It was a winter day when I first remember Joe. Pretty sure I’d met him before, that’s just the day that comes to mind. The day I’d had enough of the darkness — was done trying to stay alive. The day I didn’t care anymore, gathered my 15 year old bulimic suicidal hair pulling self, boots and long black coat, and headed toward the freeway in hopes some crazy trucker would pick me up and I’d end up anywhere — I couldn’t kill myself, maybe somebody would help me out. Shaking with the self loathing of the thing, I stepped through heavy glass doors of the girls dorm out into the darkness of the evening. No one in sight, I hurried through campus winds toward the road. I don’t remember how it happened but there was a giant man coming toward me from the road — looked down so wouldn’t have to answer any questions as was pretty sure it was a teacher or staff of the school… he asked them anyway… “Young lady, where you going?” I don’t remember the rest. I’m sure I was tongue tied — tears, I don’t know. Never was any good at lying. All I know is that Joe took me across the street to his house to spend the night with his family. Remember nothing of that night except that I slept in sleeping bag on carpeted floor of their library just off living room. Remember being taken to counseling a few days later. Remember getting a job at the library that his wife Donna ran. After that night, I was always welcome in their home.
So many memories. Reading Pat McManus books in their living room. All of us laughing till our sides hurt. Joe rattling off math facts, hoping I’d pick up a few facts myself. Sorry, Joe, the math facts never stuck. Donna talking me into doing aerobics with her and a bunch of old ladies — (they were all in their 20’s and 30’s:) Donna inviting me to help her linseed oil their getaway cabin in mystic land of wilderness. The hours out in Joe’s automotive shop, hanging there when I had nowhere else to go. When the money ran out for me to stay at the school, having to call a dozen or so strangers — ‘Can you sponsor me to stay at Mount Ellis’ I wanted the floor to swallow me up, but then Joe said, come on, you can do this. And so I did. I got all the support I needed to keep going. I remember the stress of an audition for choir. Out in shop, Joe would tell me to try it. In the library Donna would tell me I would do fine. I did. Would hear me sing the song during choir tour — he drove bus, they would always tell me I did great.
Joe — the bus driver. He was the Abominable Snowman. Snow was not a problem to him. It was a challenge, kind of the way he took on the rest of life. Once the windshield wipers broke while we were barreling down the road. (I would stand up front as I’d get very nauseated back of bus.) Since I was up there anyway, he asked me to pull a level back and forth that he’d rigged up — keeping the glass clear so he could keep schedule and get another busload of kids to the next concert.
Joe was gruff and large and bearded and dark eyed. Not a guy I’d ever feel comfortable around… except that under the gruff was a guy who cared. A human being. And besides, Joe had his exact opposite, a wife who was as approachable as a meadow of happy flowers. She invited me to help her paint her brick brown fireplace all lovely white. Our work produced a fine looking makeover. I helped her wallpaper, do housework, organize library cards. She taught me things, and also shared hard things in her life. Told me about the day she and Joe, her boys and two of their friends went camping. About the tree that came down middle of night — right through the little boys tent. Her boys lived. The two brothers in the middle didn’t. How the other family lost all their children at one gust of surly wind. Tree that robbed them all of the feeling that life is safe.
Tree did it again, a number of years ago, when it hurt Joe bad, in the back. And this week, tree took Joe away. Joe, the rough-round-the-edges, who cared deeply.
Joe, Donna’s life.
Joe, Dad to three kids.
Joe, Grandpa of more.
The guy who helped random kids find better footing –
sent them out for catching strays
in world of surly wind and hopelessness.
Too many kids to count.
And that, no tree can take.
Thanks Jaunathan Gagnon, for the photo.