Joe was angry. Not his regular slow burn, but full-blown rage.
During dinner, he proclaimed, “I am going to backpack through Europe. Not sure when I will be back. Don’t count on hearing from me.” Escape and control were most likely the whole reason for the proclamation. He hadn’t had either of those for a very long time.
Soon after that proclamation, Mike and I stood outside airport security as Joe hefted his backpack onto his shoulders. I remember how they sagged under the weight, but he stood straight and looked us in the eye when we said one last goodbye.
I hugged him and whispered in his ear, ‘Please be safe. Come back home.’
He called rarely, emailed only slightly more regularly. His correspondence was regulated to facts: where he was, how long he had been there. He shared his photos: him on a night train out of Paris, a man lounging outside a casino in Monaco, water cresting beneath the bow of a boat in Lake Como. About halfway through, he sent one such email with an attached photo. It was in Interlachen just before he did cliff jumping. I took in the dark rings around his eyes, the color of his skin, his thin body, and his pronounced brow.
His cancer had returned. I remember feeling a spike of anger, at both him and myself.
He went off by himself, knowing this was highly likely to happen, and I let him go knowing the same. That was three weeks before he came home. Joe pushed on to finish his trip alone.
Joe’s treatment was marred with moments like this. Pushing people away, telling everyone he was fine. There is an isolating factor to cancer that during chemo is a necessity. It protects the patient from potentially fatal infections when they are immuno-compromised. Joe, always the overachiever, took that probably too far. He tried so hard to hold everything close and keep it away from everyone else. It wasn’t until after his trip, when the end was starkly pronounced, that something shifted.
In his Senior Chapel Talk to his high school, Joe said: ‘Life seems to throw the worst at us when we are at our best, when we think nothing can touch us. We are all forced to face these situations some time in your life, and when you do, when you face something that you believe you will never make it through, don’t go it alone.’
I learned something from him, as well. There is only one way to be alone, but many ways to stand by someone in difficult times. I do not regret letting Joe go on that final trip alone. It was one he desperately needed. To not have what was happening, what we all knew on some level was going to happen, shoved in his face over and over. He was able to go because he knew we were here, the whole time. A tether keeping him grounded. A place to return. He was by himself, but never alone.
Joedance allows me a way to continue to let people know that they are not alone. I feel the need to push on, as Joe did in Europe, to continue to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. To find better treatments with better outcomes. Our donations are not simply a monetary value that adds up to new lab equipment or a salary for a lab technician. It is a reminder to everyone that they are not alone. That we see them and that we are here. That we are always here.