Friday, July 31, 2009

These Few Words are Enough

Joe HoltJoe had been sick for a long time. His multiple myeloma had already required one bone marrow transplant and several rounds of chemotherapy. Eventually, doctors took the plans for a second transplant off the table because he just wasn't strong enough to undergo the procedure.

Although Emily and I wouldn't have described ourselves as part of Joe's inner circle, we were among those who kept up with how he was doing, visiting him during his many hospital stays, checking if he needed assistance getting to his appointments, bringing him the occasional 4-pack of bottled root beer -- one of the few things he'd ever taken us up on when we asked if he wanted anything. Emily in particular was great about calling and texting him -- she always had a sense of when he might need help. More than once, she'd call his cell phone and if he didn't answer, she'd hang up, call the UCSF hospital, and find him there.

We knew Joe from the bisexual community here in San Francisco. We first met at the weekly bi brunch that happened for years. Even when he was a more occasional visitor -- putting in a special guest star appearance, as I liked to say -- he was as friendly and personable as ever. He had a naturally cheerful demeanor, and even his sarcasm came with a playful smile. He could also be counted on as a dapper figure in the bi contingent in the Pride Parade, sporting a porkpie or fedora on his clean-shaven head. His grounded presence and genuine curiosity about the people around him always made me glad to spend time with him.

Joe was also extraordinarily generous with his time and resources. Until he got too ill, he hosted and moderated the listserv for the Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN). These chat and event email lists are a major way that bi folks in the Bay Area find community online -- and frequently offline as well. Countless people have shared stories of feeling like the bi community was the first place they'd felt at home and how grateful they were to have found the chat list. It was a thankless task, but it was a way Joe felt he could contribute and so he did. (Happily, many folks on the BABN list did recognize his role and thank him over the years.) Joe was also a generous donor, quietly sharing his support with different causes.

Thankfully, before he died Joe was well enough to make the trip back to Indiana to be with his family, as he'd wanted. He got to see his mom, who had also been ill, as well as meet his new two and a half month-old nephew named Luke Joseph in his honor. He was an incredibly sweet, warm, humble, giving, good-hearted man who made a difference in the world -- can any of us hope for more? I feel honored to have called him my friend.

~ ~ ~

Gentle slip to sleep
Skin tightly fit over skull –
Still the bamboo grows

As Joe's time wound down, I was shocked to realize that despite my sense of not being a close friend, I was still probably closer to him than many others in San Francisco. Certainly, he had good friends like Jon and Jack around, and most likely others I don't know about. At the same time, a theme emerged over and over in talking with people or in messages sent to the BABN list: "Even though I didn't know Joe very well, he always seemed like a great guy, and I always appreciated everything he did for the bi community." I know he was tight with his family, but his circle of friends seemed inexplicably small.

This was difficult to get my head around. Why did so few people feel connected enough to this universally liked man to visit him in the hospital? Nearly a decade ago, when my roommate Laura was dying, we had a list of volunteers alone with at least 40 names on it. Did Laura just share more about the seriousness of her cancer? Joe was no less kind or deserving of support. I do know he never wanted to be a bother, even when friends were eager to help. Emily and I made sure to call him regularly in the hope that an active offer of assistance might minimize his sense of imposing.

Even in the week before Joe died, the only reason we knew how sick he'd become was that Jon stopped by his hospital room. Joe had assured him over the phone that he was "fine," but Jon felt something was up. After one look at him in person, Jon sent out word that people needed to come say their goodbyes.

I was at work when Emily called me about Jon's message. At that point, I didn't know whether Joe's remaining time would be measured in hours or days, so the 30 minutes it took me to wrap up some critical loose ends was agonizingly slow.

As soon as I walked into Joe's room, I knew he wouldn't recover. He was asleep with eyes half open, his chest seeming to climb boulders just to rise and fall, his upper lip pulling back over his teeth, and the contours of his skull far too apparent beneath a thin layer of skin. I'd seen that look before: when my Aunt June was dying in hospice and when I found our cat Jonathan already wearing death's grimace. Given that Joe was still able to be alert and talk, I expected he'd live several more days, but I knew the arrow wouldn't shift direction this time.

So we sat and chatted with him, talked with his cousin about training guide dogs, and made our way to the solarium when Joe wanted some time alone. Later, we'd compare notes with Jack and Jon, entertain our niece while her parents visited inside the hospital room, and coordinate with another friend trekking in from the North Bay to say goodbye. The next day, Joe's dad would fly in from Indiana and start to figure out how to get him from a hospital bed in San Francisco to their living room in Terre Haute. Three days later they'd get on a plane. Five days after that, on July 9, 2009, Joe Dale Holt died peacefully, with his brother by his side. He was 47.

~ ~ ~

These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
~ from "Enough" by David Whyte

I've been processing Joe's death for a little while now, alternating between an image of his withered body lying in the hospital bed and another of him smiling and laughing at brunch.

The last time I saw Joe, the day before he left for Indiana, there was no opening to say goodbye in any meaningful way. I had to learn to respect his process, which did not include delving into the serious issues of life and death (at least, not with me or Emily). I was prepared to dive as deeply as he needed to go -- I pictured myself decked out in scuba gear, fully charged air tank strapped to my back -- but he remained closer to the surface. And since what I really wanted was to be present with him and for him, I stayed near the surface, too. I had to trust that my presence was enough. His last words to me? "Have a good rest of your day." Mine to him? "Safe travels."

In trying to make sense of this loss, and the void where I expected more people to be, I realized that Joe was just more reserved and private than I usually associate with such genuine friendliness. Given that he lived in San Francisco for 20 years, he must have found a measure of satisfaction in the life he'd built here. And he had to have wanted to keep that inner circle small because as far as I can tell, everyone who met Joe truly liked him. It's just that few of us had the privilege of knowing him well.

In that hospital room, my questions about why there weren't more people around had nothing to do with Joe. They grew out of the sadness and confusion I'd feel, because I want to make a different choice for myself. I want the people around me to know me. I want to share my whole self -- the thoughts and emotions and creativity and goofiness and insights that combine to become me. I want to draw people near and be present enough to know them, too. I've been doing this, but now I understand how committed I am to building that life.

I'd wanted to send Joe a card with the things I didn't get to say in person -- my gratitude to have known him, what a warm and giving person he was. I thought he might be better able to take in the words without me standing there. Ultimately, I didn't want to leave anything unsaid for my own sake, so I let go of any attachment to the exact form this deeper goodbye took. But the text I put together seemed stunted. I didn't have his family's address. I thought perhaps I'd send an email. And then Joe died before I could do any of it.

So the form has adapted once again. I drafted this tribute to him in a coffee shop eight storeys below his condo. I'm sharing the facets of him I did have the chance to see and honoring his considerable generosity. Most of all, these few words are a way to thank him for helping me clarify the life and death I hope for myself by allowing me to witness his.

Whatever the closeness between us, his friendship has given me the profound gift of drawing me closer to me.

Please join me in making a gift in memory of Joe Holt to one of these organizations:

Bay Area Bisexual Network
Attn: Joe Holt Fund
1800 Market Street, PMB #101
San Francisco, CA 94102

Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation

American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California

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Anonymous Jack Random said...


I knew Joe for over 10 years. I talked with him at bi brunch, sat with him at meetings, had sex with him at the old Blacksheets and Queen of Heaven play parties.

Yes, I was a little surprised to find out that I was as close to Joe as anybody, but not that surprised. I understand his need to be independent. Not everyone is built the same way when it comes to intimacy and friendship. Not all of us need the same things, and that, I think, is a good thing.

I am just deeply grateful to have known Joe at to be able to be there for him when he needed us.

I am also deeply grateful for your words. This is beautifully written and says everything I've been feeling about Joe for the last few weeks.

Thank you.

6:56 AM  
Blogger shelli said...

These words are so beautiful Lindasusan. I don't know what else to say, honestly. I miss Joe. I too am vacillating between the image of him on his hospital bed and the image of him smiling and being his friendly, funny Joe self. I prefer the smiling one and I think that's the way Joe would have it. Mostly, I think his caring and concern for others never stopped - he didn't want to impose and he didn't want to bring anyone down.

And Jack, while I never played with Joe I will miss seeing his beautiful bod.

Beautiful word Linda.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Thomas Leavitt said...


8:21 AM  

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