I am returning from Texas, having taken an unexpected trip to attend the funeral of a lifelong friend. Joseph Patrick Ginnane – Joe, to everyone who knew him – died last Friday after a short illness. He was 43.
Joe was my first boyfriend and my first kiss (during a game of spin the bottle at Amy Patrick’s Christmas party, no less), but that was a momentary distraction of early adolescence (a 2 week romance, maybe?). We were friends, and throughout middle and high school, Joe was one of my closest and dearest companions. It was a friendship that started early – when I came to Waco and St. Louis Catholic School, Joe welcomed this “outsider” into the tight-knit group that had mostly been in school together since kindergarten.
By eighth grade, Joe and I were fast friends. After our parents would go to sleep, we would call each other and watch David Letterman together. Letterman was still new – and on NBC – and doing things like putting on Velcro suits or debuting stupid pet tricks. We would watch and laugh together, then talk about it the next day. We did that for years and for so many shows, especially with Cheers¸ which came on the air our 7th grade year and which we both loved. And Monty Python re-runs….good lord we watched Monty Python movies countless times….and then we’d watch them again…
When my younger brother Matthew was born before our freshman year, Joe was like an uncle to him. Joe was regularly at the house, and he would pick up Matthew and spin, saying, “Whoopee” as he spun the giggling baby in a circle. He did it so often that Matthew called him “Whoopee,” and to this day, when we’re telling stories or catching on people in town and Joe’s name comes up, we all call him “Whoopee” when Matthew is in the room.
Anyone who met Joe immediately knew that he had a gift in making people laugh. Joe was side-splittingly funny. He did impressions of slow-talking, Texas-drawling Coach Smith that would have landed him in detention – except Coach Smith was never quite sure who Joe was talking about (Coach Smith, who would pump gas with a cigarette in his hand, telling the football players riding in the back of his pickup, “Boys, hope y’all went to Mass this morning….”). His imitations of our slightly batty, wholly eccentric biology teacher Mrs. Van Zandt would have us holding our sides as he mocked her instructions for dissection, wagging his finger just as she would do (Once, Joe was mimicking her at the front of the class when she walked in behind him….we all reacted in horror, ready for her wrath, but even she had to giggle and let it go). And his unrelenting – and deadly accurate – rendition of Senora White’s southern-twang slaughtering of the Spanish language was nothing short of hysterical.
What made Joe funny was not just his quick wit – his one-liners were legendary – but his ability to extract the essence of people and amplify it. It’s what made him so fabulous on stage, where he loved to be more than anywhere. Joe knew early on that he loved the theater, and he spent his life acting and directing across the country before coming back to Waco several years ago.
Joe stayed in Texas for college, and through the years since then, as we both moved around the country, we stayed in touch more – or less, at times – through our parents or mutual friends or the rare catch-up back in Waco. With Facebook, we had reconnected, and it was wonderful to be able to get a glimpse into the life that he had built around his love of the theater.
I was at Disneyland last week when the phone rang. I looked at the caller ID, and it was not-often-heard-from friend from high school. I assumed it was a pocket dial, and ignored it. But when the voice mail notification sounded, and then the text message followed, I knew something was wrong. In listening to my friend Scott’s message, my heart sank. Joe was in the hospital, and it was serious. Two days later, the terrible news came early in the morning. I mentioned it to Aaron, thought about the pain that Joe’s family must be going through, and texted back a request to let me know about arrangements.
The morning was hectic – any morning with small children and working parents is – but as I sat at work, I kept coming back to my friendship with Joe and how much it meant to me growing up, how central he was in my life for so many years, and how so many of my good memories were simply because of him. I was blessed – I went to a small school with wonderful families that provided a supportive, loving community in which we could begin our fits-and-starts transition to adulthood. We were close – there were only 35 or so of us in the graduating class. And as would be expected, at different times during those years I was closer (or not) to several friends.
But Joe was a constant throughout all of those years – whether as my lab partner (once we killed a goldfish whose respiration we were supposed to be timing, so we slipped the dead one in the aquarium and grabbed a new one while the aforementioned Mrs. Van Zandt wasn’t watching. We got an A.), in band (Joe played sax), on shows (him on stage, me on set or lights or something for the untalented), on dates (he went on many of them, and Joe pretty much had to approve of any potential suitor or it was doomed more quickly than your usual high school romance), or even letting me join him and Amanda at senior prom after my date was sadly in a car wreck the night before.
By the end of the day, I had decided I really needed to go to Texas and say good-bye. Aaron kindly agreed to watch the kids, and I flew down Sunday morning.
The services were beautiful, the community supportive of the grieving but wonderful Ginnane family, the stories of Joe familiar and funny and heartening. I watched his large family, thinking that no one should have to bury a son or a sibling, sometimes laughing through tears as they celebrated his wonderful life with the faculty, actors, students and friends that knew him. I marveled at the strength of his parents.
Seeing him at the visitation, and standing at his graveside, was simply, and overwhelmingly, sad. I struggled with a whole range of emotions – regret for not having stayed in closer touch over the years; nostalgia for what was a mostly idyllic adolescence; a musing over whether a simpler, slower life in Waco would be better for my own family; and the startling, harsh recognition of the mortality we all face. I struggled to keep my composure, but cried more than I expected and lingered at the cemetery. I probably hugged his mother one time too many, not knowing what to say.
I have mostly lived my life in decades – 10 in Tennessee, 10 in Texas, and (roughly) so on through Smith, DC and now Seattle. Those experiences have been so different, and in each, a small handful of people stand out – and stayed around – as having been formative during those periods. Joe was one of them.
I’ve been luckier than I deserve – I’ve been able to see a lot of this earth and lived in some marvelous places. But I think any of us that move away from home struggle, at least a little if we’re honest, about why we did so. As I talked to those that still live in Texas, I had to wonder how the opportunities I’ve had stacked up against the stability of being closer to family and to my roots. Friends who have grown up together, gotten married and have kids, and now whose children are friends or play football or go to camp together…there’s a certain beauty and peace in that.
And while I do not regret the path I have taken and am eternally grateful for the friends I have made, kept, and in some cases, even lost, standing at the grave of a childhood friend forces a certain reflection. Burying Joe made me realize that there is one less person in this world that I loved, that helped me become who I am, grounded and shaped me, shared those difficult teenage years, and made me laugh more than anyone I have ever known.
And that is what I think was most difficult – that terrible sense of loss, knowing that the memories I have of him are the only ones I will ever have. There will be no more new ones. With time, the focus will shift to celebrating those, not lamenting their distance and paucity. But there’s one less shining star in the world today, and one less friend to a remarkable number of grieving folks. It makes me mad that he was taken, frustrated at the finality of it, and deeply sad.
Rest in peace, my friend. You will help me remember the dash.