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.
This past weekend, Indy and I went home to Indiana…without Joey.
It was the first time that we’d been back there, since my wife’s passing in early March. I was excited and nervous about the trip at the same time. Part of me wasn’t ready to go back. Not yet. But another part of me knew it was the right thing, and believed that it would be healing for us. And it was.
Joey’s sister Jody’s son Cody was graduating high school and we surprised everyone by showing up at the open house his Mom had put on for him. I know it’s a moment that Joey wouldn’t have missed, so I didn’t want to miss it either.
When I pulled in and parked by the other cars and Jody saw me get out of my truck, she came running across the yard. Her eyes filled with tears. She hugged me and cried and cried. It was a beautiful homecoming. Then as quickly as we got there… Indiana was whisked away into her aunt’s arms and she stole the show from there on out.
She was so excited to see her Grandma, and I know Joey’s mama was so glad to see her too.
We all spent the evening celebrating Cody’s big accomplishment. It felt good to be home.
On Saturday afternoon, Joey’s daddy and I went over and spent some time at Bill Gaither’s house. Bill told lots of great stories and Jack and I just sat on his porch and listened and laughed.
Bill talked of the impact that Joey’s life has made on the community there and around the world. And I got the chance to thank him again for all of of the love and support that he and Gloria have shown us through what had turned out to be a beautiful, difficult time.
Then we all went across the pond and Bill opened up the house for us that we had stayed in while we were there those last few months in Indiana. Joey’s daddy had come to that house often he said. Most days he stops by and just sits outside. “This is where I feel Joey the most”, he told us, ‘…where she lived last”. But he’d not been inside since that day in March when his daughter left us, exactly three months before.
As I walked through the house and let the memories come flooding back, Bill and Jack stood on the porch and visited… to give me some time. Time that I desperately needed. To remember all that we went through. All the she went through.
The place was different. And strangely the same. It was all put back exactly the way it was before we moved in. Before we laughed and loved and cried and said goodbye in those rooms.
Then Bill came inside and did for me, what he always used to do for my sweet wife. He sat down at the piano and played a song. And not just any song. Our song. The one that Joey sang to me when I had asked God for a sign that ‘she was the one’. The one that was played at my father’s funeral. And the one that Joey’s mama and daddy played at our wedding. “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” was a song originally recorded by Jim Reeves in the 1950’s. And it was instrumental in our lives coming together. It’s a long story…one that I hope to share in length another time.
Bill played our song. For me. For Joey’s daddy. And for Joey.
And later that evening, Joey’s mama made a nice dinner for us at the farmhouse that my sweet bride had grown up in. We all had a wonderful time. Especially Indy. She loved being with all of her cousins again. And I loved being with Joey’s sisters… who have now become like sisters to me… and their husbands and babies.
It had been strange to be there again. In Indiana. With Indiana. Without Joey. To sleep upstairs in the bedroom that my wife had spent her childhood sleeping in and know that she’ll never lay beside me there again and tell me stories of her childhood. To be in her home, with her family, without her. It was hard. And good. And wrong. And also right. So, so right.
It wasn’t easy to say goodbye the next morning. Hard for me, but harder for June I think. I get to go home and still be near Joey. But for Joey’s mama, I was once again, taking Joey home with me. Little Joey. And she so loves her.
But we will be come back. Many many times. It’s where Indiana’s mama was raised. Home to her. And now it’s home to us.
We didn’t make the trip back home alone. Our sweet friend and neighbor from home, cowboy Danny Smith rode along. To help with the baby. To be there for us, in case we needed him.
It was a quick trip. Not near long enough. It almost felt like a dream to be there again.
As I drove down I-65 south, back to Tennessee, I replayed the last two days over and over in my mind. And just smiled and listened to Indy as she talked to her hands in the backseat.
And Danny? Well, it was all like a sweet dream to him too I guess…
Wake up Daniel. We’re home.
It was her last request.
The last thing on the the list Joey gave me, of what she wanted at her funeral service… when the time came. And we both knew that time was coming soon.
“I’d like for someone to sing the hymn Leave It There at my graveside”, Joey said. And then she stopped and added, “no… not someone”, and she looked at me and smiled, “I want Bradley Walker to sing it for me”.
There were other things that she’d requested too…”a simple service in our concert hall” so her hometown pastor could share the gospel… ‘a plain wooden box’ that our friend Thomas would build for her by hand, …’lined with a quilt’ made by her seventy-five year old friend, Ms. Joan. Just those few things… and a song. Sung to her by one of the sweetest men, and voices she’d ever known.
A week-and-a-half later, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in March, we all gathered together around the simple wooden box, lined with a quilt, and we said goodbye to my beautiful wife… with a song.
“When you’re body suffers pain, and your health you can’t regain. When your soul is slowly sinking in despair. Jesus knows the pain you feel. He can save and He can heal. Take your burden to the Lord, and leave it there”.
The first time that Joey and I ever heard that song was on our honeymoon in Darby, Montana. It was being sung by a mother and daughter in a little church at the base of the Bitterroot mountains. Something inside told us, “those words are gonna matter”. When hard times come and you don’t know what to do with your pain… just lay it down at the foot of the cross, and leave it there.
And so I do. Or at least I try to.
Tomorrow, it will be three months since Joey passed away, and most days, I do pretty well. But some. The harder ones. I find myself reaching down and picking up that hurt – the pain of knowing that she is really gone – and trying to carry it on my shoulders. But I can’t. I have something else on my shoulders now. Someone else…
And our little two-year old desperately needs her Papa here. Not there. In the present. Not the past. So again, I lay my burden down and let Him have it. And I trust that His plan is better than mine. And I know it is. Because I can see it unfolding right in front of me.
When Bradley sang ‘Leave It There’ at Joey’s service that day, there were a lot of friends at her graveside. One of those, was Bill Gaither. And somewhere in the service I’m told… while Bradley’s deep baritone voice was singing my bride to heaven… Bill leaned over and asked someone, “who’s that?”
And just like that… Bradley’s life changed. Or at least, I think it’s about to.
Barry and Paul, the guys that run the Gaither record label, were also at the service and they too believed that they heard something special. Something the rest of the world needs to hear. So, in the past three months since then, I’ve had the privilege of helping Bradley record a whole album full of songs about his faith, and a few weeks ago, he even taped a television special on a specially-built riser at the front of the stage in our barn. The stage that Joey and I sang on.
They tell me that the album is gonna come out this fall. And our friend Bradley, who works at a power-plant in Athens, Alabama is gonna be all over his Mama’s television, and everyone else’s. All because he sang one song. All because of my wife’s last request.
I could tell you that it’s just coincidence or happenstance, but I’d be lying. I believe these things have come to be for a reason. That Joey somehow knew what was going to happen. Or at the very least, wanted to use her moment of being lifted up, to lift up someone else. I also think that maybe she’s up there somewhere, whispering in God’s ear…”I know you’re busy Sir… but you might want to hear this one”.
However it has happened, it’s pretty magical for Bradley. He can’t stop pinching himself. It’s the same kind of magic that Joey and my life has been filled with since the day we met. And just as I know she would be, I am so honored to be a small part of the big things that are coming together for Bradley. He so, so deserves it. Bradley has a story to tell. A unique story that God is telling with his life…and with his voice and his wheelchair and his muscular dystrophy and especially… his wonderful heart.
Early in the afternoon, on the day that he filmed his TV special in our concert hall – the same one that had stood empty since Joey’s funeral service – Bradley rolled out to the cemetery one more time. And there at foot of her cross, he and Carl Jackson and Val Storey sang to my wife.
He sang it once more for her. And for me. And for Indy. And everyone who wasn’t there to hear it at the funeral service.
This past weekend, Indiana and Hopie and I drove to Gatlinburg. We had a little mini-vacation together for a couple of days, but that’s not why we were there. I was there to introduce Bradley. The Gaither’s were having their annual Family Fest gathering at the convention center and they’d asked Bradley to come sing a song.
So in front of six-thousand people, I told the story of the song and Joey’s request and then I watched as our friend sang Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord”… to a sold-out auditorium full of complete strangers who listened and then did the one thing that Bradley couldn’t. They all stood… and gave him a standing ovation when the song was finished.
It was beautiful to see. To see that big smile on Bradley’s face up there on the stage. Still, I know he would trade it all in a heartbeat to have Joey still here with us. We all would. But if this had to be the next best choice… Joey would be so proud of him.
It’s been so good for me to get to be creative these last couple of months. To stay busy doing what I love to do. Telling stories. Especially other people’s stories. I look forward to helping Bradley get his album finished and being able to listen to and share more of his gift. And seeing the tv special when it’s all done. But mostly, I look forward to seeing where this all might lead for him in the future.
I think it’s gonna to be very special year for Bradley.
It already is.
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.