The first time I came to the place Joey was born and raised in was in April of 2002. It was my first trip with Joey to her hometown and to meet her family. It’s also the weekend that we got engaged.
We had been dating for two months. But when you know… you know. And so what is there to wait for.
We unloaded our bags and made our way into the small white farmhouse Joey that grew up in – Joey, Heidi, Hopie and I. It was like something straight out of a movie. The house and setting was almost too sweet and beautiful to be real. Fifteen minutes later, sitting beside Joey’s mother upstairs in a wooden rocking chair, we told June that we were in love and what our hopes for the future were. Over that weekend, there was a big family dinner where I met all of her sisters and some aunts and uncles. There was a walk through the barn where she raised her sheep and brushed her horse and a drive through downtown Alexandria, Indiana. She showed me where she went to high school, where she worked her first job and outside of town in a small cemetery… she showed me where her brother Justin was buried. Her brother’s passing at seventeen was the hardest thing their family ever went through. It was clear to see that there was pieces of their hearts scattered all over that town.
Late in the evening that first day we were there, we drove to a small apartment in town, where Joey’s father Jack lived. Justin’s passing had been hardest on her parents I think. They were now divorced and Jack carried the weight of his son’s passing on his shoulders, like the tattoo of his name that was now on his wrist. Jack drove out and visited his son’s grave almost every day with a football in his hand.
This wasn’t just a cordial visit though… Joey and I were there for a reason. I was there to ask Jack for permission to marry his daughter. I think the question caught him off guard to say the least. He was worried about losing another child and I couldn’t blame him. But I promised to love and honor her and reluctantly I think… he gave us his blessing. I didn’t have to ask her daddy for permission. It was 2002 for goodness sake. But I wanted to. I wanted to do the right thing in every way. I still do.
A few hours later, back at her mama’s farmhouse, I took Joey’s hand and we walked west through the dark, down the little lane that they live on. We stopped about a quarter-mile away, right in front of the white cross on the side of the road where Justin had been killed. I knew that spot meant a lot to her. She had told me all about it. Many times. It’s where her and her mama were the first ones to the scene and where she had knelt over her brother praying for him, minutes after the accident that took his life. I wanted to change that moment for her… to try to make it better. To turn that place into a beautiful beginning instead of a heartbreaking ending.
So there we were, in the spot where her she felt her greatest pain. But this time I was the one who knelt, and I asked Joey to marry me. And we both cried. And together we prayed that God might take our broken hearts and our broken pasts and make something truly beautiful of them.
And He has. A million times over, He has.
We have made a hundred trips back to Indiana since then. But none have been more special to me than the one we took this past Sunday. We took one final tour-bus ride home. To Joey’s town. To grieve with and celebrate with the people in her community. And to lift up one of their own with tears and joy and songs and speeches.
In the Alexandria High School gymnasium – the same place where Joey had played basketball and volleyball and cheered for her home team – a few thousand people gathered together in her honor. But this time, the cheers were all for her.
A few minutes before, as Indy was still napping, I sat in the back hallway of the bus and did my best to come up with a few words to say… to thank this town and to lift up my beautiful bride and this community.
Bill and Gloria Gaither hosted the celebration and they and a number of family and friends came up one by one to speak. Joey’s mother and father sang a hymn and shared a few words from their hearts. Her sister Jody talked about being by our side as Joey’s caregiver for the last few months and how Joey has impacted her as a woman and mother. And hometown-hero Carl Erskine, who pitched for the Dodgers in 40’s and 50’s played his harmonica and shared wisdom about raising a child with Down Syndrome with me. Joey’s high school coach Mr Howell even gave me a letter jacket from the high school with Joey’s name on it. An honor that is especially meaningful to a man who’s favorite movie is ‘Hoosiers’ and never lived in one town long enough to play sports or get the chance to try to earn one on his own.
After I spoke, Indy and I stood and watched a video honoring her mama. It was hard and beautiful to watch at the same time.
I’ve been told that most of the speeches have already been posted online from folks with cameras or iPhones, but Breanna and Doug from the Gaither offices put together a small video that shows a good bit of the celebration that they were kind enough to share with me, so I could share it with you.
The whole day was so special. Thank you to everyone who was there and to everyone who wished they could be there with us. Like me, I know my wife would’ve found a way to see the beauty in this sad day.
I would also like to thank the wonderful town of Alexandria, Indiana. Joey’s town. My town.
A place that might have seen it’s better days, but is striving to make it’s best days yet to come. A place where factories have closed their doors and jobs are scarce… where it’s values and faith are being challenged at every turn… but it still somehow knows what is most important and shows it to it’s children and to strangers that come to visit, like me.
I never paid for a piece of pizza while we were there the past five months. Or an oil change. Or hardly even a meal at a restaurant. I’ve been hugged by cashiers at Home Depot and had people cry in my arms in the produce aisle of the grocery store. I’ve had waitresses pray with me in restaurants and neighbors drop off home cooked meals day-and-night to the house we were staying in. Someone even saw that in one of my posts there was a Nestle water bottle sitting by Joey’s nightstand and a day later an employee from that company dropped of two dozen cases of water in our garage…and they kept bringing more cases. Right to the very end. People just want to help. They feel your hurt and want to share your pain. They made something hard, a little easier.
And it never stops… even now that we’re at home. The love keeps coming. Literally as I am sitting here finishing this post at a breakfast restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee… I have had a dozen people stop by my table to hug me, tell me they’re praying for my family and or just say they love me and Joey and Indy. And none of them are people that I’ve ever met before. The waiter just came to the table to refill my coffee and said, “…someone has picked up your check today”. And then he said, “they asked me to give this to note to you…”
Sometimes I think the internet is a big scary place. A place where only dark things happen and the worst in people and life get lifted up. But I don’t think that way anymore. I think the internet is also a place where people can come together and share their hopes and their fears. A great big beautiful community of strangers… struggling, hurting, celebrating and needing each other. A great big, small town.
On Tuesday we laid my beautiful wife to rest. In a grove of sassafras trees behind our farmhouse, with friends and family gathered around, we said goodbye to the greatest person I have ever known.
The service started in our barn/concert hall. The last time we were on that stage, was in early October and Joey and I were singing together. But now, a photograph of Joey was in the spotlight… and I was one of many who were there to honor her.
The Isaac’s sang “It Is Well With My Soul”.
Bill Gaither told stories of swans and deer and the sweet girl who looked out the window from her hospital bed and saw the beauty in life and also in death.
And the pastor who baptized Joey in her small hometown church in Indiana, Jerry Young… shared memories of Joey and the good news of the Gospel.
My sister Marcy and Joey’s best friend Julie and our manager Aaron all spoke and Sandy Lawrence somehow managed to sing “When I’m Gone”. When it came my time to speak, I walked up on the stage and stood looking at my wife’s sweet picture… and words were not enough to let her know how much she meant to me – how much she still means to me. .
And when my time was through and I thought I couldn’t cry anymore tears… they played a video celebrating Joey’s life that our friends Daniel and Gabe made. And my tears were replaced by smiles and laughter and joy and more tears. It was so beautiful, set to the song “After You’re Gone” by Iris Dement… a song that Joey loved and requested be played at her service.
Joey’s one hope was that she could “come home” on a beautiful day… and oh, it was. The daffodils were blooming, the grass was green and sky was bright blue.
As the guests made their way to the family cemetery behind our barn…
Eight angelic voices led a procession singing “Down By The River To Pray” all the way out to the family plot.
And a team of mules carried Joey’s simple wooden box in an 1800’s wagon with six of Joey’s favorite ‘cowboys’ by her side.
The family followed along behind the wagon. Indy on her papa’s shoulders.
At the gravesite, Mike Glenn – our pastor in Tennessee, spoke of the better place that Joey’s in and also of the better place that the world is because Joey was in it.
And he told us how we can all have a service like hers when it comes our time to go, with just as many people loving us as loved Joey. All we have to do he said… is live like she did.
And finally, the beautiful life that God had brought from the dust was returned to the dust…
When it was over, we all walked back to the farmhouse.
As two of Joey’s friends stayed behind to let her know they will be keeping her company from now on.
And we spent the afternoon a few steps from Joey’s garden, hugging and loving and celebrating the beautiful life she lived.
We saw some friends we haven’t seen in months.
And some others that we haven’t seen in years.
It was an afternoon filled with so much joy and love. Even our little Indiana had a wonderful time …
And when most of the guests had gone and the sun was starting to fade, Indy and I took the short walk together into the back field to see her mama one more time.
And we stayed awhile and talked with her.
And then we took a deep breath and did what Joey would want us to do.
We remembered that she’s still with us.
She’ll always be with us.
In our hearts.
My wife’s greatest dream came true today. She is in Heaven.
The cancer is gone, the pain has ceased and all her tears are dry. Joey is in the arms of her beloved brother Justin and using her pretty voice to sing for her savior.
At 2:30 this afternoon, as we were gathered around her, holding hands and praying.. my precious bride breathed her last. And a moment later took her first breath on the other side.
As I held her hand and kissed her goodbye one last time… I was reminded of another dream of hers that came true. A few months ago through gracious help of Kathy Olen, a friend of ours in Nashville, and many others… I had been sent a short video that Dolly Parton had made for Joey.
From the time she was four years old, Joey had been singing Dolly’s songs and dreamed of one day meeting her. Coat of Many Colors was a regular part of our show and at home she loved to put on Dolly and listen to “Hello God”, “When I Sing For Him”, “Me and Little Andy” and many others. She never got the chance to meet her in person and had no idea that Dolly even knew who she was. But that changed one Friday evening this past November.
Joey’s family, Russdriver and I gathered around Joey’s bedside to watch the movie “Hope Floats” (one of the few movies Joey knew and loved) with her. But instead of pushing play on the DVD, I pushed play on the video I had received… and we all watched Joey watch. It was the most beautiful moment I have ever been part of…
Though this is, and has been, a time of many tears of sorrow, it has also been a time of countless tears of joy. There have been too many beautiful moments to count or even begin to share in this blog. But I try.
When a person has been through as much pain and struggle as Joey’s been through, you just want it to be over. You want them to not have to hurt anymore, more that you want them to stay with you. And so, it makes the hard job of saying goodbye just a little easier.
After four-and-a-half months in Indiana, we will soon be back home in Tennessee. Me, and our little one, with our older daughters. It’s hard for me to imagine being there without Joey, but at the same time… it is where she wants us to be. It’s where she will be… She’s gonna be in the mint growing beside our back deck, the sweet-corn frozen in our freezer and a million other places that her hand and heart has touched around our little farmhouse and community. Joey will still be with us. Everywhere.
So if it’s okay, I’m gonna close, wipe my tears and pack our bags to hit the road headed south.
She’s already got a head-start on me.
There’s the easy way… and then there’s the best, right way.
My wife has always known the difference between the two. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she has chosen the right path over the least-difficult road to take. She is still making the best, right choices. Even now.
Joey loves her some George Strait. She always has. He’s her go-to guy whenever she puts on a cd and is cleaning the house or driving her car. And when romance is in the air, it’s not Michael Buble’ or some crooner that she wants me to put on… she wants king George. And I am more than happy to oblige. A love-affair with a singing cowboy who lives a million miles away in her dreams seems safe enough for me. Heck, I think there are really only two or three men out there that I would’ve had to worry about being jealous of…. George, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. The last two are because of the movie Lonesome Dove. My wife and I have watched ‘Gus’ and ‘Woodrow’ make the long cattle-drive to Montana a half-dozen times or more over the years. And she gets that look in her eyes when she watches that movie. She’s enamored by those men. By that lifestyle. Joey loves real cowboys.
I don’t know why she loves me. She could’ve had any cowboy she wanted…. could’ve had the western life she dreamed of as a little girl riding her first horse Velvet. But she didn’t choose some handsome Marlboro man with a Sam Elliot mustache and a thousand-acre ranch… instead, she chose our little farm and she chose me. And I’m a long way from a cowboy. We do have horses now…well, the two that I got for Joey for her birthday this last fall (though she and I only got to see them a couple of times before our lives took us back to the Cancer Center in Atlanta and then here to her hometown in Indiana). And unfortunately, she will never get to ride those or any horses again. They will instead be grazing in the pasture around the family cemetery in the back field behind our farmhouse, where my bride will soon rest.
It is difficult for me to write this, partly because it seems like everything I write these days ends up as some tragic news story about my wife and her ‘last days’ and the ‘shocking’ new development that has just been shared. I want to apologize for any sensational headlines that this or any post has created. That has not been my intention. These are just stories… small vignettes from our lives, just like the ones that you and everyone out there are living every day.
That being said, I am thankful. So very thankful – that our story has been shared and shared and shared. Thankful that because it’s being picked up and shared by dozens of news organizations and hundreds of thousands of individuals on Facebook and elsewhere, somehow my wife’s life and ultimately her death, might possibly help or encourage someone else somewhere. That this life she’s living might impact the life of someone that she and I will never meet, and never see, at least this side of heaven. That is a good thing. No, that is a great thing. Thank you.
The other reason it’s hard for me write this is because it has been so long coming on. Sometimes I feel like the boy who cried wolf. We’ve been here going through this for months and months now. Though many ups and downs. Nearing the end, doing better, nearing the end again. Hoping. Praying. Believing. But through it all, most of us have known down-deep for awhile now, that the end would eventually come… but we haven’t really faced it. I don’t think we’ve been in denial, just filled with hope and living in the moment. Because though you know that your loved-one is dying… somehow you find a way to find the good, even in the dying. You say to yourself…. she’s still here. We’re still together. And it’s still life. Sort of. But not really. This isn’t the kind of life my wife would want to be living. Not if you know her.
Joey has done all she set out to do… even right to the very end, and by sheer will-power (and God’s grace), she was still here to to see our baby’s 2nd birthday. Over the last number of weeks her pain had gotten worse and her health had continued to decline rapidly. And not long after Indy’s birthday my wife decided that ‘enough is enough’. She was ready to stop fighting and she told me so. She said the flowers would soon be blooming back in Tennessee. It’s time to go home.
Joey gathered her family together around her and she said goodbye to each of them… to her mother and father and her three sisters. There were lots of tears as she explained to each one how much she loved them and that she was going to be going home soon. That her time here was done and she was going to go to sleep soon. And then she asked me to bring our baby in. And so… I set our little Indy on Joey’s lap and we all cried with my wife as she told her how much her mama loved her and, “…you be a big girl for your papa… and that mama will be watching over you”. And then she pulled Indiana up and she kissed her.
One last kiss.
My wife has been asleep for days now and her body is shutting down quickly. The hospice nurse came again this morning and said Joey will most-likely only be with us for a few more days… at the most.
A few more days… In the 40 short years that Joey has lived, my bride has accomplished many great things… she’s lived a very full life. But even more than that, she has loved those around her greatly and been loved greatly in return. I can honestly say that Joey’s isn’t just a life well-lived, it’s a life well-loved.
God only gives each of us a certain amount of time to be on this earth and every day when we wake up, we get to decide how we are going to spend those precious minutes and hours. There are no do-overs, no second-chances, no next-time-around’s to get it right. Joey knew this and she has made each and every day count. One of the last things Joey said before she drifted into the deep sleep she’s been in for a few days now is, “I have no regrets… I can honestly say, that I have done everything I wanted to do and lived the life I always wanted to live”.
I went through some pictures on my computer last night and let them take me back. Back to when we met… oh, how young and beautiful she looked. And I let them carry me through the years, to where we are now. Lying here beside me, she is still so beautiful to me. We recorded a song a few years ago by Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan for the same album that we recorded “When I’m Gone” on, but it didn’t make the record. I think maybe it was on some special bonus version somewhere, but for the most part nobody’s ever heard it. I came across it the other day and put some of Joey’s photos with it… I could barely listen or watch at first. But then, as I listened and watched more… I smiled more and I cried less. It’s called “In The Time That You Gave Me”
In the time that God gave her… I believe Joey’s given all she could give. She’s loved all she could love and lived all she could live. And her faith… yes, it’s strong enough to save her. I know she’s done Him and all of us proud… in the time that He gave her.
When we were at the Academy of Country Music awards in Las Vegas a few years ago, George Strait was there for a presentation and we were backstage with a group of folks, standing right in front of him… maybe ten feet away. They were giving him some sort of award, and I was encouraging Joey to go say hello. She didn’t want to. So I took her hand and walked her over closer to the small crowd that surrounded him until George and Joey’s eyes met… then George smiled and shook her hand, and she smiled back at him.
I thought it was a special moment. But it wasn’t. At least not for her. Afterwards, I could tell that it wasn’t what she wanted. She didn’t just want to meet her hero, she wanted to earn his respect and meet him then, only then. She wanted to meet him ‘the right way’, or not meet him at all. I love that about her.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about her love of cowboys and after all these years, I can’t say I have understood why Joey would choose me and not some rugged horseman from Texas or Montana or somewhere. But then again, maybe it’s not about looking like a cowboy, it’s about what’s inside. Maybe that’s what she saw in me that I didn’t. Maybe there’s more to it than the hat and horse that Joey admired about George and Gus and Woodrow… maybe it was what she believed was inside of those cowboys. What she believed was inside of me…
A month or so ago, a man from out west sent an email that hurt me. But it hurt me in a good way. He doesn’t know it but it came to me at a time when I think I needed to hear the words he said. To help me understand. I showed the email to Joey and told her that I didn’t understand why he called me ‘cowboy’ in the email. Joey just smiled and when she finished reading, gave me a little wink that seemed to say, “you may not understand…but I do”. Here are the words that man wrote…
“Cowboy, you get to stand on the same stage as her.
She looks at you, into your eyes. She’s not looking at the crowd for attention. She’s looking at you, because she’s amazed by you. Cowboy, that’s an old fashioned love, that you get to experience. She can’t fake that, and she can’t help that. She can’t hide that. We can all see that. Well done.
Partner, there’s a beautiful little girl who is learning how to look at her dad, because she see’s how her mommy looks at you. Ms. Joey’s done her job – and done it well. Now she can just be a mommy. Little girls like yours may learn different than other children, but they learn. They learn and know love better than most of us. I grew up with a mom who worked with special needs children. Few things can love, like a child with special needs. Truly a blessing of life long love.
I saw you in Walla Walla a few years ago. You were at Clarette’s Restaurant. You were just two normal people at a small booth, in a small town country diner. I was across from you. It was so obvious. It was American love……and it did not need to be interrupted. I smiled as I left, thinking, “That’s what it’s all about.” A couple famous folks, who probably don’t care about the fame. It reminded me of what George Strait must look like. Just a real person, enjoying taking his beautiful wife out for breakfast, and damn the attention. Like a real cowboy, it’s a way of life. Everything is in the moment, and beauty rises to the surface.
What you’re doing, how you are sharing, how you have put frustration, hurt and what must be some anger aside, is the weight only something a real cowboy could shoulder.
It’s the American ideology, like the “So God Made a Farmer,” Dodge Ram commercial, in the Super Bowl a couple years back. You’re that American man. That man/dad who can shoulder a burden.
You’re a cowboy, Rory. The kind who’s rough calluses on his hands, feel soft to the women he loves.
What you’re going through, I can’t imagine. You’ve got those big square shoulders, and she’s got those big pretty eyes. It’s the perfect puzzle. The perfect match.
Rory, I pray for peace for Joey. Whatever happens, you need prayer too. Partner, Cowboy, square your shoulders, because your beautiful wife and daughter, they need a cowboy right now, and you’re the one that God knows has the biggest, strongest shoulders.
Another dot on the map, another family lifting yours up in prayer. We’re out here in little old Walla Walla, Washington, and your daughter, your wife, and you are in our daily prayers. – Jim Brennan”
Thank you Jim, whoever you are.
And thank you to all who have followed my wife’s beautiful journey. Who are still following. Though our hearts are heavy we all need to do our best to remember that this is not the end. It’s only the beginning.
When Joey takes her last breath here… she will take her first breath there.
This has been a week to remember.
There have been big parties for little people and small losses with great lessons… and we even had a romantic night filled with more love for each other than we even thought was possible. But mostly, this has been a week filled with thankfulness.
Joey and I watched the Pre-Grammy celebration together – the early portion of the show where the award that we were up for and some others were given out. To say it was a bit surreal to be where we are, looking at where our music has taken us, is an understatement.
I’ve said before that just being nominated is enough. But after having more time to think about it… that’s not actually true. Instead, I would say that just being able to wake up and look into the eyes of the people we care about and tell them that we love them is enough. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
The truth is, God has blessed us with the gift of something even bigger than a Grammy award this year… perspective.
The morning after the award show, Joey looked into my eyes and said, “I’m sorry we didn’t win us a Grammy”. I smiled and said, “that’s okay”. Then jokingly, I added, “…there’s always next year”. She smiled back at me and said, “yes… next year”. And then she talked about how if we were to ever be nominated again, that I have to promise her that I would go. And I told her that I would. Then her smile widened and she winked and said, “and guess what… I’ll know the winner before you do”.
Indy and I drove through what seemed like a blizzard on Sunday afternoon to pick up dinner for Joey for Valentines Day. My wife loves sushi and I had decided that morning that we could surprise her with some of her favorite rolls. But driving down the icy roads with the wind blowing and the snow drifting, I started to worry that my truck might end up in a ditch somewhere between here and Muncie and our whole night would be ruined. But we made it home okay and Joey was so happy to see the food we had for her. And though she’d hardly eaten anything at all for the last couple of weeks… starting that night, her appetite came back and she had the greatest time. Her three sisters helped her with make-up and she put on a nice shirt and scarf to look pretty for me… and we both even wore sweet corsages that someone sent to us in the mail for the big day (I hadn’t even seen a corsage since my senior prom). We lit a candle and together, we shared an incredible Valentines day evening.
When dinner was over, as I said goodnight and tucked the blankets around her in the little hospital bed she has been living in for months, she thanked me for the special night and then made one last request. “If Jody helps me to scoot over to one side…could you try to lay down with me and put your arms around me?”
I haven’t been able to be in the same bed with my wife or hold her in my arms since the beginning of November – when she made her last trip to the hospital.
But for one sweet half-an-hour… that changed on Valentines day.
Our manager Aaron called us yesterday morning and told us that lots of folks have been buying our new Hymns album and that stores across the country have had a hard time keeping them in stock since they went on sale earlier this week. I put it on speaker phone so Joey could listen and hear the wonderful news and say hi to Aaron. When we hung up, Joey and I sat there holding hands… knowing that in time those sales could turn into some income for our family and that could really help, now that there are no more concerts or income from shows. We talked about what a blessing it was, and then she looked at me very seriously and said, “I need you to do something for me…”. I told her I would be glad to. Then with all the sincerity in the world, she said, “I need you to be generous… God has blessed us so much. We need to bless others’.
God I love that woman.
Joey barely slept the night before Indiana’s birthday. She was too excited. Jody said she didn’t fall asleep until about 5 am, around the time that Indy and I woke up. When Joey woke up, a little before noon, I came in to see her… and tears were flowing down her face. Again, I put my arms around her and asked, “why are you crying honey?”…
“We made it…”, she softly answered. “We made it”.
And once again, my tears mixed with hers.
Please don’t think that our life is all sappy tears and Hallmark-movie moments, like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, because it’s not. There is lots of real pain and hurt and frustration and fun and laughter… and most times, we just pinch ourselves because we feel so darn lucky and blessed. But the moments that seem to stand out – the ones that matter and hurt the most of course – have tears in them. And I can’t help but share a few of the most powerful moments as they happen. To capture them. To remember.
For the most part, Indiana’s big day was nothing but joy and more joy. She has a way of bringing even the most painful parts of life back into perspective. All day long (and for days before that) the mailman and the UPS and FedEx drivers kept knocking on the door – delivering more and more presents from strangers, family and friends… to Indiana in Indiana.
So by the time the birthday song had been sung and the birthday cake had been eaten and we got around to opening gifts… it took all of her cousins to help her get the presents open.
We decorated the room that Joey is staying in and set Indy’s high-chair with a ballon on it right beside her bed… so Joey could see and be part of the whole thing.
I could go on and on and tell you all about our evening and our baby’s 2nd birthday party – but it’s probably easier to just let Indy’s face tell the story…
Thank you Lord that we were able to all be together for this special day, for this special week.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.