Anyone that’s been my friend long enough knows it takes some work on their part to maintain the relationship. I’m not always timely returning e-mails and I’m even worse when it comes to phone calls or letters. So when my friend Joe called from Pittsburgh the other night, I assumed it was because I’d failed to follow up with him. Last time we talked, he wanted to fly out in April to again run the La Jolla Half Marathon with me.
Instead, he called to cancel. Just hours before, he learned he has lung cancer.
He’s never smoked, always stayed fit and lived most of his life in Indiana, which I understand has decent air quality. So of all the organs for disease to seize, lungs were a long shot. He related how scared he was of dying and what he feared in terms of treatment. All I could offer was for him to stay positive and to know that regardless of what the future held, he had had a huge impact on people as a father, friend and journalist. In the end, that’s what we all wish: to have made a difference in someone’s life. (Something our track coach reminds us whenever we gather to train.)
Joe and I met when I first joined The Virginian-Pilot, working out of a small North Carolina bureau. We shared an office, a few quirks and a temperamental telephone modem. When I had a craving, he volunteered to go to the nearby greasy spoon. He drummed into me, then only 24, to always look out for the little guy, and he went on to win prestigious awards doing just that. In the adjacent office was the other staffer, a legendary septuagenarian named Mason. He used to say that like the young Jacqueline Bouvier (the future Jackie Kennedy Onassis) he hired when he worked in Washington, he thought me capable of great things. He let me drive his T-bird to staff meetings in Nags Head. He often remarked that newspaper reporting went downhill soon as everyone stopped drinking on the job.
Back then we all worked for Dan, a gruff and demanding editor with a selective soft side. I was pregnant and scared of him when he hired me, and five months later he not only made it so I’d be paid through my six-week, non-tenured maternity leave but personally sent flowers and then drove down from Norfolk to meet my new daughter in person. Joe was like a godfather to her and a little sister born 19 months later. His longstanding practice of sending pajamas to the girls each Christmas earned him the moniker “Pajama Man.” And Mason, well into his twilight years, made a wonderful surrogate grandfather, bearing treats and sweet words whenever I brought the girls to the office.
Mason died of lung cancer shortly after I again left the newspaper 10 years ago for another military move. Then Dan was murdered in his home about five years after that. Both deaths hit me hard because both men helped shape the person that I am. And now 52-year-old Joe, by far the most influential, may be next. I have faith, though, he will be around longer than he thinks. He’s in good hands -- his doctors’ and God’s.