The first time I came to the place Joey was born and raised in was in April of 2002. It was my first trip with Joey to her hometown and to meet her family. It's also the weekend that we got engaged.We had been dating for two months. But when you know... you know. And so what is there to wait for.
We unloaded our bags and made our way into the small white farmhouse Joey that grew up in - Joey, Heidi, Hopie and I. It was like something straight out of a movie. The house and setting was almost too sweet and beautiful to be real. Fifteen minutes later, sitting beside Joey's mother upstairs in a wooden rocking chair, we told June that we were in love and what our hopes for the future were. Over that weekend, there was a big family dinner where I met all of her sisters and some aunts and uncles. There was a walk through the barn where she raised her sheep and brushed her horse and a drive through downtown Alexandria, Indiana. She showed me where she went to high school, where she worked her first job and outside of town in a small cemetery... she showed me where her brother Justin was buried. Her brother's passing at seventeen was the hardest thing their family ever went through. It was clear to see that there was pieces of their hearts scattered all over that town.
Late in the evening that first day we were there, we drove to a small apartment in town, where Joey's father Jack lived. Justin's passing had been hardest on her parents I think. They were now divorced and Jack carried the weight of his son's passing on his shoulders, like the tattoo of his name that was now on his wrist. Jack drove out and visited his son's grave almost every day with a football in his hand.
This wasn't just a cordial visit though... Joey and I were there for a reason. I was there to ask Jack for permission to marry his daughter. I think the question caught him off guard to say the least. He was worried about losing another child and I couldn't blame him. But I promised to love and honor her and reluctantly I think... he gave us his blessing. I didn't have to ask her daddy for permission. It was 2002 for goodness sake. But I wanted to. I wanted to do the right thing in every way. I still do.
A few hours later, back at her mama's farmhouse, I took Joey's hand and we walked west through the dark, down the little lane that they live on. We stopped about a quarter-mile away, right in front of the white cross on the side of the road where Justin had been killed. I knew that spot meant a lot to her. She had told me all about it. Many times. It's where her and her mama were the first ones to the scene and where she had knelt over her brother praying for him, minutes after the accident that took his life. I wanted to change that moment for her... to try to make it better. To turn that place into a beautiful beginning instead of a heartbreaking ending.
So there we were, in the spot where her she felt her greatest pain. But this time I was the one who knelt, and I asked Joey to marry me. And we both cried. And together we prayed that God might take our broken hearts and our broken pasts and make something truly beautiful of them.
And He has. A million times over, He has.
We have made a hundred trips back to Indiana since then. But none have been more special to me than the one we took this past Sunday. We took one final tour-bus ride home. To Joey's town. To grieve with and celebrate with the people in her community. And to lift up one of their own with tears and joy and songs and speeches.
In the Alexandria High School gymnasium - the same place where Joey had played basketball and volleyball and cheered for her home team - a few thousand people gathered together in her honor. But this time, the cheers were all for her.
A few minutes before, as Indy was still napping, I sat in the back hallway of the bus and did my best to come up with a few words to say... to thank this town and to lift up my beautiful bride and this community.
Bill and Gloria Gaither hosted the celebration and they and a number of family and friends came up one by one to speak. Joey's mother and father sang a hymn and shared a few words from their hearts. Her sister Jody talked about being by our side as Joey's caregiver for the last few months and how Joey has impacted her as a woman and mother. And hometown-hero Carl Erskine, who pitched for the Dodgers in 40's and 50's played his harmonica and shared wisdom about raising a child with Down Syndrome with me. Joey's high school coach Mr Howell even gave me a letter jacket from the high school with Joey's name on it. An honor that is especially meaningful to a man who's favorite movie is 'Hoosiers' and never lived in one town long enough to play sports or get the chance to try to earn one on his own.
After I spoke, Indy and I stood and watched a video honoring her mama. It was hard and beautiful to watch at the same time.
I've been told that most of the speeches have already been posted online from folks with cameras or iPhones, but Breanna and Doug from the Gaither offices put together a small video that shows a good bit of the celebration that they were kind enough to share with me, so I could share it with you.
The whole day was so special. Thank you to everyone who was there and to everyone who wished they could be there with us. Like me, I know my wife would've found a way to see the beauty in this sad day.
I would also like to thank the wonderful town of Alexandria, Indiana. Joey's town. My town.
A place that might have seen it's better days, but is striving to make it's best days yet to come. A place where factories have closed their doors and jobs are scarce... where it's values and faith are being challenged at every turn... but it still somehow knows what is most important and shows it to it's children and to strangers that come to visit, like me.
I never paid for a piece of pizza while we were there the past five months. Or an oil change. Or hardly even a meal at a restaurant. I've been hugged by cashiers at Home Depot and had people cry in my arms in the produce aisle of the grocery store. I've had waitresses pray with me in restaurants and neighbors drop off home cooked meals day-and-night to the house we were staying in. Someone even saw that in one of my posts there was a Nestle water bottle sitting by Joey's nightstand and a day later an employee from that company dropped of two dozen cases of water in our garage...and they kept bringing more cases. Right to the very end. People just want to help. They feel your hurt and want to share your pain. They made something hard, a little easier.
And it never stops... even now that we're at home. The love keeps coming. Literally as I am sitting here finishing this post at a breakfast restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee... I have had a dozen people stop by my table to hug me, tell me they're praying for my family and or just say they love me and Joey and Indy. And none of them are people that I've ever met before. The waiter just came to the table to refill my coffee and said, "...someone has picked up your check today". And then he said, "they asked me to give this to note to you..."
Sometimes I think the internet is a big scary place. A place where only dark things happen and the worst in people and life get lifted up. But I don't think that way anymore. I think the internet is also a place where people can come together and share their hopes and their fears. A great big beautiful community of strangers... struggling, hurting, celebrating and needing each other. A great big, small town.