Joe, Mike, and I left the house just before four a.m. that morning. Mike made the coffee extra strong and the smell filled the interior of the car almost as soon as we closed the doors. As the engine rolled over, Joe slumped against the window to get a few more hours of sleep. Mike turned the car north while I sipped the burnt coffee. We drove in a sluggish haze until a more humane hour.
We picked up Joe’s friend, Steven Green, at the DC train station before we made our way to the Mall. We were jostled into place by the crowd, or maybe we jostled the crowd into place around us. Then all of us, bundled in the most winter clothes I have worn since living in South Dakota, watched as Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States. We stood in silence, frost blooming on our breath, as we bared witness.
Joe voted for the first time in that 2008 election. It was the only time he ever voted. It was the first of many lasts that year.
Joe’s cancer returned for the last time during Christmas 2008. When the doctors said there was nothing left to do, Joe went home and made a list. He liked making lists. He liked when the things on those lists were crossed off even more.
Some things he wanted us to do as a family. Such as when we followed in his wake and spent five days on a sailboat in Florida learning how to navigate the ocean by outcroppings of rocks along the coast and how to lean into the wind.
Other things he did on his own. The three months he spent in Europe, for example. His only true taste of independence. A life completely separate from everything he knew. Stories he shared, but never fully. Things that were his alone till the very end.
And in the end, after seeing what he could and long-distance drives to see friends as the summer set in and then slowly waned in a drawn-out yawn, he returned home. As the nights grew longer and closed in around us, we spent those days together.
We choose how we are remembered.
The stories we spin and the people we connect with, those are the only things we truly leave behind. At the end, Joe left a list for all of us. To help us focus our grief, perhaps. Or maybe just because he wanted to tell us all what to do a final time. Maybe both. He was good at multitasking, probably on account of all the lists.
Joe chose what he wanted his story to be, in the end. A story I am proud to be a part of; a story I am proud to tell.