I’ve written about Joe before. We go back about a dozen years, or so. Joe had leukemia and wanted his birth family to get tested to see if they might be matches and could potentially provide him with life-saving marrow. They refused. That’s how we got to know each other. His story appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, my talk show producer Peggy and I were bowled over by it and we gave him a call. The rest is history.
Soon after we had Joe on the air the first time, it became clear that something had to be done. Peggy and I rallied local businesses and our company and organized a national press conference to be held on his birth father’s front lawn. I drove and off we went, me and Joe, in a radio station van with a stipend to buy our meals with and donations of everything we needed. All of the national media attended and covered Joe’s address. I vividly remember sitting in the van before he went out to say a few words. Joe was understandably nervous but resolute. “This is why we’re here”, he said. As we walked to his birth father’s postage stamp of a lawn, neighbours who had heard media coverage of our pending arrival shouted, “You go Joe” and “We’re with you Joe!”
We arrived in the city to phone calls and telegrams from Joe’s birth father’s daughters, outraged at our audacity to harass them in this way! All we wanted was a simple blood test. We wanted to GIVE them the opportunity to save someone’s life, someone their father created long before he met their Mother. Their refusal was not only inexplicable, they actually said things like, “How could you DO this to us?” Joe’s birth father refused to allow his adult daughters to get tested because Joe was born before he had created his proper, Catholic family and therefore, in his stated view, did not count. I’ll never get used to people manipulating religion for their own twisted reasons. After the experience of dealing with these people, Joe and I were like soldiers who had been in a foxhole together. No one else had the exact experience that we shared and it cemented our friendship. We went shopping that weekend to shake off nerves and kill some time and Joe sat outside a mall store where I tried on clothes and gave me, a virtual stranger, thumbs up or down on what I was trying on! The memory of it makes me smile. It was a strong bond. Even if we didn’t talk for a year, which happened a couple of times, we picked right up and carried the friendship on.
Joe loved chocolate covered almonds – my achilles heel in the snack world too! I used to take him a bag whenever I visited until it became apparent that eating them was a problem for him. Joe had brushes with death several times. He had arranged his own funeral early on, to save everyone the trouble. He was an emotional man and by that I mean if he loved you, he told you, regularly, easily and without any embarrassment. He was a hugger and liked to give a big smooch on the cheek. He exuded warmth.
When Joe was diagnosed, he had been given 6 months to live which is why he was a “miracle man” in so many peoples’ eyes. When he called last month to tell me he had been told he had just days to live a little part of me hoped that it was another false alarm. But when Peggy and I saw him in his hospital bed at McMaster, I knew it wasn’t. They had taken him off the drugs he’d been on for so long and he was jacked up on painkillers. He promised he wouldn’t be a hero and that he’d ask for medication when he needed it. He lay there, at the end of his life, simply grateful for the time he had and the people who cared about him. I sat on the bed and I told him, “I can’t imagine a world without you in it” and he said, “Oh sweetie, just be happy for the time we had – and the fact that we became friends. I am so glad to have known you!” Grateful. He saw his life like it was a gift and wouldn’t let anyone say otherwise. He was comforting me instead of the other way around.
For the first few years after his diagnosis, Joe was a fixture at bone marrow information nights. He would talk to people who came to sign up for the blood tests. I went to a few of those nights but Joe went every week, for ages. He symbolized the importance of this one, unselfish act. He just wanted to live! And because of him, many matches were made but sadly, he didn’t get one of his own. But he always said that wasn’t his goal. “The point isn’t Joe Noyes”, he would say. “It’s awareness about the bone marrow donor network.”
When we got back from Montreal, Joe found himself in the midst of a media frenzy. He would call me and ask if I had ever heard of this writer or that TV host. The phone calls and knocks on the door were part of championing the cause, and we expected them to happen, but the attention overwhelmed him. Between the effects of daily chemo, his fluctuating weight and the strain of not working, he only had so much to give. There had to be something left for “Joe”. He called me and said he hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed, but he was going to ignore all further media inquiries. Truthfully, I was a bit disappointed because we had created momentum and I desperately wanted him to find a donor or pressure his birth family to come to their senses. But his immediate health was the first priority and I stood by his decision.
Later, he asked me if I would write a book with him about his life story. I readily agreed and we thought that the best way to go about it was for him to speak into a little recorder and tell me stories, whenever he felt up to it. Then his health took a turn for the worse and he abandoned that project. Sometimes he landed in hospital as doctors scrambled for another way to buy him more time. He was put into two drug trials over the years and tried different types of chemo. One time his feet got so sore that he was almost unable to walk for weeks. We had planned to meet for dinner when a sudden opening with a foot surgeon came up for the very same day. He knew I would understand and want him to take the appointment – of course! Joe had a hundred smaller battles within his big battle against cancer and each of them had to be fought like a little war. He was very strong. But I did see him cry. Sometimes just getting through a day, or a morning, would completely exhaust him. He was just a man, after all, and he truly did have to fight for his life.
Joe died a few days ago. There will be a celebration of his life this coming weekend and it’s being held in a huge banquet hall to accomodate everyone who will want to attend. Sadly, Hamilton MP Domenic Agostino who met us in Montreal and became part of the cause on that Easter weekend long ago, died of liver cancer in 2004. So now only I am left with the memories of that adventure that created a remarkable friendship. RIP Joe. I love you, my friend.