It wasn’t exactly a party…
There was some sweating going on. Some sunburns and more than a few bug bites. But it was fun.
I had spent most of the last two weeks in the studio here at our farm editing from morning til night. Getting Joey’s film ready to go to the sound-editing and coloring and the other gazillion things that have to be done before it comes out in theaters in a few weeks. Anyway, I was in need of a break. And our poor garden was in need of some love. Big time.
Fortunately, on Sunday evening, a bunch of love showed up.
It showed up in mini-vans with carseats and faded-levi’s with gardening gloves in the pockets and kids holding empty wicker baskets in their hands. Some very kind neighbors, family and friends came over to help harvest the garden.
Or at least to help us try to find the vegetables that were in there somewhere… hidden by weeds that had overtaken what were beautiful rows of corn, cabbage, okra and a dozen other things that we’d planted back in the spring.
I grilled out hamburgers and hotdogs and everyone else brought sides…
We all ate dinner together and then proceeded to go find our future dinners on the other side of the fence…
Young Sam found some beans that his mama and sister picked (while he played)…
And his older brother Asher wiped the tears out of his eyes from the hot pepper that he and his daddy had sampled…
Our neighbor Gabe found that cowboy hats and bibs go together pretty-darn well (I could’ve told him that)…
And Indy had a great ride around the garden with her friends Ezekiel and Caleb. Little Caleb is a year older than Indiana and has down syndrome too…
Caleb’s mama and Joey used to get together and talk about how Indiana and Caleb are going to get married someday and we’ll be in-laws, so I like to call Caleb “Indy’s betrothed”…
Somewhere in the mountains of weeds, we managed to find acorn and spaghetti squash and watermelon and cucumbers. And even some green beans, banana peppers and tomatoes too…
Back up on the porch, my two sisters Marcy and Candy did their best to get Indy to eat her dinner, but she kept signing “ice cream” instead. Ever since we made some homemade dairy-free ice cream for her a couple weeks ago, that’s all she wants to eat, all the time…
Back in late March, we had started planting the garden… me, Hopie and Indy and my sister Marcy, along with our good friends Cowboy Danny and Allison. Joey had left me detailed notes of when and how to prep the garden and what to plant. And so, between the information she gave me and some advice we got from friends, we got our seeds ready (along with a few of the plants that Joey had started in Indiana) and started digging in.
These are a few clips from that first day of tilling and planting… and some more I took through late June I would guess. The last ones are just before we left on our family vacation to Montana for two weeks and came back to find a chaotic rain forest where our organized garden had once been…
I can’t help but continue trying to capture moments as we live them with my camera. It’s become habit by now, after doing it for more than two years while Joey was still with us. I’ve spent most of the summer working on the film and watching Joey in the garden, planting and weeding and harvesting, year after year. You see her in her garden just weeks after she had the baby, and before and after every surgery she had. To say that she loved it is a understatement.
It’s been so beautiful to see again. I can’t wait to share the movie with everyone. In the meantime, this is from a blog post I made in June 2015, just after Joey had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. You can read the entire post here if you’d like. Like always, Joey not only found solace working in her garden, it’s where she talked with God and He reassured that everything was going to be okay…even when it wasn’t going to be okay.
As I write this, we just finished having dinner here at the house. Most of things on our plates were from the garden party… green beans, okra and onions that Hopie cooked to go along with the chicken that my sister Marcy made.
Although the garden this year isn’t even close to what it would be if Joey was still here, I think she would’ve been proud of it. Proud of us. And even more so, proud that that little patch of land that she loved so much is still bringing friends and family together, and feeding her loved ones.
What a beautiful blessing.
Over the last six months or so, I have been asked many times (and encouraged many more times) to write a book. To turn the stories in this blog I write into a book of some sort. I have never really responded to any of the questions before, but the truth is… I am writing a book. It is almost finished actually. But it isn’t filled with blogs that I have written about my wife’s last few months or the posts I wrote about our life for the two years before that, it is a book that covers a life time.
I had always wanted to write a book. I had even taken a couple meetings with an agent at one of the big publishing houses a few years ago, but in the end… Joey and I weren’t famous enough. Our “Q” score was too low, they said. I had to go home and google that phrase to find out what it meant. (…it is a measurement of the familiarity and appeal of a brand, celebrity, company, or entertainment product used in the United States…the higher the Q Score, the more highly regarded the item or person is among the group familiar with them).
I was disappointed that that was how things worked, but in another way… I understood it. Business is business. Though the experience left me a bit frustrated, Joey just smiled. She believed – no, she knew – that that door would open some day. She, even more than me, believed that I had something to say. That if I was ever given a chance to write… that my own unique storytelling ‘voice’ would reveal itself… and I think that maybe it has. But not like I thought it would though. When I launched this blog back at the beginning of 2014, I thought I was going to be writing about Joey and me simplifying our lives. About the joy of having and raising a new baby together. About getting rooted deeper in the land we lived on. And I did write about those things. But a few months into the blog, the story took a turn and my wife was diagnosed with cancer. And then the story turned again. And again. And again.
But through it all, I kept writing. And Joey kept smiling and believing. Even when it hurt.
The calls started coming in around December I think. From publishers and agents who were aware of my blog and the story I was telling, and my wife was living, They saw something I guess: the prayers on Joey’s behalf, the Facebook numbers, the national press. A perfect storm. A husband with a voice, a wife with a story, and an audience who cared about them. Sadly, our Q score and fame had finally risen to a place that made publishers interested.
So yes, I am writing a book. And part of me is thrilled. And another part of me is embarrassed. Because of what it took for the opportunity to come around. Because the one person that made this possible, isn’t here to share it with me.
It was early February when I first started talking to Matt Baugher and his team at Thomas Nelson, an imprint of Harper Collins based here in Nashville. It was a conference call about me possibly writing a book for them. One of many that we had during that time with potential publishers. But as I listened to Matt and his team speak, I could tell that these guys were different than some of the other folks we’d talked to. They didn’t want to rush to put a book out right away… or just focus on the sad story at the end of Joey’s life… or the many other agendas that other companies had been interested in. Instead, they wanted me to write what was on my heart. To tell the story that has to be told. The one that I feel the need to share. And so I have. Or at least, I’m in the process of telling it.
After that phone call ended, I sat beside Joey and told her all about it. About the book offer they had made and how much I liked Matt and the things he and his team had said. As I spoke, she was smiling again. Beaming actually. “…see, I told you so”, she said as she held my hand, “you were born to do this”. My eyes began to well up with tears. She knew what I was thinking… “I may have been born to do this… but why do you have to die to make it happen”? She just kept holding tight to my hand and smiling and saying, “His will honey, not ours”.
And so it is. I don’t understand it. But it is.
Hemingway once said, “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And I believe that he was right. Except, for this book to happen… I did the first part, and Joey did the last.
In mid-April, when the dust-to-dust had finally begun to settle, and Indy was sleeping well though the night in her own bed here at the farmhouse, I stayed up late and began to write. I put my fingers on the keys and I started at the beginning. My beginning. And just like I have with every blog post or song I write… I just let the story unfold. Night after night, I sat up in our big brown recliner and typed as the words poured from my heart to the page – the same recliner that Joey slept in for the last few uncomfortable weeks of her pregnancy – and the same one that she rocked our baby in and again slept in when she was too weak to make the long walk from our bedroom to the bathroom. And I told my story. At least I told a lot of it.
It is a book about a man so lost, it’s a miracle that he was ever found. About doing unforgivable things, and still being forgiven. About the grace of God and the girl He used to change me and everyone around me forever.
I was walking through the garden section of Home Depot yesterday morning and a woman called out from behind some potted plants. “You have inspired me…”, she said. I turned around and she smiled and added, “…you and your wife have”. I thanked her and paid for my flowers and headed home. But the whole drive I kept thinking, “she has no idea…”. She, and no-one can understand what it means to me to be part of such a beautiful love story, unless they have had the chance to hear what a corrupt person I was before Joey came along. How far God has brought me in the last fifteen years. If you had met me in the late-90’s or before… I was probably the least-likely guy that you would have ever thought would go on to be part of inspiring others by how I love and have been loved. That story is important to share, to give context to the story that I am part of now. To see the selfishness and emptiness inside me before… makes it easier to understand the gratefulness and hope that I am filled with today… in spite of the circumstances.
After a rough start for the first thirty-five years or so (about half-way through the book)… Joey shows up in my life. Right after God does (it turns out that He was always there…I just didn’t recognize Him until I was hitting rock bottom, at the top of my songwriting game). Mine is a story about going from being a nobody, to being somebody’s… Joey’s. And how she changed everything in my life, and how she’s still doing it, even now.
We’re in the editing phase of the book now. The Thomas Nelson folks are probably pulling their hair out, wondering why I use so many “dot, dot, dots” and the dozen other quirky things I do when I’m writing… (see, I told you), because I don’t really know what’s correct. I only know what feels right. And what looks right to me. It’ll be another month or so before my part is completely done and they start the process of turning my manuscript into the book that they say is going to come out this coming February… on Valentines Day to be exact.
In the meantime, I will continue working on Joey’s film. That’s what I’m doing right now… or at least what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s not easy for me to edit our lives down into an hour-and-a-half story. I mostly want to just sit and watch Joey. Watch her love the baby. Watch her live life to it’s fullest. As I go through all this footage that I filmed over the past couple years, I can see now why she had no regrets in the end. How could she? She was fully present. Fully in the moment. With Indy. With me. With everyone.
These are some clips I found from early in the morning on Mother’s Day in 2014…
My wife is so beautiful. And there are hours and hours of clips like this one of her talking about taking Indy to Montana someday… something that she would never get the chance to do. Something that Joey’s sisters, and my girls and I, just came back from doing without her, a week or so ago.
Being fully present is something I’m still learning how to do. And as I watch Joey on the screen, she is still teaching me. Showing me how to be a better person. A better parent, a better friend. It’s one of the many wonderful gifts that my wife has left me. Gifts, like the chance to be part of an incredible story.
And there is so much more to it than just the last five months of Joey’s cancer battle that I shared on this blog, or even the two-and-a-half years of our lives that the film is going to cover. I am so humbled and honored to get to share more of Joey’s story in a book. More of my story. Our story.
And ultimately, more of His story.
On Monday, we got home from spending some time out west in Wyoming and Montana. It was a trip that has been planned since last winter. But I didn’t plan it… my wife did.
This past February, with snow on the ground outside her window at the little house by the Gaither pond in Indiana, Joey looked at the beautiful view from her bedside, and remembered another view that she loved. And then with her three sisters gathered around her, Joey told stories about our trips out west to the Big Sky Country. She showed them pictures we had taken during some of the adventures our family has had out there over the years. And then she asked me to find a way to take her three sisters and their families out west for the first time this summer.
Most of them had never been farther west than Illinois and Joey wanted them to experience some of the breathtaking beauty that she and I have been blessed to experience many times over the years. For their eyes to see the beautiful things that her eyes had seen.
Joey and I spent our honeymoon in Montana in 2002 and fell in love with the mountains and the old-west history that runs deep through the land and streams out there. We’ve made many family trips there since and our middle daughter Hopie even spent three summers working on a ranch in Dubois.
Fortunately, we have some wonderful friends who own a big cabin in Red Lodge, Montana and when I told them about Joey’s wish, they generously offered to let us all come stay at their place…
So two weeks ago, my three sister-in-laws – Jody, Julie and Jessie – loaded up their minivans and trucks and headed west, and the girls and I hopped on an airplane and met up with them in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to spend a few days together before we all drove on to Red Lodge. Jackson’s such a beautiful western town and there’s so many things to do and see. We walked through the “antler arches” in the town square and ate wonderful meals and saw the western play “Cat Ballou” at the Jackson Hole Playhouse and went to a chuckwagon dinner and show that our friends the Bar J Wranglers host nightly at their ranch just outside of town…
The girls and I and Heidi’s boyfriend Dillon all stayed at Spring Creek Ranch.
It was always one of Joey’s favorite places in Jackson. High on a hilltop, with a stunning view overlooking a beautiful valley below…
On Saturday, we all took our time driving north through Yellowstone…
And finally settled into the cabin in Red Lodge. Joey’s sisters soon saw that the view from the back deck was just as beautiful as Joey had described it…
And while all the grown-ups put all the bags away, a few of the little ones jumped in the hot tub…
And I took Indy outside to see the wildflowers growing all around the cabin…
On Monday… Red Lodge had the neatest 4th of July parade right down the middle of main street. And over the next few days, we went to the rodeo, the Buffalo Bill Cody museum, on long walks, fly fishing and horseback riding… and on the last night, we even went to a pasture party where a wonderful all-brother western band called the ‘High Country Cowboys’ performed. It was just like a scene out of a movie. Luckily, I took my camera along and put together a few highlights from the trip (along with Joey singing one of my favorite songs that we recorded together), so we could always have a way to remember these moments…
For all the fun we had… the trip was hard on me. Hard on us all actually. We all wished that Joey was there with us. At the cabin, I would watch Joey’s sisters all playing with their kids and I it broke my heart to know that Joey couldn’t be there to play with Indiana too. And I know that it hurt her sisters too. But still, we all carried Joey’s memory with us on every mountain we drove up and every trail we walked down.
Our dear friends Larry and Luann Black, who own the cabin, have a big round table in the main dining room that seats about twelve people… and they have the neatest tradition of having folks who’ve stayed at the cabin, carve their names into the table before they leave. There must be hundreds of names etched in that wood…
I added Indiana’s name to where Joey and I and our older girls had signed the table the first time in 2011, and all three of Joey’s sisters and their families carved their names before they packed up their things and headed back to Indiana…
Like the names and dates that are etched in that table, this trip will be forever etched in each of our hearts. It had been a week to remember – to remember Joey, and smile – because we all knew that somewhere up there, my sweet wife was smiling too…
Watching her wish for her sisters come true.
I’d like to thank Larry and Luann for opening their beautiful home to us and helping to make this trip happen. Larry has been a wonderful friend and mentor to me over the years and it was at that very cabin that Joey and I, along with Larry and Luann, made plans to make our first television program from our farm, back in 2011. Something that has gone on to change our lives, many times over. But my favorite thing about Larry and his sweet bride are their generous hearts. They believe that the blessings they receive from God are a gift, and they use those blessings to bless others every chance they get.
From Joey’s family and ours… thank you Larry. You’re an inspiration to me and so many others. We love you and your beautiful family so much.
Some opportunities in life are just too good to be true… and some, you can’t help but keep pinching yourself at how very lucky you are to be a small part of them.
No, unfortunately I didn’t actually get to meet Forrest Gump, but I did get to be on his movie set for a few minutes (otherwise known as the National Mall) during this past week. I was blessed with the opportunity to be part of two very special events that were for causes that are near-and-dear to my heart, and Joey’s. The first one took place in Washington, DC.
I had been invited to DC by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization to take part in a Congressional briefing on hospice and end-of-life issues. I am not a political person in any way, but I am passionate, like my wife was, about people having the right to choose a better way to spend their final days, weeks and months. So early last week, our manager Aaron and I flew to our nation’s capitol to be part of a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill in front of some members of the House, the Senate and many other nice folks that were there.
One of the speakers, a wonderful doctor and author named Atul Gawande, showed his powerful PBS documentary “Being Mortal” and he and others spoke about important legislation for hospice initiatives. Then the moderator showed the trailer for Joey’s documentary and asked me to share some of our story and what a difference hospice made in our lives during that difficult time.
I’ve been amazed to learn how many people are scared of the word ‘hospice’, and end up spending most of their remaining days fighting, struggling to find a cure that never comes…and miss precious time with their family and friends that they could be spending while they’re still here and healthy enough to enjoy it. I am so proud and in awe of Joey and the wonderful gift of time and memories that she gave all of us during the final months of her life. Hospice and their doctors and nurses are part of how that happened for us.
We were only there for one day, but I had the chance to walk around a bit and see a few a few of the memorials and even a white house with columns in front like ours… only lots bigger.
I barely got home and was off again the next day to Baltimore, Maryland. This time with Indiana and our oldest daughter Heidi. Indy’s best friend Scout and her family were going to be there for the Loeys-Dietz Syndrome Foundation‘s annual conference and we decided to tag along to learn more about Scout’s illness and meet other kids and adults who have the same diagnosis.
It was Indiana’s first flight as a toddler and I was worried about how she would handle it. She did so well. She watched her “Signing Time” sign-language videos and spent lots of time coloring and reading books with Heidi and me.
When we got to the conference, there were dozens of families there from all over the world. We loved getting to meet most of them and spending a little time visiting with them and hearing some of their stories. About their struggles and also their victories.
While Indy played in the child-care rooms with the other kids, I sat in on some of the lectures with the parents and learned as much as I could. The foundation has come along way in the short time since the syndrome was discovered, but it’s clear that they still have a long way to go. The past president of the foundation’s fourteen-year-old daughter passed away a few weeks ago from the disease and so the importance of learning more and finding ways to help and treat LDS was on everyone’s hearts and minds, now more than ever.
Scout and her brother Ash and their parents Gabe and Mandy McCauley are our neighbors and our family spends a lot of time with theirs. Scout is seven now and doing pretty well, but her parents worry a lot about her and that makes us worry for them too. So back in November, Joey and I made the Loeys-Dietz Syndrome Foundation the charity that we selected to benefit from our Hymns album that came out this past Valentines Day. Cracker Barrel offered to donate a dollar for every album sold in their stores, and so I think it’s been a very helpful thing for the organization. At least I hope so. I know Joey was so happy that we were going to be able to help them in some small way. And Joey would’ve been so proud to be there for the conference with me this past weekend if she could’ve been.
Scout’s dad asked me to speak at the event and on Saturday, just before he called me up to the podium, Gabe said some very sweet things about Joey and me. It was so, so special…
The foundation gave us a special “Loey’s-Dietz Foundation Heart of Gold” trophy that one of the board members had hand-made for us and also a Heart Of Gold teddy-bear gift for Indy.
Joey and I have been blessed to win a number of awards over the last ten years during our music career, but none mean more to us than the ones we received that day.
Later that evening, Heidi and I took Indy for a walk around the Baltimore harbor. It was so beautiful there and the weather was perfect. Just before sunset, we found a carousel near the water and took Indy for a ‘horsey’ ride. She loved it so much…
By the time we headed back to the airport to fly home on Sunday morning, our little Indiana was all tuckered out. It had been a wonderful trip and an even more special week.
Once back home, we only had about twenty-four hours to get over our jet-lag and get back on another plane headed out west to Wyoming and Montana to spend two weeks on vacation with Joey’s three sisters and their families…
But I’ll save that for another story, another day.
I have never been a great gift-giver.
Like most men, when Valentines day or a birthday rolls around, I would scramble to find ‘just the right gift’ at 5 pm on my way home from work, or walking through Walmart or Target the night before. It’s embarrassing actually. For me, and for a lot of guys I think.
But sometimes, I did pretty well. Like on Joey’s and my fifth wedding anniversary. I bought her a beautiful antique ring from Walton’s, on the square in Franklin (her favorite jewelry store, it’s where her engagement ring came from too). Joey treasured that ring and how it symbolized our first five years of commitment to each other. But in the end, she gave it away. One evening this past fall, she just quietly slipped it on our oldest daughter Heidi’s hand and said, ‘this is yours now… I want you to have it’.
I’ve had a few good moments through the years, but overall, I was never really very good at giving gifts. Thankfully, Joey never really wanted them either. That wasn’t who she was. Joey’s love language was service. That is how she gave and received love. In the book “The Five Love Languages” that we both read early in our marriage, we came to understand that different people speak different love languages… and my love language was ‘physical touch’, and Joey’s was ‘acts of service’. She showed you how much she loved you by serving you. And she was brilliant at it. Whether cooking a meal for you at the farmhouse, or serving you coffee at Marcy Jo’s or helping you plant flowers by your mailbox, it’s how she expressed her love for you. And if you wanted to tell her that you loved her… she didn’t want to hear you say those three magic words – she needed to see it in action. So I learned to show her that I loved her by fixing door hinges, or keeping the yard mowed, or making it so she could stay home and still have a music career. It is how she knew – how she really knew – that I loved her.
Yesterday, June 15th, was our anniversary. In the early morning, I carried a thermos and our two favorite mugs across the back field and shared a cup of coffee with my bride as the sun came up over the wooden cross with her name on it. I talked and she listened. Or at least, I hoped that somewhere, somehow, she could hear me. And I felt her presence the way I do most days since she’s been gone…in my heart, and in my soul. And I pulled out my iPhone and pushed play… and we watched a movie trailer together as my tears fell.
This was my gift to her.
Fourteen years ago, Joey and I said our vows in the little town of Mt Pleasant. A half-hour or so from the farmhouse we live in. We had our wedding reception in the same place where Joey and I first met.
At the top of some stairs that Joey had bounded up in September of 2001 and landed right in front of me. And with just a smile and a “hi, I’m Joey”… she proceeded to change my and everyone’s life around me forever.
The restaurant was called Lumpy’s back then and upstairs was Pearl’s Palace, a big room where I had hosted a songwriter’s night that Joey came to. That building holds a lot of special memories for us, so yesterday our daughter Hopie went back there with me, to have lunch together and retrace the steps that led my wife to me. After lunch, we walked up those stairs…and stood in that big room and let the memories come flooding back.
We talked about the spot by the window where our wedding cake had been. And where the bridal party sat. And the spot where Joey and I had our first dance…
And I couldn’t help but remember another dance we shared this past November. Our last dance.
In Indiana at Joey’s mama’s house. Me holding my bride up and singing a George Strait song in her ear as we softly swayed back and forth. It was only for a few moments, but thankfully like most of the big and small events that have happened the last couple of years, I captured that dance on film… to keep forever and also to share with others.
I have had lots of time these last few months to think about what anniversary gift I wanted to give to my wife this year – what act of service I could do, that would matter to her – if she were here. So with the help of some friends, I am going to try to give her a gift that is pretty much impossible…
To live on, even after she’s gone.
Joey and I have a friend named Ben that runs Provident Films here in Nashville and like many others, he has been following our story and hurting and praying for us for the last year or so. When I shared some of the hundreds-of-hours of footage with Ben that I had been putting together the last couple months, he and his team offered to help turn that footage in to something greater than just a few small videos on the blog that I write. To turn it into a film.
A full-length documentary film that begins the day I got out my camera a few weeks before Indiana was born in February of 2014 and runs up until this past spring. A film about our lives during that two-and-a-half years. Our love. Our struggles. And even more so, about our faith in God and our hope in a plan… bigger than the one we can see with our own eyes.
I have not cried beside Joey’s grave. I have talked and prayed and sat still beside her cross for hours, but not really cried. Not until yesterday when I shared this trailer with her, or at least tried to. For our anniversary. And I wept like a baby.
I also shared it with Joey’s family when I was home last weekend. With her mama and daddy and her sisters. And like me, they cried and felt the power of watching her come to life again. Most people know Joey and I for the five months we spent in Indiana – the beautiful, terrible days and weeks last fall and winter that we intimately shared through my blog posts. They got to see Joey die. To see her face death bravely and pass to the other side with honor. But I’d like for people to have the chance to see my wife live. To see the incredible woman that she was before the doctors said there was nothing more they could do… so they can better understand the amazing impact she’s had on me and everyone around her after she learned that the end was coming.
As I’ve written before, Joey and I didn’t know why we were taking a year off and simplifying our lives. Or why we had felt like it was important to capture that part of our life on film. We just did it. And now all this time later… to go back through and look at the footage and see that the first day I set my camera on a tripod and Joey and I walked into our back field… we walked to the cemetery. The same cemetery where we would lay Joey to rest two short years later. How can that be? Why? I don’t even know how to process that. And so I don’t. I just continue to do my best to trust Him. And to thank Him for the still, small voice that said ‘record this’ at a time that we didn’t have to…
Joey didn’t live to see her 41st birthday, but this September, just a week or so after her birthday on the 9th… my wife will get the chance to live again. On a movie screen, her heart will start beating and her story will come to life once more and it will be my gift to her. And to our girls. And to our friends and family and all who loved her.
Ben and his team have put together a website, tojoeywithlove.com with info all about the film and how to get tickets. And how it will be in theaters all across the country… just for one, special night. And hopefully, after that, the film will have a life of it’s own, and be something that people can see for years to come. And maybe, just maybe…someone might find some encouragement in it. In their marriage, or in their suffering, or in their faith, or something else…
I just want to lift my bride up… and continue to tell her beautiful story, while Indy and I live out the new one that God is now writing. I am looking forward to spending the rest of this summer working on the film here at home (with Daniel and Aaron and Gabe and some other friends who are working on it with me)… and watching this story unfold. Again.
Happy Anniversary my love.