When I look at pictures of Joel and see his trademark big grin shining back at me, the merriment in his eye – all evidence of his legendary bonhomie, I can’t help but be minded of John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.” That poem is especially poignant as it is a memorial for a small girl, a young child who in her life had been a frolicksome, rowdy, romping, jolly little girl, a child so known for her vitality that it is hard to accept that she has died. And it is that – Joel’s larger than life energy and goodwill – that even a year on, sometimes makes it hard to align his personality with the fact of his death. I look at those twinkling blue eyes, that mischievous grin framed by those outlandish Martin Van Buren muttonchops, and I think, “how the hell can that guy be dead now?” A ridiculous thought – I know far more thoroughly than I want to that he is gone, that no man, no matter how healthy and active and full of piss-and-vinegar cheats death. But yet, it just doesn’t seem natural and right.
I don’t know if it is an act of self preservation or cruelty on the part of my brain, but in the year since Joel died, I have only had two dreams of him. I have a hard time featuring why it’s that way when we’d been such a major part of one another’s lives for the eight years we had together, but just as sleep eludes me, Joel eludes my dreams.
The two dreams I have had were brief but so detailed and so realistic that i awoke disoriented and bereft all over again either time.
Back in April I was hitting a bricklaying project pretty hard, re-laying the west side of the back patio that Joel and our friend Brian had torn up in the autumn before while digging a trench to lay down conduit for electricity and gas running out to the shop building. So, every day for the best part of two weeks, I’d lay down a few rows of bricks between the back porch and the fence until it finally looked like this:
One night, after I’d finished this project, I had a dream that I was kneeling on the patio laying out bricks, when I looked up and saw Joel standing beside the cherry tree. He was wearing his old Carhartts that he usually wore for mowing, a pair of wellies, and had a shovel balanced over his shoulder. He nodded back toward the raised bed behind him and said, “Hey, honey, what were you planning on planting here this year?” And I just started chatting at him about all my garden plans, how I was probably going to plant mustard greens over there, and beets in the furthest South bed and so on and so forth. I looked down for a moment to pick up another brick to set in, and when I looked up again, he was gone.
The other dream I had was later in the summer, just before Lydia was born. I dreamed I was coming the back gate to the back yard. I turned around after securing the latch and saw Joel coming in from the front gate. He was dressed in some of his shittiest summer lounging clothes’ a pair of red, hibiscus-print swimming trunks, a ribbed tank top, and his beat up old blue Crocs. He came bounding over to me in his way, all arms and legs and enthusiasm. I said, “Oh my God, JOEL, how are you here?” It was the best surprise; he was the best sight I’d laid eyes on. He held his arms out for a hug and said, just the way he would if he were feeling schmoopy, “Hey, gorgeous, give me some love,” and when he held me, it was everything that his embraces always were. Comfort, intimacy, calm, love. It was the best feeling in the world. You know how you sometimes say something simultaneously with someone…”in stereo” or “jinx” is what we said when we were kids? Simultaneously, in this dream, we both said “I’ve missed you so much.” I started to ask him if he was back, how long could he stay, and then…I woke up. I am not going to lie, I genuinely felt bereft all over again. Just fucking crushed.
When Joel died, I remember having an irrational thought. In my head, I protested, “but we weren’t finished!” We had children to raise, adventures to experience, home improvements to complete. We had so many things planned that it felt like some sort of cosmic administrative error; like no way could we be interrupted at this point, what gives, man? From time to time, my imagination provides a flash of what it would be like in a parallel universe where Joel hadn’t died. Today when the kids were eating lunch, I had a vision of how it would be if he were here, how Joel would have bantered with Joseph while Joseph nibbled and clowned, how Joel would have mixed up some weird conglomeration of leftovers for himself, how he would have commented on Lydia’s characteristic nursing fidget of petting my sweater while she suckles. He would be having so much fun with Joseph at this age – he was eagerly anticipating speech, a burgeoning sense of humor, the development of a more complex personality. He also would have been delighted at what a cheerful little kid Lydia is, how energetic and physical she is, and generally what a cute little varmint she is. He loved Joseph dearly, and he was so excited about the advent of a second child. It hardly seems fair to the kids to be deprived of a loving dad; to Joel, to be deprived of the experience of raising them; or me, to be deprived of the joy of watching them grow up with a fun, adoring father helping keep them grounded and guide them along with the good sense. good humor, and good sense of humor he was so well loved for.