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.
Easter is Joey’s favorite holiday.
It always has been. Not because of Easter baskets or bunnies or candy or eggs, but because today celebrates the day that Christ has risen from the dead. Joey loved sunrise services, and the Lords’ supper and the newness of life that Easter brought to the world. She would get so excited about the day coming and would talk about it for weeks, months sometimes. I’m embarrassed to say that my favorite holiday is still Christmas. Partly because of Jesus’ birth, but also for a million sentimental reasons and trees and carols and the ‘feeling’ that’s in the air that time of year. I still have a lot of growing in my faith to do I guess.
I can’t help but think of my bride today. To remember all the Easter’s we’ve spent together over the years and what this morning would be like if she were still here with us. What it would mean to her to share Easter this year with our two-year-old. It would be so, so special.
There’s a Bible verse that I have been thinking a lot about lately… John 3:30. It says, “He must become greater; I must become less.” I know that the context of the verse is John the baptist talking about Jesus’ ministry growing as his will become less. But I think of that verse today because of Indiana. And because of Joey.
Indy has not asked for her mama. Not one single time since Joey’s been gone. It’s almost as if she hasn’t noticed that she’s not here. And that is so sad… and oh, so wonderful – all at the same time.
When we first got to Indiana in late October, Joey was Indy’s whole world. Everyone else was… well, just everyone else. Including me. She loved her mama so much and all she wanted was to be with her, beside her or in-sight of her. But in early November, when Joey started to realize that there was a good chance that she might not beat her battle with cancer, she made a decision…”he must become greater and I must become less.”
And she started going against everything in her being that told her “time was short” so hold her baby even tighter… and longer… and more… and instead – she handed the baby to me, and sat alone in a bed and watched and listened as my relationship with Indy grew…and hers lessoned.
I still remember the day a few weeks later when I was sitting on the couch near Joey’s bed and Indy was playing on the floor at my feet and Joey looked over at me and said, “she needs you now… “. I looked at Joey and saw the look on her face and knew what she meant, and I wanted to cry. But she just smiled and said, “…it’s best this way honey”.
Who does that? Who has that kind of strength and character? Not me, that’s for sure. I would’ve taken the low, easy road… the one that served me more. I would’ve tried to make the ties with our baby stronger and her love for me deeper so that she wouldn’t forget me… and in the end, probably left our baby wrecked with grief over the loss of the one person she loved and needed most. But not Joey. She let Indy fall more in love with me…and less in love with her. She carried the pain on her own shoulders, to try to keep it off of mine. And even more so, off of Indy’s.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still lots of times in those last few months that I put Indy in her mama’s lap and they spent time together, loving and enjoying each other. But it was never the same. Indiana loved her mama… but she wanted me. She needed me.
Thank you Joey.
No, Indy doesn’t quite understand what has happened. Why her papa is sad. Why friends hug us so tightly, and why tears fall from strangers’ eyes when they say hello to us. But she will. She may not realize right now how incredible her mama is, but she will. I have made a career out of documenting our lives, and her mother… with songs and video and pictures and they are everywhere. I will play them for her. And tucked away in her little heart will be all of the beautiful memories of these first two years that she has shared with her mama and when the time is right, she will find them and they will make her smile. Yes she will remember. I believe that.
Indy and I go and visit ‘mama’ every day.
We make the walk or ride into the backfield, to the spot where Joey rests and we sit down beside her temporary wooden cross. I talk with my bride about what has happened that day, and what I’m worried or excited about… and I share the latest thing that Indiana is doing.
And our little one plays in the grass beside the flowers. Listening. ‘Talking’ with her hands.
And for a little bit, we’re a family again. Indy is on Joey’s lap and the world is right.
Happy Easter my love.
We love you.
Joey had every intention of home-schooling Indy as she grew up. For many reasons. But life has changed that plan.
I have written before about our desire to live our lives with “high hopes and low expectations”… but during the month of January, when Joey and I decided we needed to start researching what and where the next-best option for school for Indy might be…we had no idea that God would lead us to a place called, of all things… ‘High Hopes’.
It’s a Developmental Center and preschool in Franklin, TN about 25 minutes north of our farm. We had heard about it from our sweet banker friend Lisa Harless and were soon reading all about it online and speaking with the director Gail on the phone. Half of the Center is a preschool and the other half is a state-of-the-art therapy center for children with special needs. When I showed this video about their program to Joey, she wiped the tears from her eyes and with a beautiful smile said, “that’s the one honey… that’s the one”.
About forty percent of the kids in the school have special needs and after walking through and touring the facility the first time we visited High Hopes, it was easy to see that the other parents, the teachers and the staff there all have special hearts too. Joey was so excited about Indy getting the chance to come to High Hopes and I was so thankful that she felt great about it. Somehow she managed to transform her disappointment of not getting to raise and teach Indy into a real hope of something even better. I don’t know how, but she did. And she never cried another tear over it.
Indy has been in the preschool a couple days a week for the last week and a half now and is loving every minute of it.
She is making lots of new friends and loves being around all the other kids…
She likes recess and playing outside…
And getting to ride on fun toys…
and learning lots of new things…
She even likes her new nap time…
Indy has already started physical therapy classes to help her learn to walk and speech therapy to start turning all the words that she can say with her hands into sentences she can say with her mouth. I can hardly imagine how special it will be when the time finally comes that she can walk beside me and talk with me.
I believe that God gives us just what we need, when we need it. Sometimes it’s not what we had planned or what we thought we wanted, but if we keep an open mind… it just might even be better than what we originally hoped for.
When I came to pick her up at the end of her first day of preschool, Indiana’s teacher Miss Susan told me that Indy had found a little plastic figure in one of the toy boxes and was holding it up and signing “Papa”!
Though it’s hard for me to be away from Indiana at all, I also know that it’s a wonderful opportunity for her. And after her living with me in one small bedroom of a house for the last 5 months and not having much to do, she is ready for more stimulation and learning, and her new preschool is truly a blessing from heaven.
Indy and I are trying to adjust to our new life at home. To the empty chair at our table and pillow on the other side of my bed. Desperately missing Joey and carrying her in our hearts with us everywhere we go. Knowing, believing… that she’s looking down each morning as I take Indy into High Hopes, still smiling saying, “that’s the one honey…that’s the one”.
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.