I met Joey in Kindergarten. I don't know why we hit it off and it's entirely possible that we really didn't, but that our mothers were friends and so we became friends by association. In any event, I don't remember a year of my life from Kindergarten to my mid twenties when Joey wasn't somewhere on the landscape. We were both children of divorce, our mothers had both been married to much older men, and our mothers were both blonde bombshells. So these two ladies had to stick together, because some of the good Christian moms in our little Lutheran school didn't take kindly to either of them. Joey and I, despite our differences in gender and socioeconomic status (they had a lot of money and we had none), just bonded. It just stuck. We would go through phases of being closer and then further apart, depending on age, circumstance, and need, but he was there for several milestones. And those images are with me for always. He was at my Confirmation party, my graduation party, he was my date for my Sweet 16, and he took me to get my first and second tattoos. I attended his wedding, and I was there to greet his newborn baby, a son.
Joey lived faster than I did, and he thought differently about life than I did. Everything he confronted came down to a question: "Why not?" Want to try something? Why not? I was on the other side. He once joked, "I live in the fast lane, and some people live in the slow lane, but Nicole, you're parked at the curb." He got in trouble. He always had too much money, and too much stuff, and too much fun. He wanted the best and newest of everything, and he liked the idea of himself as different from everybody else. He thought he could get away with things other people couldn't because he would hide his smarts and people would underestimate him. He liked fast cars, he liked girls, he liked to party. There were times I didn't like his words, and times I worried about his lifestyle. But in my mind, and in my heart, he was always a little boy in a private school uniform, with a plaid tie, and a crooked smile that he would never show in pictures. He didn't like very many people, and a lot of people didn't like him. But he loved me and I loved him, and there was nothing romantic about it. He was protective of me and I saw the soul inside of him that needed protecting. To me, he's perpetually in seventh grade, the first boy to grow a mustache, the first boy to have a girlfriend, the first boy to get into a fistfight. He got into a lot of fistfights. He never lost. But I saw him this way: he loved his mother like she was an angel, and when I talked, he was interested in what I was saying. And he never ever lied to me. Ever. And he could make me laugh, and then keep a straight face while I laughed, which made me laugh even harder.
Joey ended up moving to Arizona, and that's when we started to lose touch. It seemed natural to get some distance. He was married and soon had two children. He had a wife and a life, and I was dating very seriously. Our relationship soon degenerated to the minimum: Christmas cards and pictures, a few short notes, one phone call talking about his great new business idea: a pizzeria named Joey's that would be decorated ceiling to floor on every wall with pictures of famous Joeys. I told him I didn't think there were that many. He said, "Oh, yeah, I'm doing it. I got it. It's gonna be great."
A few years passed and I didn't hear a thing from him. The address he gave me was no longer his, and the phone number didn't work anymore. I found out he had gotten divorced, and there was an implication that he lost custody of his sons. I was concerned, and I tried several times to hunt him down. Over the years as I grew a bit more adept with technology, I would try to search him by name, state, even the pizzeria idea. I was desperate. I couldn't remember his birthday, which made things tougher. Then just recently, after so many years of searching, I came quite accidentally upon a search engine that linked itself to another site: a search for death records. I dismissed it. Then I searched obituaries. There wasn't one. Then I went back to the death certificate site. And there it was, my punch in the gut, my dark shroud, the one thing I never even considered all these years. He's gone. Long gone. He died at 33 years old, over a decade ago. I learned this in the quiet of the night, alone in my room, and I wept into my hands as if he had just died the day before, and as if we had been close friends all this time. Because in a way, both of these things are true. As a friend pointed out to me, "For you, it DID just happen." And he was still my friend. Where I felt it the most, where it hit, were three places in rapid succession. First, how did I not know? How did no one tell me? Wouldn't I have felt it in my soul had he been ripped out of the world? Second, how did he die? Did he suffer? Did he die alone? What of his soul? His sons? Third, my selfish heart and its guilt. Why didn't I keep in touch? Why didn't I try harder to maintain the friendship? Why didn't I, all those years, with everything we were to each other, ever say to him, "Hey, Joe, I love you."
I told my husband about it and he didn't quite know how to help. There is nothing, I suppose, that anyone can say or do. Especially with me. I go into myself, and wait. The next day, my husband came home from work and I was folding laundry on the bed. He looked at my face and could see the wound was still fresh. "Your friend," was all he said, and then he held me. He knew. I am mourning my friend, the little boy, the teenager, the handsome groom, the proud father, the mourning son when his own mom died of cancer as mine later would. The guy whose New York accent and sleeve tattoos and physique could put people off, but who, inside, was as tender as anyone I've ever known.
I've tried to write about other topics on my blog since then, but it was to no avail. All I see is his face, and all I pray is "God, please have him." And it triggers, oh, does it trigger. Because just like with my mother, there's never enough said or done. The time is never enough. The words are never the exact ones you would have said had you known how acutely the loss of this person would pierce your heart. I think about where our lives were, running parallel but so different. I got married in July of 2001, and in February of 2002 he was passing into his eternal rest. I should have known. Why didn't I try harder to track him down to invite him to my wedding? My advice to anyone still reading at this point is: don't let your friendships fade. Say what you feel. Tell those you love that you love them and that they are valuable. Tell them that no matter how much time goes by or how circumstances change, that if they need you, you will be there. I remember when we went to get my second tattoo, Joey looked at me in the passenger seat of his speedster, and said, "Hey, did you ever wonder how come I never tried to date you?" I didn't miss a beat. "You never last with anyone," I said, grabbing his hand, "but I'm still here and I'll always be here."
I lied. I wasn't always there. But I will be now. I will continue to pray for him, for the sons he has left behind, for his ex-wife, and any friends and loved ones who are mourning him still today. I'd ask you to join me in praying for his soul, for the health and welfare of his sons, and that his ex-wife, to whom I've reached out, will contact me and tell me something about what his life looked like during our time apart and what the conditions of his death were. I just want to know that he didn't die alone. The thought of that is unbearable. And unacceptable. When my Sweet 16 was approaching, I thought a lot about how I wanted it to look. My dress, who would light each candle on my cake, the music I'd have played for each dance . . . and it came clear that I didn't want to ask a boy from my high school to be my date, not the one I had a huge crush on, not the ones who had huge crushes on me. I wanted my friend there. I knew he would treat me like a princess for the night, and I knew I would face no nervousness, pressure, or drama. When I called him to ask him if he would be my date, he answered, "What do you think?" Then he started laughing. There was no doubt that he would be there for me. And when he showed up, heads turned. He didn't look like the boys from my school. He was taller, better dressed, and he carried himself like a man, not an insecure boy. I was so proud to have him on my arm. The phrase "He was like a brother to me" sounds so hackneyed, but he really was. No, he really IS. I know you're still there, Joe. Farewell for now, my old friend. I'm sorry I never said it before, but you are one of a kind, and I can't picture my childhood without you, nor my adolescence, nor my very life. And I love you, Joey. I hope and pray that we will see each other again some sweet day.