I am fiercely protective of my wife.
Any man would be. With all she’s going through, I only want her to be seen in a good light. So, though I’m only an amateur with a camera, I try to use my lens and words to lift Joey up.
Like any woman, my wife is self-conscious about what cancer has done to her. Who she sees in the mirror these days looks like someone else… not the woman that she feels like she is inside. And it hurts her deeply.
I know that. So, I carefully choose what I share. It would break my heart to have the thousands of ‘before’ photos out there of her looking beautiful and healthy all these years… be replaced in people’s minds and hearts by a single ‘after’ photo of what cancer has done.
She wants to be remembered as a singer of songs. A devoted wife. A loving mother. Not a cancer patient.
And so I have tried to be very careful. To honor her.
But my wife is braver than me.
A few days ago, she asked me to close the door and sit beside her. We talked for a long time about where we are and where this was most-likely leading. Then she asked me to show her some of the pictures and video that I had been taking lately. I honestly didn’t want to show her, but I did. She looked and watched – and like too many times these days, her tears fell.
Then she wiped our tears and asked me questions. Lots of questions. I did my best to answer them. She wanted to know what was being said outside of this house. Out in the real world.
I told her. I told her what was happening. At least what I thought seemed to be happening. That somehow, people – a lot of people – have been following her story. Our story. And how she was inspiring others with her courage. And how what I’ve been writing has been encouraging others in ways too.
And we talked about how much is too much to share. How honest do we really want to be?
It’s like questioning God about the twists and turns he’s brought into our life in the last few years… and asking Him “how much is too much?”. Sometimes I feel like shouting, “we get it God…you’re in control. Life is fragile and all we have is today”. But He just keeps bringing more story and more pain, and more beauty… all at the exact same time.
So together, we made some decisions. This is our life. It’s what He has given us to live. And share.
Sharing what we’re going through with others is really all we have to give. If you share what you’re going through with me… maybe I’ll be able to draw something good from it if I am one day in your shoes.
I want to try to shine a light on something first though.
The word ‘hospice’ makes us all think the worst. The end. Or at least, the end is very close.
I think, like me, most people probably think when they hear that word that it means that the family must be gathered around their loved one… watching them say their final words and breathing their last breath. And I’m sure in some cases, it probably happens that way.
But last year when my mother was dying of cancer – after hospice was brought in… Mom lived another 3 or 4 more months before she breathed her last. I’ve since heard that it’s not uncommon for people to be on hospice for 6 months, or longer.
And so that’s where we are. A hospice nurse comes once or twice a week and she helps to make sure that Joey’s pain is under control – that her morphine drip is working properly – and to see if she and we, her caregivers, need anything.
But God chooses the appointed time. Not us. Not hospice.
My wife is strong. Very very strong. So is her will to live. Especially with a little one who gets excited every morning to see her.
There isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t look me and her family in the eye and say “I’m gonna beat this”, or “I’m getting better, I believe that”. And she asks me if I believe it, and I do.
I choose to.
For the most part, Joey’s time on hospice so far has been a roller coaster. One moment her light is very dim and she sleeps all the time and is struggling with the simplest of things. And we (along with the doctors and hospice) believe that the time must be very near…
And then, she’ll awaken one day and start talking and we’ll see that familiar spark in her eye. And she will be so crystal-clear with her thoughts, we will gather in the next room and say, “maybe, just maybe…?”.
And then she will take another downturn. Then an upturn. Back and forth. Sometimes many times in just one day. But today and the last few days have been incredible. Part of us once again believes that God is answering Joey’s prayer by healing her body and taking the cancer away, despite all the odds.
Though now, she can no longer get out of bed – she is so sharp and clear and her pain, for the most part, is so under control by the medicine that talking to her – you would think she’s her normal self. Thinner. Much thinner. And with a hip new hairdo.
But she is beautiful. So so so beautiful.
When God begins to take the light from the outside… the light inside just shines all that much brighter.
It’s amazing. She’s amazing.
A few days ago, on the last day Joey walked, I took her in my arms in the living room and once more put her hand in mine and we danced. She steadied with her cane and I softly moved her across the room singing George Strait’s “You Look So Good In Love” in her ear. In the middle of the song though, as I was being careful not to step on her toes – she stopped and looked up at me and said, “How about if I lead?”. And I followed her lead as we slowly two-stepped on her mama’s living room floor.
Like dancing, she wants to do this right, or not do it at all… to share the good, the bad, and the beautiful.
And so we will.
Outside my window this morning, the world is white.
Here in Indiana, the snow comes much earlier than it does at home in Tennessee. Some years it doesn’t snow at all there. So when I saw the flakes start falling two days ago, I got really excited.
But nowhere near as excited as Joey…
I was sitting next to her bed – holding her in my arms, when she happened to look up and see the white coming down through her window.
You would’ve thought the heavens had parted and Jesus had come back, by the light in her eyes.
It was like God was sending light into the darkness she was feeling…
A few minutes before, our neighbor Gabe McCauley had texted me a picture of his daughter Scout sitting on a horse, looking proud. Like our Indiana, Scout is very special. She was born with something called Loeys-Dietz syndrome, a connective-tissue disorder that affects her heart and a thousand other things. Unlike Indy, Scouty has been in and out of hospitals and surgeries since the day she was born. Until they moved to their farm a mile or so behind ours, their lives were filled with constant fear of having to rush her to Vanderbilt, or worse. Thankfully, for the last year or so, Scout has been doing really well. This weekend her parents took her to the Center for Courageous Kids, a camp in Kentucky that pours love and healing into children with special needs.
The picture they texted us of Scout on one of the camp’s horses just said, “Scout can’t wait until Indiana joins her at camp”.
I read the caption out loud and Joey said, “let me see”. And she took my phone and stared at the photo – so proud of Scout.
Then suddenly her hands started shaking and she closed her eyes and started sobbing.
I wasn’t sure what had happened – what the pain was that she was feeling – so I tried to put my arms around her and asked, “what’s wrong”, and then through her tears, she said the words….
…the ones I knew she felt, but she had never said before.
…the words that are the hardest, most-difficult part of all that she, and we, are going through:
“I want to raise our baby”, she cried, and her tears fell harder… “I want to be the one to teach her”.
She was inconsolable.
I held her in my arms as she held Scout’s picture to her heart and cried and cried. I didn’t know what to do.
And then, just like that – over my shoulder, through the window she saw it…
It was snowing. Huge white flakes were falling from above.
And a small smile came across her face. Then a bigger one.
“I didn’t think I’d get to see snow again”. And she looked at me, then raised her eyes up at sky and said “if this is the last snow I ever see, thank you Jesus… thank you.”.
Like manna from Heaven. God sent us just what we needed… just when we needed it. He always does.
There will be other snows that will come. Some might be bigger and last longer. But none will mean more than this one. I didn’t want to forget the snow that fell that day, so I took my camera outside and captured it… so I could bring it home with me. To have forever.
When that song is finished, it’s gonna be part of a new album we have coming out on Valentines Day.
The one she’s always wanted to make – filled with the hymns she grew up with. We recorded it in a studio in Nashville early in the summer – just after recovering from her first big surgery in Chicago. And then she did her vocals where she could… in hotel rooms, our house, wherever and whenever she felt up to singing. In early October, we even did a tv taping of the songs in the concert hall at our farm in front of a live audience. Joey was weak and it was difficult for her, but she was determined. This record means so much to her. It is the songs that are the most important to her.
Yesterday, Heidi and I went into Bill Gaither’s studio up here in Joey’s hometown and added our harmony parts to add to Joey’s vocals on all the songs. It’s going to be special.
Like me with the snow, I think Joey wants to capture the words and music of her childhood. The music that she goes to when she needs comfort. The music that makes this beautiful, tragic, crazy life somehow make sense.
I think she wants to capture this music so we can take it home with us.
All of us. And have it forever.
And so we will. The folks at the record label asked us if we would like to designate a charity that might benefit from a portion of whatever sales of this record we might have…
Joey and I talked about it and told them yes.
In honor of Indiana’s best friend Scout, and all the courageous little ones like her.
Our bus driver Russell is special.
When our career took off in 2008 and we first started having to travel all across the country and visit radio stations and play shows… Joey didn’t like flying. She wanted to be able to take a bus – to make it feel more like being at home, even though we would be gone from our farm.
So through a friend, I met Russell Brisby and he and I found ourselves sitting at our kitchen table talking about the finances of leasing a bus and a driver for our travel. He sat down with me and showed me the costs and figures. It was clear to see we were in no position to afford him or one of his beautiful buses anytime in the near future.
I was disappointed and I knew Joey would be also.
As Russell stood up from the table to shake my hand and say goodbye, I looked him in the eyes and said, “the truth is… we aren’t looking to hire a bus and a driver, we’re looking for someone to be part of our family. Someone who could help me make sure my wife is okay through all of this”.
And a big smile came across Russell’s face as his eyes softened and he said two words…
He has been with us ever since.
Together we spent that spring fixing up an old 1955 tour bus (Joey hand-made the curtains and painted the cabinets) and we toured all over the country in it, just the three of us. And every time that old bus broke down on the side of the highway, (which was a lot)… he would just look back with that big smile and say, “you two stay in here… I’ll have us going again in no time”.
And he would. He is the MacGyver of tourbuses. We nicknamed him Russdriver.
He would do anything for us.
A year or two later when our record label said we needed ‘fan votes’ to try to win ACM Vocal Duo Of The Year… our Russdriver went above and beyond the call of duty to help.
Not just once, but twice…
The trophy for that Academy of Country Music award now sits on our mantle at home… but the real award should go to Russell. He has been beside us every step of the way of this beautiful music career we’ve got to experience over the last eight years… and is still with us now, doing what he does – making sure me and Miss Joey have everything we need to live and love and do things our way.
When Joey told him that what he’d been eating wasn’t good for him and she was worried about him… he followed her lead and dropped a hundred pounds of the weight that he’d carried since he was young.
He’ll be the first to tell you, she changed his life.
And a couple years ago when we decided that we were gonna stay home and make a tv show in our barn and do concerts there, Russell hung up his bus keys and put the key to our barn on his key ring. He would get there early and repaint yellow lines on the gravel for cars to know where to park and he would hold cameras so people could take pictures with us, and he would walk onto the stage at 7 pm and introduce us to the sold-out crowd…
“Ladies and gentleman…from clear across the driveway… Joey and Rory!!”
And all this summer when we needed to get my frail wife back home from Atlanta or Chicago after cancer surgery or treatment… he’s used our bus, his bus, or borrowed other people’s buses to make it happen.
In October, when we stopped treatment and Joey was ready to come up here to Indiana to be with her family and could no longer ride in our Tahoe… Russell got her and Indy situated comfortably on a bus in our drive-way and carefully avoided every pothole from from Nashville to Indianapolis, because he loves her. He loves us.
So much so, that when a few days ago Joey told me she wanted to get her 80 year-old-friend Miss Joan up here so she could tell her goodbye. Once again, our friend Russell stepped up to make it happen.
Over the last few years, Miss Joan who lives just down the road from us, has been teaching Joey how to quilt. It’s the sweetest thing to see them together. Miss Joan’s husband passed away years ago, and she never learned how to drive.
So at 5 a.m. on Thursday… Miss Joan, and almost a dozen neighbors and close-friends of Joeys boarded Russell’s bus in the parking lot at our farmhouse. They were all coming to tell her goodbye.
Joey was tired and slept a lot of that day, but she was also excited. She knew she couldn’t see all of her friends, but she could at least see a few and tell them how much she loves them and listen to them share their feelings with her.
There was cowboy Jack Lawrence who taught Joey how to rope… and his wife Sandy, who worked at the horse-vet clinic with Joey and wrote the song “When I’m Gone”… and Danny Smith, the very first customer at Marcy Jo’s, who saw that Joey and Marcy were sweating to death in the kitchen and showed up a few days later with a window air-conditioner he bought from Lowes…. and Miss Joan’s daughter Jan who would babysit Indy in our farmhouse while we played our barn concerts… and Stephanie Black who rubbed Joey’s feet the day before Indiana was born and ‘made the baby come out’ as her children would say… and our sweet neighbors Gabe & Mandy McCauley, who have a special needs child and first ones who didn’t say “I’m so sorry” and instead told us that we just ‘won the lottery’ when our baby with almond eyes was born… and William Olen and his wife Kathy who are long-time music business friends who just last night helped me make Joey biggest dream come true (that’s another story for another post)… and our farm hand Thomas.
Like Russell, Thomas Travioli has been there for us. And after 5 years of working at our farm, he’s still here for us. Joey met him at Marcy Jo’s also, when he volunteered to add-on to their kitchen in exchange for ‘free breakfast for awhile’. That was the kind of deal my bride loves to do. On just a handshake for a contract… he does everything at the farm we don’t have time to do, or aren’t home to do, and don’t know how to do. So when Joey told me to reach out to him and share one of her last requests with him. Through tears, he got out his saws and hammer and did what she asked.
A rough-cut wooden box with a cross on it was placed beneath the bay of the bus and brought up here because that’s what Joey wants. “Thomas to make my box… simple, from wood at the farm”, she said. “And find a good spot in the family cemetery in the field behind our house, where we put your mama’s ashes last year… with room enough beside my headstone for you to join me someday… in God’s time”.
And so we will.
Whatever she wants… that’s what I want.
The bus arrived at Joey’s mama’s farmhouse about 1 pm. And I climbed on and told our friends that she was sleeping and I updated them on her health and that she when she wakes up, she might be a little groggy and not always make complete sense right now. It’s the medicine.
And we took a picture before I brought them in… Russell is behind me in the ball-cap and Thomas is beside in me in the flannel shirt.
They all stayed for many hours, and Joey’s mama cooked and had pies and dinner for everyone. We all laughed and we cried, and one-by-one I led our friends through a door into the back bedroom to see her and sit with her and talk. Some came out smiling and full of joy and some came out hurting and having a hard-time catching their breath.
Miss Joan was especially moved. Joey had had Russell, earlier that morning, find the quilt that Miss Joan had made her at the farm – the one with the log cabin pattern with lots of red on it – and bring it up in the bus with him. She said that’s what she wants to be wrapped in when it’s her time to go.
Our tears fell with hers.
Before everyone left to head back out to the bus… we helped Joey out into the living room – she wanted to tell everyone one more goodbye. Her friends gathered around her on the couch and she told them of her hope that she might be able to still be here for Christmas, or for Indiana’s 2nd birthday in February.
Joey’s hope never fades. No amount of pain or medicine can touch it.
It runs too deep. It’s connected to her faith in God. And as she will tell you, God can do anything.
Then we all held hands and said a prayer, and put our hands together with Joey’s.
In that moment, I knew, that if there was a way – if Russell’s bus could have been big enough – there would be thousands upon thousands of people on the bus trip up to see her… their hands around hers for the picture. All lifting her up, loving her.
It was getting dark by the time everyone was loaded back up and the bus pulled out, headed back to Tennessee.
By then, Joey was settled in bed, under her covers and I sat beside her and listened as she told me about our friends and about how much she loved seeing them and getting to talk to them. She had had a great day. That was all we could have hoped for.
The morphine was making her eyelids heavy… “It was like a dream”, she said, “a sweet dream”
And it was. A real live, beautiful sweet dream.
It’s a little after 6 am and I’m sitting by my wife watching her as she sleeps. The table at her bedside is filled with framed photos, cards, and books… all carefully selected by Joey and her sisters.
She was up earlier. Her sister Jody helped give her the morphine injection that goes in her port and helped her to the bathroom and back. A walker with wheels and a seat was delivered here yesterday and when we pulled it out for her this morning, Joey just laughed and said “I can’t use that…it’s for old people”. Then she grabbed the handles and pushed herself out of the room.
When she reached little Indiana playing with toys on the living room rug, she said “come on Indy, mama will take you for a ride”. So I helped Indy onto the seat, and Joey pushed her across the living room, through the kitchen, around the island and table, and back to her toys. Indy grinned ear-to-ear and so did we.
Soon after, I helped Joey back into her room and into the hospital bed. She asked me to bring her a cup of coffee and by the time I returned with her cup… she was sound asleep.
And so here I am.
Drinking her coffee. Thinking. Remembering.
Three years ago I had to say goodbye to one of my very best friends – Tim Johnson. Tim and I had been buddies since I first showed up on Music Row in Nashville with a guitar-case full of dreams. Like me, Tim was a songwriter. He was one the greatest this town has ever seen and he loved a great story. He and I were fortunate to write some wonderful songs together – some of them big hits on the radio. As a matter of fact, the first song I ever had recorded, the one that ‘bought’ our old farmhouse, I wrote with Tim.
Fast forward a dozen years or so, and Tim had a pain in his lower back that wouldn’t go away, so on Father’s Day. before he and his wife Meg went out to dinner, he stopped by a clinic to have it checked out.
I remember his phone call to me.
Cancer, he said. It had already spread from his colon to the liver.
Neither he, nor I could make any sense of it. How could that be? He was still young and had two young children and a beautiful wife and more songs to write – more stories to tell.
His next year or so were tough, like Joey’s. They did what they could, but in the end, it was what it was.
Tim kept writing songs all the way through it. That’s what great songwriters do – they draw from their life experiences and create meaningful stories to tell the world. But during this time of Tim’s life, it seemed different. He didn’t have to create a fictional character that had something extraordinary to say… he just looked in the mirror and the truth came pouring out of him.
In July of 2012, three months before Tim passed, I asked him to come be part of our television show. To perform a song or two and let us interview him. I was a not only Tim’s friend, I was also a big fan of his voice and his pen and wanted to make sure the world got to see what a gift he had and what a gift he was. Most of the time songwriters go unknown. They write the soundtracks to our lives and then pass away with little acclaim and no applause.
I wanted to make sure that Tim was remembered. And something told me that his song might help someone in their moment of need.
Little did I know that in a short time, that someone-in-need would be me. And Joey. Tim and Megan’s story has become our story and the words he breathed into his song are now our words.
We all want one more, don’t we?
One more day… one more year… one more chance to be the person we know we should be… one more ride for our child around the house in her mama’s walker…
Like my friend Tim… I want my wife to be remembered.
By me. By others who love her even though they’ve never met her.
I guess that’s why I write this blog. I want her sweet voice and her love to live on. And not just outlive her… but to somehow outlive me, and our girls, and even their children.
And so today, as I sit beside my her. I remember my friend Tim and his life and what an inspiration he was to me, and how his words and music are helping get me through this time and speaking to me just when I need them.
And someday when your moment comes with someone you love… maybe, just maybe, you will remember Joey and her words and voice and life will comfort you…
and her song will live on.
We prayed. We all prayed.
At 4 am on Friday morning we rushed Joey to the hospital in Muncie. Her pain had become too much to bare. A few hours later the doctors told us that the pain was from the cancer tumors continuing to grow and become inflamed and we need to concentrate now on helping her be comfortable.
Not the answer we hoped for… but the answer He has given us.
After a series of different medications that didn’t seem to touch the pain – heavy doses of morphine brought Joey sweet relief.
I spent the night in the hospital with her last night. Today we are planning to bring her home.
The last couple of mornings, I’ve brought Indiana up here to spend time with her mama. Both of their eyes light up the moment they see each other.
It’s been beautiful.
Yesterday I sat her down in front of her mama and they smiled and played and loved each other the way that only mamas and their little ones can. Afterwards, when Indy got sleepy, Joey held her and sang “In The Garden” and other hymns as she softly stroked her silky-blonde hair.
Perfect love filled that hospital room as we all held our breath and wiped our eyes.
Later this evening, when it was just Joey and I, Joey read into a couple of ‘recordable’ books to Indiana. The books are gifts from fans and friends that seemed to know how important it is to connect today to tomorrow for our little girl. Joey’s hope is that our little one will be able to sit on my lap in days to come and turn pages and hear her mama reading to her.
It was heartbreakingly beautiful to see and hear.
Hospice is arranged and a hospital bed will be delivered later this morning. We’ll have a play area on the carpet nearby – close enough for her to watch Indy play, and for Indy to turn and make sure her mama can see her.
Joey is at peace with where she is and where she’s going. So am I.
An answer to prayer.