I filmed our lives for two-and-a-half years. I don’t know why, I just did.
Like writing this blog, something told me that I needed to capture that time of our lives on film. To have it forever. To be able to remember it and share it with others. I had no idea how important it would be.
Especially to me.
When we got home from Indiana in early March, after Joey had passed away, the girls and I resumed the life we had before. The life that we had lived before the cancer grew larger and my wife grew smaller. Before the words chemotherapy and radiation were written in ink on our calendar. When Joey was alive and in full bloom, like the knock-out roses that she planted beside her garden shed are.
I thought I would be able to remember the good times we had and the love we shared here at our farm… the amazing thirteen years of life we had together. But I couldn’t. It was gone. All I could remember of her was the end. The five months of dying. The Joey that had no hair and couldn’t get out of bed. The mother that could barely hold the baby she loved. And the life we held together by a song, in the brick house by the Gaither’s pond.
I guess the intensity of that time overtook everything else and wiped it from my memory. I can see how it could. Living out of a suitcase with Indiana’s crib beside my bed, Joey in the next room sleeping. Hurting. Vanishing right before our eyes. But she was also living. Living in such a strong and brave way, that it’s the image of her that remained in my mind. Even when we came home. That is the only ‘her’ I could see. I couldn’t remember Joey before that time. I could not remember her alive. All of the pictures on our mantle and music videos online seemed like something from a photo album. Ours I guess. But long ago.
For a month it was that way. I was scared that’s how it might always be. That the Joey I met and married and fell in love with – the one that I had a beautiful baby with – was gone from my memory forever.
But late one evening, in a metal box on the desk in our bedroom…
I found her.
In January of 2014, when Joey and I decided to take a year off, I not only started writing this blog… I started filming our life. Pushing record on my Canon 70D and capturing the smallest and biggest moments as they happened. Every day. Week after week and month after month. And I kept doing it for two-and-a-half years. What I filmed wasn’t important at the time. It was just daily life. Intimate moments shared with the woman I love and the baby that came a month later.
But it turns out that it was important. It is important.
Joey and I believed that God was going to give us a great story, and we wanted to film it, so we could look back and remember that year. We thought the story was going to be about taking time off from our music careers. About homesteading and growing a community garden with our neighbors. And about having a new baby and raising her. Yes, those things are part of the story, but there was so much more that happened. So, so much more.
As I set at my desk in mid-April, and plugged in the hard drive that held 6 terabytes of our lives – hundreds of hours of footage, I wasn’t sure I could watch it. That I could bare looking at our lives before. I thought it would be too painful. Too hard. But the moment I pushed play, something happened…
My wife came to life.
In full-color on the big screen of my iMac, Joey became alive again… filled with love and joy and hope and passion for me and for the life God had given us.
And I remembered how incredibly beautiful she was. How kind and how special of a person she was. For days, I watched and I watched. And pretty soon… I could not remember the Joey that was on hospice in Indiana. The one that was frail and dying. ‘That’ Joey had been replaced by one that is alive and well. One that was excited about our newborn that lay in her arms and the future that lay in store. We both were.
I have only watched a few months of what I filmed so far, but it is truly amazing. And it’s been so very healing for me. To see my wife come to life again. To see the love in her eyes. This footage is only a week or two after the baby was born. It’s an afternoon in our life in late winter of 2014. A regular day, when Joey was giving me a haircut (she is the only who ever gave me a haircut in the 14 years of our marriage), and holding and singing to Indiana. I cry every time I watch it. And I laugh so hard.
It is so special…
Life was perfect that day. So was Joey. Completely unaware of the difficult news that was in store for her in just a few weeks, and the beautiful, tragic end that would come 18 months later. And unaware also that her story would be shared and followed by millions of people who would love and pray for her and for us.
It’s a moment in time, that stands still. A moment that remains, even though time has moved on. I love that. There are hundreds of these moments that I captured. Maybe more. And they all add up to a bigger story that God was telling with our lives. A story that I hope to have the chance to share later this summer or fall. I know how special and how healing it has already been for me. Maybe it can be that way for others.
As our life was unfolding and I continued to film, right up til the end… Joey and I often talked about what the footage would one day become. Why and what was it that we were filming? Was it a story about down-syndrome… about our little girl? Or a story about cancer and learning to really live, even while you’re life is slipping away? Or a story about love and how hope never really dies? We never answered that question while Joey was alive and now that I’ve had a little time to look at it… to wrap my head around some of the footage… I think that maybe it’s a story about all those things.
Whatever it is. It’s a gift from heaven for me these days. To see my beautiful bride once more… alive and well.
I still have much, much more of our lives to look through. A thousand little clips to watch and try to piece together. And I will get to see Joey live through it all. And I will not see her fight and lose her battle with cancer until I get to that part… and then, maybe then… after watching it unfold on film in front of me… I will better understand how we got there. How we got here. And maybe even why.
Probably not. But maybe.
I keep my guitar pics on my desk in a little bowl that our oldest daughter made and gave me one Sunday in May when she was probably five or six years old. It’s pink and handmade of pottery, and in big grey letters on the outside it says “Happy Mother’s Day Dad”.
It’s one of my most prized possessions.
For more than ten years I was a single father of two young daughters…Heidi and Hopie.
I can’t tell you I was a great father. I tried. I think was a good father, but the truth is I was still a young man struggling to find myself, while the girls were growing and finding out who they were. I made so many mistakes and was so selfish. At times I was more concerned about being a great songwriter than being a great father. In a lot of ways, I think the girls raised me while I was raising them. But they were so forgiving and loved me unconditionally. They still do.
Heidi and Hopie are 29 and 27 now, and beautiful, loving, intelligent women. Thankfully, they are more mature and secure than I was in my twenties. I have often wished I could go back to when they were young girls and give them more love and more time and more attention. I guess it’s natural to always want a ‘do-over’. But everyone knows those never happen. You can’t go back. You can only go forward. So I have been trying to be more ‘present’ in their lives. To be less selfish. And the past couple of years, I think I’ve made a little headway. At least I hope I have.
I love being a father. I always have. Joey always said that that’s part of what attracted her to me when we first met. But neither she, nor I, had any idea how important that would be to us years later.
For years after Joey and I got married, I dreamed that God might bless her and me with a baby. A baby that we could love and cherish and raise together. A child that was part her, part me, and all Him. And part of that dream was that I might be given a second chance at being a father.
So when Indiana came along, it was a dream come true in more ways than most people know.
But then life happened.
And last fall, when Joey and I found out that the treatments weren’t working and that more-than-likely, she wasn’t going to live to see another Spring… Joey sat beside me on a glider on our back deck and cried and cried. But not because of the news that the cancer had spread and there was nothing more the doctors could do. She cried because Indy was going to lose her mama, and I was going to be a single father again. Joey knew how hard it had been for us for all those years before she came along and she was upset that she was going to leave me in the same situation. I remember her tears falling and her saying, ‘I don’t want you to have to raise a child again by yourself… it’s not fair’. Though I was worried about the reality of what was probably in our future, I tried to smile as I wiped Joey’s tears and said, “it’s okay honey… now we know why God chose me to be with you”. I realized then that God knew what was in store and all those years by myself with the girls was Him preparing me for the job of caring for Indiana”.
Still, Joey was angry and disappointed. The truth is, we both were. But we just did what we always did when we were confused and hurt and scared… we got on our knees, held hands and we prayed. Soon, our tears were replaced by hope and trust that God’s plan was perfect and that somehow, someway… everything would be okay. We never cried over that again. We just celebrated everyday that we were given together, and tried our best to prepare for the day when those days together would be no more.
Though my beautiful wife sleeps in a bed of clover behind our farmhouse, we still celebrate her on this special day and lift her up and give her flowers. This is not my day. It is hers. Joey loved being a mother more than anything else in the world. And she is still Indy’s mama. And Heidi’s and Hopie’s.
And she is part of them.
Sometimes when I’m driving somewhere and Indiana falls asleep in her carseat, I pull over to the side of the road and I just sit there and stare at her. At her long eyelashes and her little fingers and tennis shoes.
And I still see Joey beside her. With us. Everywhere we go.
And all the pain and fear that I feel melts away… and it’s replaced by the feeling of how lucky I am…that we are. Indy’s so beautiful.. When I look into her little eyes… all I see is love. And her mama, and her sisters, and that little pink bowl… and the incredible second chance I’ve been given to be a father.
Thank you for the beautiful gift my love.
Happy Mothers Day Joey.
We spent this past weekend in Kentucky at a camp called ‘The Center for Courageous Kids‘. Indiana’s best friend Scout has been coming there with her little brother Ash and her Mom and Dad for the last couple of years… so this year Indy and I came along. I’d been hearing about the camp for awhile – not just from Scout’s family – but also from people at Indiana’s school and many others. It’s primarily a camp for children with special needs and their families, but once we arrived, it was easy to see that this place was that and much more.
The camp had lots of activities for the kids and grownups to do together, so Indy got to do lots of fun things, like working with wood…
Boating with her counselor Gabby and Scout’s grandma…
Swimming in their big indoor pool…
And though we now have horses at home, Indy wasn’t too sure about getting on a horse at the camp, so we just looked at them…
One of her favorite parts was getting to meet and spend time with the ‘camp dog’ Ollie…
But mostly, she loved being with Scout and Ash for the weekend…
Three times a day, everyone gathered in the big cafeteria and shared meals together. Afterwards, the counselors would put on music and the kids would have a ‘dance party’ and all of a sudden, dozens of wheel-chairs would spring into life and and parents and siblings would hold a child up and start helping them move their bodies to the music… so the child could get to experience something that most of the rest of us take for granted. The kids loved it. So did the parents.
My favorite part of the weekend was getting to meet some of the other parents and kids and hearing their stories. Some stories were heartbreaking and left a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes… but they were all inspiring and had a way of putting Indy and my’s life in a little better perspective.
One moment that I’ll never forget was meeting a twelve-year-old little girl named Adeline, who was blind… but has recently has been given the chance to see because of some new ‘magic goggles’ that she wears. On Saturday evening Ed Collins, the man who manages the camp, invited us to come up with Adeline and her mama and ‘watch’ the sunset over the pond.
I’ve seen thousands of sunsets in my lifetime, but not like this one. When you’re with someone who is getting to see everything with brand new eyes… it changes how you look at the sun setting behind a tree.
It changes how you look at everything.
We all set together for a long time and listened as Adeline explained how her ‘magic’ goggles work to Scout. But pretty soon, Indy crawled off and found a spot of her own to watch the sun setting…
As I watched her, I felt like I had new ‘magic goggles’ on and could see Indiana a little clearer.
I could see the wonder in her eyes. How in her eyes, everything is new. And perfect. And good.
And I found myself realizing that no matter how hard life seems sometimes, or how much pain and hurt we feel like we’re carrying around with us… God gives us ‘new eyes’ each day, and the opportunity to see the good in the life – to experience all the joy that He is trying to show us.
I want to have the faith of a child and feel that kind of joy.
And I want to be courageous like all the special little ones and parents at this camp… who take the difficult hand that God has dealt them and find every opportunity they can to turn it into something beautiful.
Like Scout and her mom and dad…
And I want to be brave like Roger and Stormi Murtie, who followed God’s nudging to move to Scottsville, Kentucky twenty years ago and turn 168 acres of farmland into a peace of heaven-on-earth for a thousand little angels who desperately need to spread their unique wings and fly.
One morning a week I meet a few of my buddies on our neighbor Gabe’s porch for coffee.
Gabe is Indy’s best-friend Scout’s daddy. He’s also a close friend and has worked with Joey and I for years on all of our music videos, tv specials and film projects. He was also the “old-school” host of our weekly television show.
While his wife and babies sleep inside, a bunch of us guys take over the porch of their little farmhouse and drink coffee and do man stuff – whatever that is. Mostly talk and share stories and laugh.
It feels good to laugh.
There’s no agenda. No plan to get to the bottom of anything… except our coffee cups.
Some are doctors and some are musicians that travel the world and perform. Two of the guys, Chris and Matt, own a little coffee shop nearby in Columbia called Muletown Coffee and they supply the inspiration. Both of them have little ones like I do and their wives used midwives when they had their babies, so we have a lot in common.
Some men are Catholic, some attend a Church of Christ or Baptist church or somewhere else, but they all share something in common… they all love God. And they love their wives and want to be better fathers and men.
So together, we greet each other and the day… as the sun comes up over Mr Ring’s barn and cows.
And we laugh.
And we heal.
And we ponder what’s next in our lives. What story God is using us to tell.
It might be something heavy and profound – like what Joey and I’ve been through the last year or two – where you feel His presence and you know you can not get through a single day without Him. Or it might be something much smaller. A moment that seems insignificant, but most-likely it’s not.
Like having coffee with friends. This is where lives change. Where something is said and a path changes. In my life, it’s never been the big events that change everything… it’s always been the small ones. The ones that you don’t think matter. But they do.
And so I will celebrate and capture the big stories and the small ones in my life. Because they are all part of a much larger story that someone else is telling. A story about healing a heart that is broken. Too broken to talk about, so we don’t. We just drink coffee. And we laugh.
And maybe that really is after all…
The best medicine.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a month already since Joey left this world and made her journey to the next. In some ways it feels like only yesterday, and in others… it feels like forever.
Little Indiana is adjusting to being back home. Spring is here and with it the chance for Indy and I to spend lots of time outside in the grass and on the little wooden swing I hung from a tree for her. Like her mama, she likes being outside. She loves pointing out the horses to me or making sounds like she’s telling me all about the flowers or the windmill that turns up on the hill. She’s glad to see Ranger again and has learned to drop some of her food on the floor from her high-chair so her puppy can come be next to her.
She’s also loving her new school more everyday. She started therapy sessions there at High Hopes that she goes to a few times a week… learning to talk and even more so, learning how to use her legs. She has never liked using her legs (she pretty much pretends that she doesn’t have legs at all), but that’s pretty normal for kids with down syndrome. Their low muscle-tone causes them to not want to use certain muscles and a lot of times that turns into delays in crawling and walking and other things.
When I dropped Indy off at school on Thursday last week, I stayed and watched her for little while in her classroom as she did some fun ‘playtime with foam’ at the little table and then I went with her to her physical therapy session. Indy liked some of the exercises Miss Kristen had her do, but some of them she wasn’t so thrilled about. I had my iPhone with me and captured a few moments to remember this time. My favorite part is near the end when Indy gets frustrated in the little walker… and signs “papa” for me to come and get her!
A lot of people ask me how I’m doing. I usually try to smile and say, “I’m doing okay”. And I am… okay.
I feel so many emotions all at the same time. Blessed. Lost. Proud. Scared. Encouraged. Tired. Thankful. I have a lot of good people around me and they pour love all over Indy and I. It’s hard to be in this old house without Joey, but I know she wants us here. And I know it’s where we need to be. I moved our bed to a different part of the room, against a different wall… because I needed it to be different. I sleep on her side of the bed now. I can’t sleep on mine. And when people come to dinner and they sit in Joey’s chair, I want to tell them not to sit there, but I don’t. But I want to.
I miss my wife… I miss my best friend. I miss her voice and her laugh and her eyes and her smile. It’s still hard for me to imagine that she’s not here, and she’s not ever coming back. But I know that time will make it easier. Because that’s what time does. It heals what is broken. There will still be scars, but I know there will come a day when I won’t miss her this much, when I won’t wonder where she is… and what she is doing right now in heaven.
I make the walk out to the cemetery behind the house everyday and stand over the loose dirt and I talk to her. Like Forrest Gump talked to Jenny under the big tree that they played in as children.
Forrest loved Jenny like I love Joey. Simply. Deeply.
I am a big fan of the movie Forrest Gump. Everyone who knows me knows that. People laugh when I say that Forrest is one of my biggest influences. But honestly he is. Joey knew it too. For our wedding, we had “Forrest & Jenny” printed on the back of our napkins at the reception.
And when we drove away from the church in my old 1956 Chevy, we had fifteen Dr Pepper cans tied to back of the bumper, because Forrest drank “fifteen Dr Peppers” in one scene of the movie.
I don’t know if Joey loved that movie like I did. She never said. But she knew I loved it, and she proudly let me call her ‘my Jenny’ and quote lines from the film to her endlessly over the last 14 years. She thought it was sweet. And it was I guess. But the truth is, it was more than that for me. We all need people to look up to… people who can inspire us to be better people. And since I didn’t have a grandfather or father or anyone else to watch and listen to for some of those things… Forrest taught me. Yes, I know he’s not real, but in another way, he is as real as anyone I’ve ever known. When you watch a movie and you leave the theater, all you take with you is the memory of what you saw and what you heard. And in life, when someone special impacts you… all you are really left with is the memory of what you saw them do and what you heard them say. So for me, Forrest showed me how to keep a sense of innocence and light in a world that just grows darker and more cynical every day. And he seemed to only see the good in people… especially in Jenny. Though I saw Forrest Gump in a movie theater in Texas eight years before I ever met Joey… I wanted to love someone like that.
And so God sent me my own Jenny. And we got married and it was beautiful, just like the movie.
But then Jenny got sick.
And Forrest didn’t understand why.
And Jenny helped him through it as he stayed by her bedside.
And the Jenny left him little Forrest so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
And he stood alone beside a stone beneath a tree and he talked to Jenny.
And he told her all about little Forrest and his school and how smart he is and how she would be so proud of him.
And then the movie ended so I don’t know what happened after that. But I believe that Forrest was okay. And though his love for Jenny never faded, the pain of losing her lessoned.
In Time. All in God’s time.
…I miss you Joey. You would be so proud of our little Indiana.