushed off my feelings.
Joe came home about half hour later. He looked fine but said he felt a little off and went in to lie down. I brought him a glass of water, felt his cool forehead, and asked the questions we are taught to ask, “Where do you feel bad?” “Does your chest hurt?” He mentioned feeling warm and said he wanted to take a shower. He got up to take a shower. I went upstairs with an armful of winter clothes I was exchanging for summer clothes.
I did not hear Joe fall. I felt Joe fall. Dropping the clothes, I raced for the shower.
Did it take the paramedics forever to arrive, or did it just feel like forever? I was soaked from shower water, cold from sheer panic, and confused by the paramedic who told me it was bad at the same time he was telling me to calm down. I called my mom, a friend and my brother-in-law.
We arrived at the hospital. Joe’s brother, brother-in-law and best friend arrived soon after. I did not want any information. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Joe’s brother-in-law took charge and we gathered in a conference room. There was a large clock on the wall. I looked at it and it stopped. The doctor told us Joe had died. I watched Joe’s best friend’s face crumble. I remember Joe’s brother hugging me. He smelled like Joe. The room was spinning. The doctor was talking about shock. I went and saw Joe. I looked at the man lying on the gurney and wanted to go home. Joe was at home. Joe’s brother took me home.
I believe in home. Joe believed in home. We christened our son at home. We were married at home. We celebrated friendships and birthdays at home … and Joe had died at home.
The details of the rest of the day were a blur. I signed cremation papers, arranged for Cole to go to soccer try-outs. Family, friends, and food arrived. I hung on tight to a pair of Joe’s glasses I had picked up off the bathroom floor. The phone rang and rang and rang. The world kept spinning around me.
Bad News Can Wait.
How do you tell your 13-year-old his dad died? Hold him tightly, say it quickly, and let your heart break with his. Tell him your trip to Italy is still on, take off his shin guards and have a bag of White Castle sandwiches ready. Cole later told me that when his friend’s mom took him to soccer tryouts that night, he had looked out her car window and wondered if something had happened to his dad. At the time, I thought it was all about what Joe would have wanted. Joe would have wanted me to put off telling Cole he had died until after soccer tryouts. True. Truer is the advice Joe’s older brother gave me: “Bad news can wait,” and I wanted to wait forever.
I told Cole his dad died and the world stopped spinning. I worried we would fall off.
Staring out our living room window with Cole’s head in my lap, I slowly replayed the day in my mind. I remembered how my conversation with Joe about his car could have turned into an argument, but didn’t. I remembered looking out the kitchen window full of worry, for no apparent reason. I remembered Joe adding, “so much” to his “I love you” to me that morning. Cole remembered listening to a favorite radio show with his dad on the way to school, and he remembered saying, “I love you,” when he left the car for the school.
I remembered how my hand had unclenched when Joe’s niece had handed me a cold bottle of Starbucks, and how, when a good friend had noticed a look of desperation cross my face, she had quickly handed me Joe’s glasses to hold and I could breathe again. Over the course of the day, the shower door had been put back on, my phone had been charged, plans had been made, and I had signed papers. A best friend had shown up to spend the night. Each time I heard my mom’s voice, I knew she would keep our world spinning and she would not let us fall off. Cole slept with his head in my lap, but before he closed his eyes, he looked at me and said, “Mom, this really sucks.”
I went on Facebook the night Joe died and was overwhelmed by comments from friends sharing our pain and disbelief. One comment spoke to me at that moment: “I have no idea what to say or what to type.” I typed back, “This really sucks.” The woman behind the comment became our witness. For the past year, she has listened, offered advice sparingly, and kept us from getting too stuck. Grief needs a witness.
The next day, friends and food appeared. The phone rang endlessly. I answered every call. The most common question asked was, “Are you okay?” No really, I wasn’t. This was generally followed by, “Do you need anything?” I always said, “I don’t think so.” I loved the people who called and were direct. “Hi, I’m bringing over bagels. I will be there in an hour, and won’t stay much beyond a hug.” I loved the people who said, “Oh my God, this is just awful, I feel just awful.” I loved the people who looked at me and said, “This really sucks,” and most of all, I connected with the people who said, “Damn, I have no idea what to say.” I loved Cole’s teacher when she called and blurted out, “Oh God, Katybeth, I am devastated! I just loved Joe.” Best of all, I loved it when Joe’s best friend took over calling people and answering the phone. It was his calling.
The second night, Cole and I spent alone, but not before we went out to run some errands. We went to Mattress City and bought a twin mattress for the upstairs bed my mom would be sleeping in. We went to Target to buy some miscellaneous household items, and then we went to Starbucks. We ordered our drinks and made it to the door before we both dissolved. I’m not sure how we made it home. I’m not sure how the mattress we bought made it upstairs. I remember aching in spots I did not know existed. This was my introduction to the grief vortex.
The grief vortex snatches you up when you least expect it and turns you inside out. There is no escaping it. I could never predict when one would hit. I’ve since learned that my best hope for survival is to surrender to it; to let it whip me around like a leaf in a windstorm until it passes. Now, I wonder if it ever really goes away.
Cole did not see Joe in the hospital, so we arranged a viewing before he was cremated. Cole and I drove to the crematory with Joe’s family. Cole, usually a calm, steady kid, was hyper and talking non-stop. Sitting next to Joe’s younger brother on that beautiful sunny day, I wondered when or if I would wake up.
We gathered in a conference room of the crematory. I signed papers. Joe’s family made small talk. The heartache in the room was so strong I could taste it, but Joe’s family still managed idle conversation, which made everything just a little easier. I looked over, and clenched in my sister-in-law’s hand was a small bunch of wild flowers, obviously gathered before we came inside. That was the first time I loved her for remembering the details. The second time was when we left the building and she handed Cole and me cold bottles of coke.
Joe was laid out, covered in a sheet in a small room. The gash on his forehead from his fall in the shower was covered with makeup. Cole looked at his dad, and I witnessed pain so raw, it seared right through me, branding me forever. I tried to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” but all I could manage was, “This sucks.”
We left. I drank my coke. Cole drank his coke and used the bottles as a whistle the rest of the way home. His aunt and uncle joined him.
I went home. Cole went for lunch. I would catch up with them a little later.
Our house was empty. I was alone. I walked in and sat on the bottom step of the staircase, and this is when I had my first chat with Joe after his passing. “Why?” I wondered out loud. Then I realized in that moment that Joe was just as confused as I was. My fear was that Joe had run for the light, screaming, “Free! Free at last!” Life was not always easy for Joe on Earth. But the reality was that he still had unfinished work, a son who needed him, and damn it, we were not ready to call it over. If God had a bigger plan for Joe, God should wait a while.
I felt Joe say, “This sucks.”
I asked Joe where we should have his memorial.
He said, “At home.”
I said, “Your family is doubtful a memorial at home will work.”
Joe said, “They will come around.”
I chat with Joe a lot now. He visits in dreams, moments, and will often enter my heart – sometimes invited, sometimes not. I don’t see him. I don’t hear him. I just feel him. How do I explain this? Remember when I told you Joe and I were meant to be? We felt each other long before we knew one another. We hold each other’s thoughts. When I sat on the bottom step chatting with Joe, we felt each other’s grief and confusion, and neither of us had any idea what to do next. And then Joe smiled, because he knew I would do the thing I did best … get busy.
My mom arrived and bad got just a bit better. She brought her sister and her dog. My mom knew I would eat just half a sandwich. I could finally stop talking. I looked at my mom, my aunt, and Trinket, the Doberman, and thought, “We will be okay.” Then I looked at my mom and said, “Let’s clean the garage,” and together, we got busy.
to be continued…..