Yesterday morning I said good-bye to one of my oldest and dearest friends.
They took him off the ventilator in a Pittsburgh hospital room just long enough for him to explain why he hadn’t returned my messages and why he wouldn’t be calling me again. A friend let him use her cell phone, the same friend that for years helped him select the pajamas he’d gifted to my daughters each Christmas since they were born.
I’ve written before about my friend Joe, who was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He never smoked and had otherwise been the picture of good health until he developed a chest cold that would not go away. He ran between the chemo treatments and even finished the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Virginia Beach, his newly bald head beaming. He used to run marathons, especially when he lived in Indianapolis, and took quinine pills to quell calf cramps that once led us both to finish near last in a 20-miler on Martha’s Vineyard. We stuck together, no matter what, and we did much better a few years later at the La Jolla Half Marathon, though he hadn’t prepared for the hills like I’d suggested.
Joe’s one of those people who give far more than they get and take private pride in that inequality. He championed the poor through his work as a journalist and affordable housing advocate. He prayed at church for others more than for himself until this past year. He generously shared his wages and his time with his three grown children, an ex-wife he never got over and any friend or stranger in need. He was still giving freely yesterday when he sacrificed a few precious minutes of life-supporting air to deliver breathy bursts of final words to me, falling to pieces on the other end of the line.
Once he’d been given an expiration date by doctors, Joe never took another day for granted. Last Christmas he wrote detailed messages of appreciation to every person on his holiday card list. He had a lot of energy back then, given the volume of handwritten missives he told me he’d produced. His letter to us, and what would be his final gift of pajamas for the girls, had an immediate, emotional impact that morning – especially since traditionally it was Joe’s gifts the girls chose to open first.
Later that night, I called to thank him for both the PJs and the letter. That’s when he explained that he wanted each person to know how important they’d been to him, just in case he didn’t make it to another Christmas. His final words to me yesterday, as best I can remember: “I think this is it, kid.”
In case you're interested, here's something I found yesterday that describes both his current state and his impact on people.