When my neighbor Joe and I started listening to music together it was just by chance.Â I think he asked me to drive him to CVS once and when I helped him bring in the groceries he asked if I wanted to stay for a bit. We got talking about jazz and such. We were both rattling off different artists, and then I asked if he had time to listen to a few things. Well, that random weekday evening turned into our first listening night which then led to a friendship that lasted a long time.
It seemed like after that first night, we started getting together on a semi regular basis to listen to and chat about music. First off was jazz, and then we went into classical, and then the Great American Song Book. He’d send me home with a few CDs and maybe a DVD to watch or listen to. It was such a rich experience because I was not only listening to music, but also learning about the background of the artist, and the time period in which it was written. He gave context to the music that made me listen to it in a different light. Music was a big part of his life and he loved sharing it with people.
The education was not one sided either. He really hadn’t listened to rock music of any sort since the Beatles came out. The Beatles! He knew of the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix, but really didn’t know their music. So as he had a lot to teach me, I had a lot to teach him too!
That’s how our relationship started. We were polite to each other and we both liked music.
After sometime, he started inviting Aya and me over for dinner. During one of these dinners, in a stressed out rage while discussing my job I let out the F word. “Oh, I’m sorry I said that.” Both Joe and his wife, Bev, laughed and said, “Oh it’s okay, we talk like that all the time!” “Eff this, eff that…” Bev interrupted and said, “Eff? Joe, just say f**k!”Â That conversation opened up a whole new door for us.
Over the years we became close. He wasn’t just my neighbor anymore. We were buddies. And although he didn’t have any children and he was almost fifty years older than me, I was not like a son to him. He often referred to me as his “older brother.” And he would threaten that when I turned 30 he was going to drop me. I would joke back, “If that’s all it took I would have told you I turned 30 years ago!”
Then he’d call me a @#&% and a @#&% and then we’d laugh. He’d often joke that he only says nice things about me behind my back, but never to my face. We became each other’s escape. I was his escape from the stress of taking care of his ailing wife, and he was my escape from the stresses of work and then later, taking care of a baby all day. We only had two decisions to make, what to drink and what to listen to.
Not only did we stay in and listen to music, but we’d also go out too. We’d grab dinner and a few drinks and bop around town. We even started a thing called BNO. Boys Night Out. Two of my other friends, Joe, and I would meet up about once a month for a night out. Sometimes we’d porch sit, sometimes we’d go out. Joe and I had even gone to Chicago together a couple of times. But no matter what we did, we laughed a lot.
Lately, we had both needed a lot of listening nights. Me, needing an escape from the house and my dad duties, and him, because his wife had passed away earlier this year. I knew he was down (rightly so) and needed a friend so we’d get together at least once a week. But I got busy and without noticing, a few weeks went by. And that’s why when I heard he was unconscious and in the hospital I was a bit shocked. We had just gone out for burgers and beer a few weeks before. It was even more shocking when after just a few days in the hospital he was transferred to hospice care.
I don’t know much about hospitals and medical conditions, but I do know that hospice is the end of the road. I wanted to visit him, but I was afraid. I almost turned my head and didn’t go, but my friend offered to go with me. I couldn’t believe I was going to visit Joe in hospice. He was not a sick person. What happened?
As I walked down the hallway towards the room he was in, I could hear my heart beating. It was the only sound I could hear. When I saw him, I didn’t know what to say. He was unconscious but his eyes were open. I was sad, I was afraid, and I was angry. I left after five minutes.
When I got home I kept thinking about him and the events. I didn’t want our relationship to end, and I didn’t want it to end like this. I went back that night and stayed for over an hour just talking about whatever random thing I could muster up. Mainly what was new with Ellie and what I had cooked. (Food was another subject we frequently talked about).
The next night, I went back again and decided to bring music. If we couldn’t talk, at least we could have a listening night. I tried to cover all of his favorites, Mozart, Peggy Lee, Barbara Cook, Dinah Shore, and Renata Tebaldi. When I left the hospice center Friday night, I felt like it was going to be the last time I saw Joe. I couldn’t bring myself to say good bye though. I played the last song we would listen to together, O Mio Babbino Caro sung by Renata Tebaldi, who as Joe said, “Has a voice of an angel.” I told him I would see him again and walked out.
Saturday night, Aya and I went out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. Naturally, with the recent events, Joe was heavy on our minds. We started sharing funny stories and the fun we had with him. And then about halfway through the meal, my heart fell into my stomach. It felt weird going out to dinner when I knew where he was. And then I suddenly remembered a conversation I had with Joe. “If you could choose your last meal, what would it be?” we had asked each other. We both agreed a buffet would be required, but I remember he said salmon had to be on the menu. I happened to order salmon that night.
Joe passed away that night sometime during our dinner. I didn’t realize it until later, but we were out to a very late dinner (which Aya and I never do, but Joe and I did all the time), at a place Joe loved and we had been together many times, and I got the salmon. These were all things Joe loved. I had had his last meal for him.
Even though I knew it was coming, it still feels unexpected. I still can’t believe just a month ago we were out for burgers and beer. How can this happen so fast when he had no illnesses? I know he was crushed when his wife died, and I really believe he died from a broken heart.
Joe had a huge heart and was one of the most generous people I knew. He was a teacher, a mentor, a loving husband, a great neighbor, an amazing cook, a quirky, crazy, larger than life, music and arts loving, cat adoring, foul mouth, bar hopping, big hugging, spit talking, kind, giving, charming, and loving guy. And he was my friend.
I’ll miss you Joe. I love you like a brother, you @#$%ing @#%*#.
Every time I sit down to listen to music, I know you’ll be right there with me.