It was another one of those frosty February days we'd like to forget.
Eight years ago today my brother Joe passed away. We had just celebrated his 44th birthday less than a month earlier. He was struck down suddenly by bacterial meningitis and doctors said he had no prospect for recovery.
It was an excruciatingly tough, but unanimous family decision to remove him from life support about two weeks after the illness hit. We knew Joe's love of life and all that it involved - and we knew that he knew it was time for him to go.
We spent the earlier part of that day in 1997 saying goodbye to Joe and gathering up the totems (my jar of colorful feathers collected from my yard) that we brought to bring a little bit of beloved nature to him.
And Joe took the time to say goodbye too, in his own way.
Moments before we received a telephone call from hospital staff that Joe had passed away, odd events were playing out as several family members sat around my sister Kathy's dining room table.
The doorbell at the rarely used front door rang. When someone went to answer it, no one was there. The house was fairly isolated. No one could have rang the bell and fled or hidden so quickly.
Next, the overhead lights dimmed to the point of nearly going out before returning to full strength. Then the phone rang. It was the hospital with the sad, but unsurprising news. My wife Nancy looked at her watch to check the time. Her watch had stopped just minutes earlier - the same time that, we believe, Joe was sending us his goodbye signals.
It's impossible for me to believe that Alexander, who will be 7 in May, had never met his Uncle Joe. I often stop myself from saying to Alex ''remember when Uncle Joe...''
We gave Alex the middle name of Joseph and he's inherited a love of nature and thirst for knowledge that are reminiscent of Joe. I found myself evoking Joe's memory the other day when Alex and I came across what we were told was the second biggest American Sycamore tree in NJ - dating back to 100 years before the Declaration of Independence. Joe had discovered the tallest tree in NJ on one of his many treks all over the state.
As a tribute to Joe, we joined friends in planting a grove of oak, beech and tulip poplars in his beloved Trenton oasis, Cadwalader Park. Many others have been planted around the country and the world.
There's one thing I plan to do on this busy Saturday marking this sad occasion: Hug a tree. For Joe. You do it, too. I guarantee he'll feel it - and you'll feel it back.
(Below is the eulogy I wrote and delivered at Joe's funeral mass)
Let me tell you about my Friend Joe…
I’m proud to call Joe my Brother. I’m even prouder to call him my friend.
As a big brother, Joe taught me – not only some of his favorite tricks – like how to juggle – but so much more.
My heart is bigger from just knowing Joe and feeling his love.
Joe wasn’t just unique. His uniqueness was unique.
Joe wasn’t a rich man, but he was rich in spirit.
He didn’t need a house in the country to appreciate nature. He found peace and harmony and beauty in urban oases.
Joe had such a love, respect and passion for nature from an early age.
Our Mom recalled the other day how Joe, then about 4 years old, was seen playing in the backyard garden.
Asked what he was doing, Joe held up a feather and said he was planting it. He wanted to grow a duck.
Joe truly believed, as naturalist John Muir wrote, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest.”
Joe was a true Renaissance Man – on his own terms.
He took as much pleasure in reading the works of Homer as he did in laughing at the antics of Homer Simpson.
He took as much pleasure from the most mind-numbing puzzles and cross words as from teaching his young nephews the words to a favorite song.
He took as much pleasure in reading the scientific and social works of Buckminster Fuller as in the chirps and companionship of his parakeet, Buckminster Feather, aka Buck.
But Joe took the most pleasure from the environment and in sharing its beauty with others.
I think Joe loved his job as a tree climber for the City of Trenton – proudly called Tree City USA – because it allowed him to serve both man and nature.
Many of us have remarked at some time when we’ve wondered about an unusual bird or leaf – “Let’s ask Joe, he’ll know what it is.’’
Joe, every breeze, every budding flower, every turning leaf and every found feather will continue to bring your spirit to us.
To say Joe was a “do-er” is a faulty understatement.
Joe wasn’t an armchair activist – and not just because he didn’t own an armchair.
His attendance record at public meetings on key environmental issues was nearly better than that of the government decision-makers themselves.
Joe was a tree-hugger and proud of it – but he was also a tree-planter – and a defender and supporter of the Earth, God’s gift to all of us.
Joe didn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer. He walked on stilts to it.
Whether with myself and our friends in the Mushroom Players, in the Clark Kent Troupe, or with scores of colleagues in Del-Aware, Joe was a tireless campaigner for the causes he believed in.
A lover of puns – the worse the better – Joe would say he wasn’t only a Mushroom Player – he was a fun guy, too!
In guerrilla-theater activism, Joe strapped on stilts and a pig nose and protested against the corporate swine responsible for the Valdez oil spill.
Dressed as George Washington and followed by loyal legions, Joe waded across the shallow Delaware River to show how callous corporate decisions were threatening the shad who liver there.
And in an incredibly generous, spiritual undertaking 15 years ago, Joe and a friend gave up all their possessions and walked 2,500 miles from New Jersey to the Four Corners – where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah touch – to publicize the plight of the Hopi and Navajo who were being thrown off their sacred lands.
Our family jokingly gave him the Indian name Walking Bird for that endeavor, but our kidding didn’t eclipse the tremendous respect we had for his devotion to the trip.
On a personal note, I’ll never forget the morning of my wedding day 5-1/2 years ago when Joe and I rose before the sun – he out of habit and me out of nervousness.
It was drizzling and I was worried that the rain would disrupt the day.
On Joe’s whim, we drove for an hour around suburban Harrisburg. He said we would chase away the cold morning rain. It worked.
To be sure, Joe, like the rest of us, wasn’t without his demons.
But he was a brave, strong and sincerely dedicated man.
We celebrated Joe’s 44th birthday just a few short weeks ago and in true Joe tradition, it turned into an event not about him – but a celebration of his joy in spending time with two of our wonderful nephews, Matthew and Brendan.
Our sister Kathy says Joe was more like a big brother to her boys than an uncle 5 times their age.
The boys have several uncles, but to them there’s only one UNC – Uncle Joe.
After a day of bowling and laughing and cheering Brendan at his hockey match, Joe and I said “Good Bye’’ in his traditional way.
We locked in a big bear hug and Joe looked me in the eye and just said: “Peace.’’
Peace to you, Brother Joe, from all of us who love you. You’ve made the world a better place.
Joe, you keep the night light on inside the Birdhouse in your soul for us…
We’ll do the same for you.