One of my heroes died last Thursday evening. My cousin Joe. I am profoundly sad, and a bit angry, but mostly I am proud of him. I am proud of him for the way he lived his life, and for the way he died.
If eulogy leaves you maudlin, or if you think sentiment cheap, tune out now.
Joe's dad and my dad were brothers. Two of five brothers and three sisters children of Italian immigrants. Though seven years separated them, they shared the same birthday. Each lived only 67 years. They died 7 years apart. Joseph is his father's eldest son. His death on Thursday night came about seven years after my dad's. Each of these three men worked in fields where they were constantly exposed to toxins, especially asbestos.
In High School he was a state champion hurdler, and married his High School sweetheart (his next door neighbor) basically right out of High School. They have been married for 30 years. It is impossible to think of Coleen without thinking of Joe. Even as young people, these two were wise beyond their years. The one thing you could say about them is that they were not selfish. As their young marriage went on, they were thrust into situations that were difficult.
They helped care for Coleen’s dad and sister after her mom passed away. They cared for my uncle and aunt as they too contracted Cancer and died difficult deaths. They adapted to be there for others.
Joe was supportive of everyone’s endeavors. Whether you were trying to be an athlete, or were an artist or wanted to be a professional, Joe urged you on. In my own life, I wanted to be like him and my other cousins. I wanted to be as athletic as they were. Alas, Music and schoolwork was my forte. One day when I was still in High School, I was bemoaning the fact that I was just not very good at sports, Joseph took me aside. He knew I wanted to be a lawyer. He told me that while sports were a great thing, I should be proud of what I was good at. That someday, I would be able to do things that the athletes in the family would never be able to do. That I would help many people through my efforts to be a lawyer, and that they would be as in awe of me, as I was of them. I don’t know that I accomplished exactly what he had in mind, yet, but I strive to everyday. He was that kind of a motivator.
In 1983, Joe became a fireman in part at the urging of his friend Battalion Chief Brian Hickey NYFD dec. 9-11-01. Brian and Joey were friends forever. They worked together and Brian convinced Joe to take the fireman's exam. On 9-11-01, Joe was ordered to Shea Stadium to help organize the men there who would relieve the firemen at Ground Zero. It was a tough assignment for him. He wanted to be downtown where the action was. Where his son Brian was, where his friend Brian Hickey was.
When the towers came down, My heart was in my mouth. I knew how many firemen were there and I was sure either Brian or Joseph was there. Fortunately for us they weren't there. Unfortunately, then Captain Hickey was there. After serving his tour at Shea, Joe volunteered at ground zero on his days off. He had to search for his friend and golfing partner, Brian Hickey. Until the day he died, Joe missed Brian, and many of the other men who he had worked beside. Many have mentioned that if Heaven has a golf course on it, Joe and Brian are with Mr. Kelly and Coleen’s brother Frank teeing it up and enjoying the game. I guess my anger comes wondering what effect the work Joe did at Ground Zero effected the brain cancer that took him
I was amazed to see how many boys who played ball for Joe and Brian became firefighters. These two were a recruiting poster for the NYFD. One way to judge a man is by the mark he makes on others. Joseph certainly made a mark on these young men. These boys, now young firemen, were at the wake in droves, as were all the kids Joe had touched in life. Through the entire 2 year ordeal they have been there supporting the family, helping where they could. They are a tribute to their coach and mentor.
Joe's was a life well lived. He has 2 beautiful daughters and two handsome sons. Brian, the eldest, followed in his dad's boots, and is a NYFD firefighter. Brian married his high school sweetheart and they gave Joseph his pride a joy for the last 10 months, a granddaughter, Saige. They have another on the way.
I think Kevin, a sophomore in College, will be an all American lacrosse player. He is studying to be a dentist. Diana is going to be a teacher when she graduates college soon, and Melissa is a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Joe coached each child, in soccer or football or lacrosse or some other sport. They carry with them his steely determination and love for life.
Joe gave back to his hometown. Raised in Bethpage NY, Joe and his brothers excelled in Track and Field. Joe was a state finalist in the hurdles. By the time his son Brian hit high school, Joseph was active in the Bethpage Dad's club. He became President of the club and raised thousands of dollars to offset the extra costs of being a high school athlete. In a blue collar neighborhood like Bethpage, those extras can mean the difference between a kid playing ball, or never having the chance. Joe and those he worked with, made a difference, and they had a good time doing it. They helped obtain defibrulators and bought batting cages. Mostly they taught the kids they helped to have pride in their hometown and to give back to it.
Joe was Mr. Bethpage. He knew everyone and they knew him. He either coached them or went to High school with them, or worked with them in the Dad’s club. He helped them in a snow storm, or saved them from a burning building. Bethpage came to the wake by the hundreds. The wake was a tribute to a man who understood what it meant to be a neighbor, a friend, a Father, a husband, a man.
About two years ago, I was laying in a hospital in NYC, I had had surgery the day before, but I started bleeding, and had to undergo a second surgery. Unbeknownst to me, Joseph had taken a seizure earlier that day. The next morning I learned that we were in the same hospital, a floor apart. Joe had a deadly form of Brain cancer. The doctors had gone in and removed the tumor. Even so the survival rate was low. Because Joe was in such good shape they expected him to do as well as anyone. We spent Easter in the hospital together. It was one of the best Easter's I have ever had. Our families were together, and supported each other. Joe's firemen friends were there too. They helped to lighten the mood, as only those who regularly face death can do. I will never forget that week.
Thereafter, life changed for Joe. It was a regular routine of doctors and medicine. I never heard him complain about it. I never heard him whine about the unfairness of it. I only saw him work hard as he always did to beat his new foe. For over a year Joe was doing well. He even thought about returning to the FDNY on light duty. Then the cancer reappeared. Though he put up a valiant fight, Cancer won this time. Joe died at home, among his family, where he belonged.
As we prepare to bury Joseph today, at 10:45AM, we bury only a body, a carcass. The man’s spirit will never be buried. All that knew him and loved him, will carry that spirit forever. After today, we will be finding out how we will live without him. It will not be an easy task, he has set the bar high. No matter what, we will never forget him.
Rest in Peace Joe, we’ll get together again someday.