It has been a year of so many wonderful transitions for the children and I.
But not all the transitions have been good. Last year I suffered two big losses. Both were untimely. Both took men in the primes of their lives. Today I want to write about one of them – my friend, Joe.
I was sent to Jamaica for the first time in 1998. In the briefing I had with USAID when I arrived I was told that there was a brilliant but over-the-top director of a theatre troupe cum NGO who had written a masterpiece of a sex education curriculum but that the US government could not allow it to be printed in its current form.
See, this man, Joseph Robinson, wanted to talk about sex openly. [Gasp]
He wanted to address issues that people in Jamaica face in their daily lives, but no one wanted to talk about – issues like violence against women, forced sex, and homophobia. He also wanted to talk about sex as a healthy expression of self, sex drives, and even how to have good sex. (Guys… find the clitoris. Now rub.)
He wanted to talk about these things with teachers from the Ministry of Health who teach school children.
He was brilliant – but generations ahead of his time. Or rather, he should have been born Dutch instead of Caribbean.
Before I met Joe, I thought I pushed the limits when I trained. But clearly I knew nothing.
Joe spent the next seven years teaching me so many lessons - and pushing my limits. My two favorites are:
1. How it is possible to live openly in a society that hates you for something you have no choice in. (And how to compulsively work to improve that society – all the while being hated for your essential being - in this case being gay.)
2. How to love your enemies so that they have no choice but to love you back.
For a number of years I spent at least one week out of every four in Jamaica working with Joe. I never did tame him into the dumbed-down sex educator many would have like to have seen. But I did spend a lot of time editing his brilliant work. And it WAS brilliant – most of the time.
The when we were together the friendship was intense. Joe liked to analyze every little detail of his relationships, people, world events, and of course, gossip about people’s sex lives. And he would keep me up until 4 AM – talking my ear off until I had no choice but to drift off to sleep.
Joe was also an incredibly loyal friend. He could be distracted for months – like many creative people, totally immersed in a new project. But then, out of the blue, he’d do something wonderful.
Like showing up at my door on my birthday – having flown out of the warmth of Jamaica to submit himself to the cold tremble of Washington, DC in mid-January – totally unannounced. He did that twice.
[And both times he promptly ran out for bagels, cream cheese and lox because once, years before, I told him that I loved to eat that for breakfast.]
And again he showed up unannounced at my baby shower. He just walked in the door like he was expected – a tremendous surprise – a beautiful act of friendship.
When you have children it is only natural that some parts of your life fall by the wayside. One of the great losses of Independent Hally in the early days was my 2nd life – the one I had in Jamaica working side-by-side with Joe. Joe and I talked on the phone and he promised me that he would come visit. But those were difficult times for the NGO that he ran and he never made it to Washington, DC. He never met Jaden and Rowan.
And I only made it back to Jamaica once – a quick visit with no play time. When I saw him then, just about 7 months before he died, he didn’t look right to me. In the old days I might have said something to him, but we just weren’t as close anymore and so I said nothing. It was just a month later that he was diagnosed with cancer.
It was a very aggressive form. But I didn’t know that. He didn’t tell me. He was an optimist who believed in the power of the mind to heal.
He told me that he was getting better. He told me that it would be too much trouble for me to visit him (in the hospital in Reno where he first got sick and then later in Miami) – that I should say home and take care of my kids – which I did. He said that he could come to Washington, DC to visit us soon.
I really regret that now. I let parenting get in the way of a friendship that I really valued. I should have come out of myself to be there – to be by his side – for a least a little bit. But instead I let his friends without children play that role.
I was finally planning a trip to see Joe in early August last year when Joe’s best friend, Reg, called to tell me that if I wanted to see him it had to be now. I couldn’t wait any longer.
And so I did what the old Hally would have done. I used my frequent flyer miles. I made arrangements for the kids. I flew down to the Bahamas where he was in the hospital to see him just two days later.
But it was already too late. I arrived at 5 PM. He died a little bit after midnight.
I never had a minute alone with him. And he was comatose when I arrived.
But for a few minutes that evening I managed to carve a space for myself right next to his bed. I leaned in close and I whispered in his ear how much I loved him. That I learned so much from him. That even though I had been so busy being a mom that I didn’t manage to make it for one last all-night conversation I never stopped thinking of him as one of the most important persons in my life.
And then I told him it was OK to go.
I love you Joe.