... I still miss my friend, Joe
I went to St. Joseph School and my friend Joe went to Immaculate Conception School, both in Everett. Joe lived on Floyd St. only short steps to St. Joseph’s Church and School. Joe was Irish and Irish kids went to Immaculate Conception Church and School, about four miles from his house. My mother’s mother was French Canadian. She persuaded my mother that my brother and I should go to St. Joseph’s School taught by French Canadian nuns. My mother and grandmother were hoping that we would learn to speak both English and French. It would have been closer for me to walk to Immaculate Conception School. For both Joe and me, ethnicity won out. So it was on many days Joe and I would pass each other going in the opposite direction.
Sometimes I would go with my mother to Mass at Immaculate Conception Church as she sang funeral masses. Joe was an altar boy at IC. Altar boys back then would walk along beside the priest as he gave out Holy Communion holding a handle attached to a golden plate lest the sacred host fall to the floor and be defiled. The altar boy would hold the plate beneath the raised open mouth of the communicant and be ready to catch the sacred host on the plate should the priest accidentally drop it. Joe had a special technique for doing this. As I would raise my head to receive the host, Joe would tap my Adam’s apple with the gold plate. This was his signature for letting his friends know he knew us.
We got to know each other a lot better when I was in the seventh grade and Joe in the eighth. Of common interest were two girls living in the three-decker house, behind my house, on Swan Street. Joe liked Ann who lived on the first floor and I liked Pat who lived on the second floor. Joe and I spent a lot of time together on the front steps of the three-decker, hanging around and hoping that summer of 1943. Though neither of our adolescent romances could possibly endure, our friendship did.
During high school we had the same set of friends, hung around Gilbert’s Drug Store fantasizing about girls and occasionally got up enough nerve to speak to one. By this time W.W.II was over and those soldiers and sailors lucky enough to have survived came home with battle ribbons, breathtakingly resplendent. Even though the War was over, the romance of military adventure was still very much in the air, too much to resist. Joe joined the Navy in 1947 and I joined the Navy in March, 1948.
Other than an occasional letter, it was not until 1952, five years later that we got reconnected. We did some double dating but it was not long before we married, me in 1953 and Joe in 1954. Each of us had a brother as best man for us and we were ushers in each other’s wedding. At the same time, being eligible for GI benefits, we both went to Boston University. We saw each other often at BU and visited back and forth with our new brides.
Following graduation from BU, Joe took a job in Cincinnati. Then he and Norma moved to Chicago for a few years when Joe landed a fine job with The New Yorker magazine and settled in Greenwich, Connecticut. My work kept me here in the Boston area, but we did keep in touch for holidays and other occasions. Well after we settled in Melrose, MA in 1963, in the summer of 1979, Catherine and I drove to Greenwich to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary with Joe and Norma. We spent a couple of days with them and looking back we probably should have noticed that all was not right. We went to help celebrate as that was what we wanted to do. We tend to see what we want to see, but were not totally surprised to learn that Joe and Norma were divorced not long after their 25th.
I don’t remember exactly when or how I learned of Joe’s divorce and relocation to North Carolina. I do remember thinking that Joe must be experiencing a devastating sense of estrangement, whatever the reason, to leave behind a wife and four young adult children and to move to a strange territory. When I finally contacted Joe, his telling me he had remarried blew me away. He was very cheery with his news of his new wife and about the great North Carolina climate. Here I was thinking how disrupted he must be. The guy who I thought of as my best friend all these years did not bother to let me know he had taken a new wife. I felt hurt and puzzled. After I digested Joe’s news, I took this to mean that Joe must really want to have a clean slate, a divorce from my friendship as well. My continued pursuit would be just a bad reminder. I stopped contacting Joe and he did not try to reach me.
In December 1996, Norma, Joe’s ex-wife, wrote to tell us that Joe was seriously ill. She sent his address should we want to contact him. By then it had been 12 to 15 years without any contact. I wrote a note to Joe telling him that Norma had contacted us about his illness. I asked Joe how serious was his illness and could we be of any help. I wasn’t sure whether Joe could or would want to answer. Eleven days later a handwritten note from Joe arrived saying he was surprised and pleased to hear from us despite his bad circumstances. He said in October he had gone for a medical check-up complaining of tiring very easily. He was at first devastated by the news that he had inoperable, untreatable lung cancer with only months to live. That same month Joe enrolled in a home hospice program. He softened his tragic news saying, “...surprised even myself at my ability to accept the inevitable.” Joe ended the note saying that he would continue to write us as long as he was able. I immediately wrote back saying how I so admired his ability at being able to sooth himself as he faced death. I said his thoughts were what I would hope for myself were I in his shoes. I added, “Still, just now Joe, it all feels surreal”
As we were planning a trip to Florida for the month of March, we phoned Joe and asked if he was receptive for a visit no matter how brief. His hoarse yet resounding, "YES," settled it for us. We packed our bags and golf clubs into our car and left Melrose, Sunday morning, February 23, 1997. By nightfall we stopped at the Marine Base at Quantico, Virginia, a planned stop to visit our nephew, Major Dan, Krystal and their two young daughters, Danielle and Katharine. After a nice lunch with Dan and his family we headed for Charlotte, North Carolina to visit Joe.
The plan was to take most of the day to drive to Charlotte by early evening, get lodgings nearby and phone Joe to arrange a visit for the following morning. We were both pretty quiet on the long drive, every once in a while saying something like, and “I wonder what Joe looks like because of his illness?” “Will he be all shriveled up?” “I wonder what his new wife is like?” “Will, can we like her?” We both knew and loved Norma. Thoughts like these sent us into our own reflections on the long drive to Charlotte.
We took a room in a Charlotte Best Western. Not a palace, but clean and comfortable. About 9:30AM the following morning we called Joe and he said he was with his hospice nurse but was looking forward to seeing us at 11AM. We apprehensively rang his doorbell a few minutes after eleven and to our great relief Joe’s beaming, Irish face greeted us almost as I remembered from when we were boys. The hospice nurse was still there as we arrived which, at the moment, was the only tangible evidence of Joe’s serious illness. Joe had not grayed at all (maybe touched up a bit?) and was nattily dressed as he always had been. Always open, engaging and loquacious, so he was that morning. We had brought pictures of our family, kids now grown and grandkids. The conversation rippled along as we talked of Joe’s four kids and his four grandchildren as we shared who was doing what with our seven kids and seven grandchildren. Joe, though, had other, confessional agenda on his mind.
Standing in front of us in his parlor with one hand pressed to his breast, Joe said he should have done much more to make his first marriage work. We just nodded, not knowing how to answer. What I had wished later of what I might have said was that I never presumed to make a judgment about his marriage. I wished I had said that my turning away was feeling out of the loop, feeling I was not wanted to be included in his new life. Later I did write saying I hoped he did not see me as making a judgment about him and Norma.
Joe asked us to come with us into his den as he had something he wanted to show to us. He showed us a framed picture of a presentation of A BOSTONIAN’S IDEA OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The picture shows Boston and Cape Cod as twice the size of Texas. Joe said he wanted to give us the picture as a remembrance of him. I choked up and assured him that it would have a home in our house. We went out to lunch, the three of us, but Joe was obviously getting tired. We drove him back to his condo with the understanding that we would be back later to have a light supper and to meet his wife, Joanne.
Joanne is a lovely, gentle person who could not even try to cover her sadness. Even so, we had a nice supper, most of which was prepared by Joe. The conversation continued to be light with joking about the past. Joe excused himself, as he needed a course of oxygen, an apparatus provided by hospice. After a while, really tired, Joe gave us both a hug and went up to his bed. That was the last time we saw him. We stayed a little longer talking with Joanne, offering whatever condolences we could for her inevitable, impending loss.
After we were in Venice, Florida for about three weeks, Joe shipped us A BOSTONIAN’S IDEA OF BOSTON, etc., that we carefully packed in our car for our return to Melrose. I unpacked Joe’s gift to us and considered where to hang it best. What better place, I thought, than to take the old dusty diplomas and certificates down and hang Joe’s remembrance of him. I took these down, hung Joe’s map, took a couple of Polaroid pictures and sent them to him. I wanted him to know that his picture had a home.
Joe died in May 1997, 86 days after our visit. His remembrance sits on the wall a few feet away from my left shoulder.
Feb. 1, 2008