The phone rang on a Sunday evening, just before Christmas.
It was my oldest brother Dave calling from the U.K. My wife caught on immediately. "It's kind of late over there isn't it Dave, two in the morning?"
My good humour changed to dread as she handed me the phone, "It's Dave" she said, “it's bad news."
You never know when you're going to get the call about a friend, a parent, or a loved one, but sooner or later we all get them. As you get older, of course, they become more frequent. (Excerpt from ‘Going Home’ by Joe Mara)
Joe and Roe in 2009.
These were the opening words to a memoir by New York based Joe Mara, sent to me at ‘Ireland Writing Retreat.’ The phone call referred to his father’s untimely death in 1987. But in a strange way it has turned out to be prophetic.
For soon after sending it to me, Joe himself passed on, the tragic news relayed to me by his loving wife, Roe. Joe was right. Sooner or later we all get that ‘call.’
This is e-mail from Roe sent me the other day.
It is with heartbreaking sadness that I deliver this message to you. My beloved, loyal and kindhearted husband Joe Mara has passed.
He began feeling ill in May with his voice declining. In Sept/Oct his voice was much worse and he had difficulty getting words out clearly and swallowing now became a problem. Finally one of the many doctors he saw suggested he see a neurologist. By this time, he began to suffer with his breathing.
It was difficult for Joe. Joe who was fun, funny and a caring guy; constantly reading and always telling me stories of his past, was now beginning to sleep more during the day as he had many sleepless nights.
The preliminary diagnosis was Bulbar ALS. Recently he read up on this disease and was shocked and depressed at what he read. He shared this with my daughter Briana who had also researched this disease and in her own way tried to reassure him that it could be slowed down with meds.
After a day of testing at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, which, by the way, he described as brutal, we came home and he relaxed as much as he could.
The next morning (Tues 12/8/20) I had to call 911. It took them 20 minutes to get a pulse (much too long for oxygen loss to the brain). He was now in the Intensive Care Unit until this A.M. when at 5:00 a.m. I received a call from the hospital saying that he passed.
I went to see him as he laid peacefully, but of course, it was heart-wrenching for me to see the man I loved and adored for 39 years in this state. He was my soul mate, my inspiration with a clever sense of humor. He was interesting and so smart. He also tolerated my terrible moods. I will miss his good qualities and I will also miss his imperfections. I could not have asked for a better partner.
I know you will miss him as well. Please keep Joe in your heart and may you keep safe and well in this new normal world.
All the best,
Joe's Loving Wife
Joe and Roe with their the two grandchildren, JohnCarlo and Mia.
By the time I finished the email, I was crying.
I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Joe in person but we ‘met’ so many times as fellow travellers wandering together through the world of words that I felt I knew him well.
When my wife and I at ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ organised the inaugural ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ writing competition this Spring, Joe, from Meath, Ireland, who was a teacher and worked in the film industry, was among the first to enter his work.
That began our fellowship, our journey together, he asking me if I would read his extended manuscript about his life and the lives of his Irish-born parents and offer him editorial guidance on it.
Joe's parents, Angela and Tony Mara on their wedding day.
And thus, over a period of several months earlier this year, we emailed each other back and forth on editing points I had made on his chapters, even sharing personal memories about being Irish and living in England.
It was through this communication that I learned more about the kind of man Joe was, his passion for life and for story-telling, his love of reading and his deep-felt need to present to the world a portrait of his family and of his growing up in Ireland and England in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
He so dearly wanted his memoir to be an important part of his lasting legacy.
I enjoyed what I like to call ‘our trans-Atlantic dispatches,’ and began to look forward to receiving his latest message as much as I hope he enjoyed receiving mine in return.
It’s funny how you can get to know someone through reading the words they've written even without ever meeting them in person. In such a way, a special bond is created. For writing is an intimate experience and sharing it with someone else is a very brave act.
Even though I’d never actually seen Joe in real life, I have a clear picture of him in my mind's eye as if he was sitting right beside me at a table drinking tea, discussing books, sharing a joke or two.
I promised Roe that Joe would not be forgotten, that I would share his memory with fellow writers worldwide, some of whom themselves may have faced heart-breaking personal loss in their lives.
So, consider yourself, reading this right now, among Joe’s writing friends. Take a moment to enjoy his obvious delight in words and stories and visualise what a warm and convivial character he was.
And, please, make sure you don’t hesitate to write your own story. Before it’s too late.
Heed Chaucer's famous words, ‘Time and tide wait for no man.’
'A Broad Channel Beauty' by Joe Mara
Something curious happened to me today in Broad Channel, that funny little Island north of us here in Rockaway. I was going to work in Woodhaven and found myself behind one of those Broad Channel based Call Ahead company vans. This is a portosan or portable toilet company whose motto proudly emblazoned on its vehicles is, “We’re Number 1 at picking up Number 2!” I was slightly alarmed at first but then I realized I was following a north bound vehicle which meant it had just left the depot and had thus been cleaned of number two and everything else. If you’re driving south back to Rockaway behind one of these wondrous vehicles, say with a load of two or even four of the portosans on the back, it can be overpoweringly unpleasant. Phewee! There’s only one thing to do in that situation - overtake it as quickly as possible.
So just when I was feeling relieved, I realized that a roughly six feet sheet of toilet paper had flown out of the back of the vehicle in front of me and was heading straight for my car. If Robin had been with me he might have said, “Holy crap Batman, what is that?” But I was happy to see that this was a brand new and crispy white roll of paper. It was almost like the ones the TV adverts show that are ready for adorable babies’ bottoms and it was coming straight for my car as though it had deliberately chosen it.
It landed on my windshield with ease and in the process somehow got tangled up in my window wipers instantly. I put my wipers on immediately which only entangled the sheet even more in them. I was now stuck with about six feet or so of blowing toilet paper which was also obscuring my driving vision too! It definitely had to be dealt with at the next traffic light up Woodhaven. There were cars to the left of me, cars to the right of me and here I was stuck in the middle of them with waving toilet paper!
Indeed to the left of me was a car with a little black girl in the passenger seat all of about ten years old in her school uniform enjoying my dilemma tremendously, laughing hysterically at my flummoxed self as the six foot toilet paper fluttered madly from my car’s windshield. At last the traffic light came at the foot of the Cross Bay Bridge and I prepared to exit my car to finally clear the paper from the window. What happened next is utterly true. Before I even had the door open the paper somehow freed itself from my windshield wiper and flew back to the Call Ahead truck as if it was homing toilet paper. It settled comfortably on the floor in front of the original portosan whence it came.
Was it the call of Nature?
Joe submitted this story earlier this month for the Autumn edition of the 'Wild Atlantic Writing Awards,' mere days before his death.