FAMOUS FOR LOVE
I am famous.
Not for what most people think I'm famous for, though, which is music. Yes, I've written some songs that you've probably heard on the radio, and my wife and I have had a very successful career in the music business. And we've made half a dozen albums, toured the country and halfway around the world, and performed on television. We even had our own TV show for a couple of years. But that's not what I'm really famous for. Not anymore anyway.
I am famous for loving my wife.
* * *
There is hardly a grocery aisle that I walk down or a gas station that I pull into where I don't find a hand reached out to shake mine, an iPhone pointed my way, or, even more often, arms reaching out to hug me and to tell me how much they love me. And my wife. And my baby daughter and family.
Do you know what a gift that is? To know that millions of people not only have followed our story online through my blog and videos but also have sung along to our songs, and they've bowed their heads and prayed and shed their tears over my wife and me. Strangers have done this.
All of my life, I've been anonymous. A nobody. Now I'm not just somebody. I'm somebody's. I am Joey's husband, Rory.
And I am honored. So very honored to have been her husband. To be her husband still. To have stood beside her at the altar and be standing beside her still when 'til-death-do-us-part became something much more than a phrase in our wedding vows. To have put a wedding ring on her left hand. Twice. Once, in front of our friends and families that day in June 2002, and again in late February 2016, when we were all alone and the cancer had made her fingers so thin and frail that she had been wearing it on a chain around her neck, and she asked me to wrap masking tape around the bottom of that platinum promise so it wouldn't fall off her finger in the wooden casket that would be the final resting place for the ring with BOUND BY GOD FOREVER engraved inside the band.
But to know why being famous for loving my wife means so much to me, you have to know something more of my story. More of the journey than just the last two and a half years, which I have had the chance to share in my blog. More lyrics of the song that is my life. More of the darkness that I lived through to understand the light that I found and have had the chance to become.
My life is very ordinary. On the surface, it is not very special. If you looked at it, day to day, it wouldn't seem like much. But when you look at it in a bigger context — as part of a larger story — you start to see the magic that is on the pages of the book that is my life. And the more you look, the more you see. Or, at least, I do.
I don't cry like I used to or hurt like I did when I was a younger man. I'm more stable. Stronger. Finally. When others don't or can't hold it together, somehow I do. I'm not sure why or when that started. I wasn't always like that. Far, far from it. I was an emotional mess most of my life. Crying and falling apart for the smallest of things. Most of them, things of my doing. Or things that were just in my head. I'm not like that anymore. At least not as far as I can tell.
* * *
We had a perfect at-home birth that, a few hours later, turned into a horrific surgery for my wife and a diagnosis of Down syndrome for our baby daughter. A few months later my siblings and I watched our mother pass away right before our eyes. And the year after that, I held my wife's hand as cancer took her, and I had to pick up our two-year-old daughter, Indiana, and somehow go on. But I have been strong. I have cried very few tears, especially in the moments where the pain lives or is learned. I have found myself crying in other moments. When I'm by myself — thinking, remembering, wondering. But all in all, I have mostly felt peace. My wife was the same way. She was strong in her faith and trusted God when difficulties would come our way. Just as I do. I don't know why. Or where I learned that. Or became that. I know that she is a lot of why I am me. Joey. And God. God that was in Joey. I could see Him in her. In her eyes and her smile, even when it hurt to smile. In her tears and her laughter, He was there. Her love strengthened my faith. And brought hope. Always, always hope.
It's a wonderful difference compared to how I used to be, but it's also unusual for me. Most of the people around me break down easily and often. Hope comes and goes like the wind. My sister Marcy almost didn't make it through my mother's passing. Her grief was so great. I couldn't relate to her. I tried to. I listened and was there for her and did my best to comfort her. But I didn't cry like she did or feel her pain. My view of our mom dying was compassionate but in a realistic way. People pass away. It's a part of life. It's hard and terrible, but it's gonna happen to all of us. Mom smoked, right up until the end, so this happens a lot when that happens. Somehow I could keep in perspective that Mom was seventy-one, and that's a long life. Still, even with that, I wonder if I should be crying or hurting more. I don't feel like I'm carrying a huge amount of weight or that I'm bottling up my emotions or anything like that. I just feel like I now have a different perspective from what I had most of my life. I have peace. Because of my faith. And finally opening my hands and turning my life over to God. Believing in a higher power and trusting that He has a bigger plan. One that I don't understand. That I can't understand this side of heaven.
God is the author of this story. Yes, it is my pen that He's used to write the book. My laptop, actually. But it's the story He has told with my life and my wife's. A story He is still telling. I just wake up every day and turn the page. Sometimes I'm frightened by what I find, and sometimes I'm exhilarated. Many nights I don't want to go to sleep and wake up the next day to turn another page. Afraid that the beautiful moment we're experiencing might be met with hardship in the next paragraph, and our journey to the top of a mountain will come barreling down the other side. But we must turn the page and trust that the story He is telling is bigger than that one page or that one chapter.
Looking back at my life, it is easy for me to see. Even the chapter that I am in now, I know He is still writing. Taking my character and those around me, building a plot that is brilliantly woven into a beautiful tale that only the Master Storyteller could tell.
This is my story, up until now. Or at least a good chunk of it. Fifty-one years condensed into seventy thousand words. Mine is a sad story and a happy one. A human tragedy and a comedy of errors. It's Forrest Gump meets Jesus. The struggle of light against the power of darkness.
It is a story of faith. Of love. And a hope that never dies.
THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
My wife sees life like a garden. At least she did. I can't write about her in the past, so I won't. We will get to that, but for now ... though she's no longer here, she's still here. In my heart.
* * *
Joey sees life like a garden. It's not something that she's said to me, or consciously would know that she does ... but it's how she looks at life, how she sees the world and makes sense of it. Like all things, simply. Life is a cycle to her. A garden. God plants us somewhere. Then He gives us a spring filled with new life that is lush and green. Then a summer and an autumn and, ultimately, a winter ... when the world seems to slow down and the life that was new in the spring comes to an end. I like that way of looking at this journey we're all on. It helps me to put things in perspective.
I was planted in the middle of nowhere — not because Atchison, Kansas, is nowhere or because it's roughly in the middle of the US, but because I'm not really from there. That's where I was born, where my first breath was taken, and where my spring began, but it's not where I'm from. I'm from nowhere and everywhere. Growing up, we moved dozens of times to different houses in the same town, and to different cities, big and small, in different states all around the country. Always putting down roots, only to have them ripped up at the surface with a part of me left behind in each place.
You try to replant, insert yourself in the new place, in the new soil, but you never really do. You can't grow, not really, when you know you'll be there only a short amount of time and have to move on. You hunker down for a bit, 'til you get your bearings ... then peek your head up now and then to see what's around you, to see if it's safe to grow. But you always, always find yourself watching, waiting for that moment when you will again be uprooted and carried somewhere new in the backseat of a rusted Buick or Duster — to some new soil that may or may not accept you.
Part of me is in that river town in Kansas. That's true. But part of me is also just across the bridge in the dirty water of a lake in Missouri, beside an airport in Iowa, in a one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska, and various places in Texas, Michigan, and Kentucky. Broken pieces mostly. Scattered here and there. I get e-mails and Facebook requests from people who remember me from those places, who were there when I was there, from fans who say they "knew me when." I will be backstage at one of our concerts, and someone I don't recognize will tell me about the time when we did this or that. I politely smile and do my best not to let them see the lost look on my face.
I don't remember a lot about my childhood or early years as an adult. It's just not there. If our minds were computers with all information stored on hard drives, then my hard drive is corrupted, and no amount of "cleaning up my Mac" is able to retrieve those files. The details are there, I'm sure, somewhere ... but I can't get to them. I just keep living each day and adding more memories that I most likely won't remember. Trying to add a special code to this one or that one, or highlight a file, but knowing it won't work. My mind does fairly well at being here but not being there. I wish I was better at remembering all the details of my past, but I'm not. I know people who are good at remembering, who can replay a single hour of a single day in fourth grade with perfect clarity. I wish I had been in fourth grade with them so they could tell me more about who I was then and what life was like.
So this book is not factual. Not completely anyway. It's a re-creation of some scenes in the story of my life, remembered and described to the best of my abilities. And like most things, when you add time and perspective, they become different. Better and more honest, I hope. You can sometimes make sense of something when you're on the other side of it. See something that you couldn't see before. You can see it for what it was, instead of what you thought it was while you were going through it.
This is my life as it was and as it is now — through the eyes of a man who has had some time to chew on it and live with the choices he's made for a couple of decades. I apologize if at times I offend or disappoint anyone. If I do, just know that I am disappointed in me too. But that's the point, I think. It's okay to have made mistakes. I have learned that all great stories must have a beginning. Where the characters are deeply flawed and in need of redemption and love. But as they move through life, they find that the things they once thought mattered suddenly become meaningless, and the things that weren't important become the good stuff.
My life today is filled with the good stuff. I know it is. Mostly because I've spent years trudging through the bad stuff and have learned the difference. The funny thing is that now, after all these years, even the bad stuff — in a strange way — was actually the good stuff. It's what got me to where I am. It made me who I am. And it will be a part of leading me to where I need to be.
I like to say that I am from the good side of the trailer park.
People think that's a funny statement — the people who never lived in a trailer park do anyway. But if you had the good/bad fortune to spend a little time in a single- or double-wide, you know why that statement is true. No matter how far down the ladder of success you are, there is always someone a rung or two lower than you who's gonna help you feel better about yourself and your lot in life. My mom was proud that we weren't like "those hoodlum kids with no manners" who lived a few trailers away from us. Kids who didn't take baths and whose parents were in and out of prison. Never mind that Mom was sending us to the grocery store to buy candy with our government food stamps so she could buy a pack of cigarettes with the ninety cents in change we brought home. Or that she had us drive her car to the bootlegger's to buy beer for her, even though I was only fourteen and didn't have a driver's license, and our car didn't have tags, insurance, or brakes most of the time.
There are many different levels of poor. The best kind, I think, is the version I experienced. The kind where you're poor but you don't really realize it at the time. It never occurred to me that we had it bad and that other people, other kids in particular, had it much better than us. I don't know why, it just didn't. I don't ever remember being jealous of the kids on the school bus who were picked up in front of the nice houses in the towns where we lived, or of the clothes they wore or the cars their parents drove. Those feelings didn't come until much later. After high school, actually. I was just happy to be. I had a drawer with a pair of pants and three shirts in it and a pair of old cowboy boots. What else did I need?
We didn't always live in trailers, my brothers, Joe and Blaine, and sisters, Marcy and Candy, and I. We lived in houses too. And apartments. With aunts and uncles and friends. We didn't just move from town to town; we fled from state to state. Mom would do the best she could with what she had, but sometimes that wasn't enough. We'd find ourselves packing up and leaving in the middle of the night so our landlord couldn't catch us and demand the three months of back rent that was due.
When I was in the tenth grade, I came home from school one day to find that my Aunt Mary had come to visit. She and Uncle Rod had recently moved to Kentucky and were doing pretty well there. So when I arrived home that afternoon, I found Mom and Aunt Mary walking through the house with a stranger. They were looking at our furniture and the stuff in our bedrooms. When I asked my mom what was going on, she said, "We're moving." I asked her, "When?" And she said, "Tonight."
Late that evening we loaded everything we could fit into Mom's '74 Plymouth Duster and climbed in the backseat, with Aunt Mary navigating, as Mom, smiling as she smoked her Winston red, with the wing-window cracked, steered the car east for the latest new-and-better life that awaited in Kentucky. The rest of our belongings were sold to the auctioneer for three hundred dollars. And in time, it was a better life. It was always a better life.
The government apartment complex in Atchison, Kansas, was better than my uncle's basement, where we lived in Brownsville, Nebraska. And the green trailer in someone's backyard in Greenville, Kentucky, was better than the little house at Sugar Lake, Missouri, that we packed up and moved from that night in tenth grade. Though they weren't always better places to live, they were part of a better life to live. I don't think I knew that at the time, but I do now. It isn't about the house; it's about the home. And we were always trying to make one. Find one. My mom just wasn't good at it, I think. She didn't come from a good home, so it made it kinda tough for her to figure out how to provide one for her children.
Most of the time we didn't mind moving. We were used to it. We got to meet new kids and see new parts of the country. Sometimes it was a family reunion, like when we moved back in with Uncle Rod and Aunt Mary and their kids from time to time. We were just glad to see each other.
There's only one place that I wish we hadn't left: a small town in Kansas called Highland. We got there when I was in the fourth grade and stayed until the middle of my seventh-grade year. It was like something out of a movie, at least in my memory it was. All of us kids feel the same way. We loved that time and wish we could've stayed and grown up there.