I begin to cry. Because a young man's life is extiguished. And because I read these words on the morning of the 10th anniversary of Joey's death.
That moment--the one upon which you learn that someone you know has died--can arrest all of your senses. I find that I gasp, and I don't hear anything for a few seconds. I can't quite see. And although I didn't know Niall well, I did meet him. And he was only 26.
Thinking back to the day of Joey's death, I woke up crying. Because I knew that something was horribly, terribly wrong. The days preceding his death were a warpath of sorts for him, so this is not some oblique intuitive signaling that I am recounting as I write this post. The night prior, I received a phone call from him--one that I let roll into my voice mail system. The last call where I would have spoken to him. He started to dial my phone as he walked away from my backyard, having come to see if I was dutifully sitting on the sofa watching Saturday Night Live, one of our favorite rituals. I was. Winnona Ryder was the guest star. That's all I can remember of the episode. What I can vividly remember is re-playing his message a dozen times before I made the ill-fated decision to hit delete. He told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I looked sitting on the sofa, and how sorry he was he couldn't stay sober and sit beside me to watch our show.
I've yet to sit through an entire episode of SNL since. Just like I can't watch professional golf without getting a lump in my throat. Still.
Joey's death profoundly changed my life. It called into question every fiber of faith that I had at that time. I learned who in my world were friends for eternity, and who needed to be weeded out of the garden. Oddly, I lost my sensibility about people--one that I've prided myself on for years. It's like my radar shut down, and to be honest I'm not sure that it's fully restored. That sensibility is one that used to help me navigate many situations and size up the trust factor with newcomers into my life, and one that I've sorely needed upon occasion in these 10 years. He was even more critical about people than I was back then--critical in the best way: who could be trusted, and who had not yet passed the test. I desperately miss his guidance in that department.
The journey into the grief state was one that I can't quite describe, no matter how many times I try. I can only be sure that someone comprehends my words when they too have suffered a loss. It's a paradox of feeling everything and feeling nothing. And it doesn't go away in days or weeks or months--not when the loss is overwhelming to the grieving. To this day I can, and do, tear up when I regale someone with a story about Joey, but it's not a given. I can just as easily laugh and keep a smile on my face: because he loved it when I smiled and hated it when I cried. So I do try to pay tribute to him in some fashion, however seemingly insignificant, when invoking his memory.
There is no way for me to truly give homage to Joey through one post, authored and published on May 19, 2012. I'll share the song he was singing to me frequently before his death: The Promise, by When In Rome. Some lyrics:
I'm sorry but I'm just trying to think of the right words to say,
I know they won't sound the way I planned them to be,
But if I had to walk the world and make you fall for me,
I promise you, I promise you, I will...
You didn't have to walk the world, or leave the world, for me to fall for you, Joey Vennari. I loved you the day I set my eyes on your beautiful blue eyes in the Red Star in Fells Point (Baltimore, Maryland). Ours was a walk that can't be summed up through one awkward attempt...it wasn't a perfect 8 year period. I fell down often, and made many mistakes. I do believe that through the addictions that had you so firmly in their grip, you loved your family and your close friends so deeply that we still feel the impact of your love and your loss in ways that again, can't quite be described. You left an indelible mark on the hearts of so many. On a day like today, people will tell me they remember your laugh, your sense of humor and impeccable comic timing, your easy sense of self. The fact that you were cool, period. There's not a friend from the Howard County area that can look back on time spent with you as anything other than fun.
Someone told me, a few weeks after his death, that I would receive gifts out of this loss. I had no idea what she was saying at the time. I know now that it's about harvesting the good intentions, the good times, the messages within the memories. And looking around at what is left standing. Joey left behind a bevy of close friends who have continued to stay by my side. They do not remain my friends out of any sort of obligation to Joey, but it sure is a nice common ground to have: people who know--not remember but know--how special he really was, without an explanation, without prompting. It has provided comfort to me at times when the force of reality Joey's not here has overtaken me. I see these gifts, and I am truly grateful.
Today is a stark reminder that life is too short. It really is. Say what you mean, say it clearly. Don't worry about what mistake you might make. Because you don't want that mistake to be missing the last phone call or not opening the door when someone is reaching to you for what is the final opportunity to say or show what is really in your heart. These are my biggest regrets, ones that no one--not anyone--can erase for me.
George McGovern writes of his grief over the loss of his daughter, Terry, to alcoholism. She slipped and fell in an icy parking lot, and froze to death after an in and out of rehab spin of 30 days. I'm paraphrasing but he said something like, "I regret that she laid there, freezing to death, wondering if I loved her". Those words came back to me as the details of Joey's last hours were being pieced together. "Did he lay on that bed wondering if I loved him?" He had made several additional unsuccessful attempts to reach me by phone. I'll never really know, but my heart believes that while his mind, riddled with drugs and alcohol at the time of his passing, may have questioned it--in every other cell of his body and his soul, he knew and still knows how much I love him. And I always will.
I try now to answer the calls, reply to the messages that I receive immediately. I knew we were on the precipice on May 18th, I just didn't know that May 19th was going to be the final act. And I don't want to suffer that regret twice.
There's so much more to say. Niall, I am sorry we lost you so quickly. I'm sorry to your family and your friends who will never "get over" your death. I hope that, even though you and Joey never knew each other on this plane--you will meet in heaven. Profoundly, truly sorry, dear young man.
I know that Joey is the angel who greets those who cross. I know when I make the march, he will be the first one there to take my hand (whatever that really means in the spiritual world). Until then Joey, I have things to take care of on this side. I miss you and I do something in your honor each and every day. Some days I have more success than others. You'd be so proud of the feline lives I've helped save and the kitties who live in my care. The friendships I've sustained...I wish you could be here to share all of this with me. Then again, I suppose you are...
With love and gratitude.