We came together this morning in a beautiful church filled with music and voices and fragrant, exquisite flowers. These are the words I spoke...
Joe had tremendous grace. Who can imagine being told at 28 your life will end soon? But Joe met that news with courage and grace. He wrote in his journal, “The feeling of having to shelve dreams and goals. It’s tough, but I can do this, staying strong. What is life worth if everything else is gone?”
That’s a question Joe began to answer by the way he lived. One day, coming out of St. Vincent’s, he said, “Mom, you always told me I had to live every day. I just didn’t know I’d have to do it so soon.”
When Lis and Joe were small children, the occasional Saturday night sleepover at Gabby and Grandpa’s would take place. A small bedroom with two twin beds, one close to the door and the other against the far wall would be made up for them. Lis would say to Joe every time, “Can I have the bed by the door? You know I will be scared if I can’t sleep by the door…”
And Joe, his reply? “OK, you can have it.” Even at a young age, Joe wanted to take care of his big sister. In October of 2012, Lis would leave New York for Connecticut to help Joe. “Mom, I can get another job, but I can’t get another brother. I think it’s time for me to come home.”
We all did whatever it took to help Joe, whether it was sending chocolates and candy, dropping off chicken cutlets and homemade chicken noodle soup or making the best cookies and Tiramisu imaginable. Joe’s dad Michael made sure his interest in sports was indulged, from getting him tickets to Yankees games to hanging out and watching sports at home to providing an all out Labor Day Weekend bash to rival none. We all hung with Joe.
With all the doctor’s appointments, tests and treatments, Joe wanted to make plans for fun. While we waited for the cancer to be staged, we went to Cape Cod. Once it was determined that the cancer had metastasized, we went to Big Sur, then Puerto Rico for Josh’s bachelor week-end and then to Rhode Island for Josh’s wedding to Erin, then to Maine with Dad and stepmom Denise and Lis and Sarah. We made multiple trips to New York City where we dined in wonderful restaurants and tiny holes in the walls when Joe’s treatment was done. This Thanksgiving we traveled to Florida to Lou and Mary’s lovely home in Ft. Lauderdale and stayed in high style at the Ritz.
One of the best decisions we made was an adoption. Joe had been thinking about getting a dog. One day when we were sipping smoothies and having a pedicure Joe told me he wanted a French bull dog. Not many people would take on a new puppy in such dire circumstances, but somehow it seemed worth the risks. Miraculously, Denise’s sister Lisa found a breeder near Buffalo, and we flew up in a tiny plane to meet a wonderful puppy. “The name has to be something deep,” Joe said, “because I’m going through something deep.” Thus we have Mia. Joe had someone to nurture, his friends had something to share, and I had an opportunity to see what a wonderful father he might have been.
"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage." That was the quote on my Zen calendar the day that Joe’s cancer was staged. “I really like that one, Mom,” he said. “That’s a good one.” And so it was.
A therapist who works with moms whose children have cancer, said to me in June, “Everyone who loves Joe is affected by his cancer. Everyone feels it. Joe just has the physical disease.”
I asked Joe’s friend Josh if he had any thoughts to share.
“How could I possibly encompass M. Joseph Garassino’s character in words?” he said. “Those that truly know him will agree that the task is impossible. But Joe, in a single word, was a lover.”
“Joe loved life, his family, his friends, laughter, and he truly loved to love. Joe loved working hard and playing harder whether he was travelling, partying in NYC clubs, dining at 5 Star restaurants, attending or simply supporting NY sports. Joe loved the finer things in life like fashion, watches, cigars, cocktails, and cars. He loved being a chivalrous gentleman, a fighter and a competitor, a teacher, a mentor, a businessman, a loyal and generous friend, a nephew, a cousin, a brother, a son, and a grandson, too. The love Joe shared was kind, fair, helpful, hopeful, strong, courageous, and exemplified best throughout his last months, inspirational.”
One day last week, Joe needed a new bed. Once it was assembled, Lis, his Aunt Dee and I tried to help him stand and pivot into it. It immediately became apparent that Joe was too weak to stand. Luckily, Uncle Mike drove across town to the rescue. Even though he was in incredible pain, ever the Italian-Lithuanian gentleman, Joe reached out to shake Mike’s hand as he approached.
In a gentle bear hug, Mike wrapped his arms around Joe and lifted him to the bed. As his uncle turned to leave, Joe in his now softer, less strong voice called to him, “Thanks, Mike.”
The last few weeks were a sacred time for all of us. So many of you contributed deeds and words of kindness, I cannot mention every one, but some moments stand out. We celebrated Joe’s 29th birthday on January 5th with his close friends and our family. Ready, able and willing to do absolutely anything to help, Joe’s friends came to quietly visit. If we could measure a man’s worth by the quality of the friends he keeps, then Joe’s wealth was immeasurable.
Even as he lay in bed, his body racked with pain, sometimes with tears gently streaming from the corners of his eyes, Joe responded to our presence. He acknowledged Denise when she brought his beloved Mia to visit. He gave his Aunt Dee a wink and a thumbs up when she brought me a beverage at his bedside. When his cousin Erin kissed him goodbye and turned to leave, he asked, “Do you need me to walk you out to your car?”
He remembered to say, “Thank you, Jan,” every 15 minutes as Janet pushed the medication pump during her midnight to 4 am shift. Armed with her iPhone timer,his cousin Brittany helped keep watch. When I asked if Brittany could help me and deliver the medication on her own, he responded, “Brittany’s great. She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
As many of you know, my older sister, Lynn, died in August of lymphoma. Joe never indulged in self-pity, but one day he said to me, “I never thought I would be joining Lynn at Sloan to have treatment for cancer. Who would have ever thought? Mom, I hardly know anyone who has ever had cancer, let alone anyone young, who has cancer.”
Lis has taken for her work building awareness and support for other young people who must cope with their siblings’ cancer as she has. I think Josh speaks for each of us when he says, “Please continue to remember and recount Joe’s love; I know he’d truly, love that…”
And in the words of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, “Now abideth faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."