Saturday, January 28, 2012

Remembering Joel

I just posted an entry on the 18th about a friend who had run out of options in his cancer care. When I woke up this morning I did my usual look through Facebook and saw that his brother had posted a couple of pictures of Joel in the very early morning hours. I immediately knew what that meant without having to look any further - Joel had passed.

I met Joel many, many years ago when he was just a little guy. His brother Jason had befriended me in our first year at our local junior college. Jason was a life saver at that point because most of my friends had left for out of town schools and I was floundering because I knew so few people. Jason brought me into his group of friends and made my two year of junior college a lot of fun. I wouldn't be nearly the geek I am today without the influence of that sci fi and comic book loving gang. Jason helped me get a summer job as a youth director at his church and there I met Joel and a lot of other great kids. Joel was cute as a button with a funny voice and a great sense of humor (it runs in the family). I only spent a summer working there and then went off to finish my last two years of college in Alabama.

Fast forward many years to the time when my sister was sick and I was going through my own treatment. Joel reached out to me via Facebook to let me know he was available to talk. I had stayed in touch with Jason a bit throughout the years and knew Joel had thyroid cancer at 15 but I hadn't realized the extent of the cancer at that time or that he had to have continual follow ups since his teen years. Turned out that Joel knew the ins and outs of endocrine cancer much better than I did. This is Joel's story from the MD Anderson website.

We exchanged a lot of facebook messages and a couple of long phone calls. There is something about talking to someone else that has had cancer that strips down your walls in talking about the disease. I could be honest with Joel about how weary I was - for me and my family. He listened to me talk about the grief of losing my sister and my frustration with my brother's diagnosis. I was mostly struck by Joel's unwavering optimism and faith despite the difficult therapies and treatment he was enduring in never ending succession. I told him that I honestly couldn't seeing myself enduring that. There were some other topics as well - but it's a little too real to talk about - particularly today.

In time, I got dramatically better and rebounded stronger in some ways than I was before. Joel and I actually switched up treatments centers and teams right around the same time. He moved back to Florida and went to Mayo and I started going to MD Anderson in Houston. During my checkup last year I got excellent news - all my hormone levels were stable, all scans were crystal clear - I was now clear to go to annual check ups. Joel was one of the first to congratulate me. I was looking over our facebook messages this afternoon and want you to see what he said to me:

Susan, Glad things went well at MDA. You're setting the bar high and an inspiration to me. I just got back from Mayo today, they have a couple drugs in mind... Just so happy for you. Pop is staying with me right now and we've been praying for you and your brother. God is working on you. I'm being wordy at this point but I'm just so joyfully tearful for you. Love you so much, Susan.

I can't be sure exactly what kind of news Joel had gotten at Mayo that day but it surely wasn't as positive as mine was. Tell me what kind of caring, great person sees that a friend got great news when maybe they didn't and gets in touch to let you know how happy they are for you? I wish that was the kind of person I was but I am not sure it is. 

Now, of course, comes the regret. Why didn't I reach out to Joel more often in the past year? I heard from him in September that he was going to be in Atlanta in October and we were going to meet up but I never heard back. Maybe he had a decline and couldn't make it? What was so important in my life in October that I didn't make time to get in touch? Logically I know this is a normal part of loss but that doesn't make it easier.

When I saw the post from Joel on the 18th I knew that he would be gone very soon. He was so relentlessly optimistic and him saying that it looked like the end of the road was a sign to me that it surely was. I sent him a message via facebook but can't bring myself to tell you all the content but do want to share one thing:

I will be keeping you in my thoughts as I train this year for Ironman. I know a lot of people think I'm crazy for doing this training - but you know what I know - this is EASY compared to the journey we've been on and you've been on it longer than me. This training gives me a sense of peace and joy. Your spirit also give me a sense of peace and joy Joel.

Even if he didn't get to read or hear this - I know that Joel knows how I feel now - and I very much doubt he would want me to dwell in regret. So on the way to my ride this morning I thought about Joel and put on the most painfully happy song I could think of, Jonsi's Go Do. (I warn you - Jonsi is a character and you may not love the video. Just listen to the music and lyrics.) One of the odd things about me is that a sad song doesn't generally make me cry, but a joyful happy song? I cry buckets. So I cried and sung along:

You wish surprise, will never stop wonders
You wish sunrise, will never fall under
We should always know that we can do everything


  1. Hey Susan - not to make the tears come again but you'd better believe that you have been an inspiration and more than important to both of us for many years now (not enough of one to spring for the bigger iPod - evidently inspiration has a price point, and the Driver brothers are cheap bastards), and I can tell you without doubt that Joel found you to be a kindred spirit. He prayed for you nightly as a member of his "cancer cadre", and he got a HUGE amount of strength from your positive progress. I think that as things got a bit less optimistic for Joel, he drew even more strength and happiness from those in the cadre who got good news or clean scans. So in a way, your improved health fed Joel. You were one of the ones whose good news kept him going. We both love you bunches and a whole bunch, because we have always known what your friends and family have known - that you are an incredibly strong and amazing woman with a great personality. You made both of our lives brighter, even without knowing it. However, I do have a bone to pick with you....since you are a cyclist despite your cancer, Joel pointed out that my overweight butt has no excuse to not start exercising...buying a bike next month. Gee, thanks Susan.

    Love ya!

    1. Thanks Jason - you guys have always cracked me up. BTW - the shuffle is *perfect* cause it fits in a waterproof set up I use to listen to music in the pool. I *really* need music in the pool. Excited to hear about the bike purchase - let me know if you want advice. :) Much love to you!

  2. We'll talk bikes on Friday...if I haven't talked myself out of needless exercise by that point...