There was something different about Joe. I would watch from our front window as he loped across the dusty path in the middle of the green that separated two rows of houses. His beloved dog, Brownie, jogging by his side. Something about him tugged at my fourteen year old heart. A mingling of compassion and happiness. Joe’s clothes never differentiated between winter or summer. Brown cord trousers at half mast, hovering above skinny black clad ankles. A baggy sweater hung out from beneath an oversized checked jacket that draped over coat hanger shoulders. His loose, well worn trainers weathered all seasons; dull white in the summer sun, soggy grey in winter rain and snow.
The day Joe walked that path without his faithful little dog by his side brought an unforgettable sorrow into my life. After school that day, standing by the path chatting with friends, I was suddenly aware of him sitting quietly on the grass.
“Mum says Brownie has gone to Heaven.”
I sat a little distance from him, as per my mother’s instruction. Joe was several years older than me, yet his gentle childlike manner touched my soul; and I saw no threat in him as his clear blue eyes searched mine. The devastating loss emanated from every pore of his skinny body and I longed to hug the pain away. Instead I simply smiled and his bland face illuminated with that Joe smile that felt like the sun had just emerged from behind a storm cloud. Joe rarely spoke, yet his sparse conversation insinuated his acceptance of his loss and his amazing ability to rise above his circumstances. I watched him walk away, straight backed and determined.
Through the window of the old school bus I spotted Joe trudging his usual path along the bus route into town, his mother’s big canvas shopping bag swinging from one lanky arm. I knew his mother insisted he shopped at the market rather than the more expensive local shops. In one of his rare moments of verbal communication Joe had mentioned this and the fact that his dad was very sick and his mum couldn’t leave him alone.
One beautiful summer day I sat on the steps of our front path, reading a book, inhaling the heady perfume of cream roses, whilst watching for Joe to return from the market. Snatches of overheard conversation between my mother and our neighbour revealed that Joe’s dad was no longer with us. It had taken me a while to figure out the relevance of those words, but when realisation dawned I had rushed up to my room and cried for Joe. When he finally appeared, steps slowed by the heat, sweat was running down his face, disappearing in rivulets into the collar of his loose jacket.
“Mum says dad is in Heaven with Brownie.”
Though his words were filled with sadness it was the look in his piercing blue eyes that spoke to my heart. The candour of his unwavering gaze told me of his acceptance and understanding of another devastating loss and of his ability to grieve without anger or question. His childlike faith filtered into the silence between us, as he waited expectantly for the comforting hug. I knew Joe felt the pain of loss, yet his acceptance of life as it was gave him the ability to overcome and meet each new day with determination and a simple joy in his heart.
Joe walked that path regularly, until one day when snow covered the ground like a fluffy white blanket and coated the trees in an icy shimmer, he disappeared. For several weeks I looked out for him. But never saw him again. Until the day the snow melted and I saw his familiar checked jacket and watched his soggy white trainers creating furrows in the brown slush on the path.
“Mum is in Heaven with Dad and Brownie.”
Pulling a crumpled photograph from his pocket Joe thrust it in front of my face, letting me know he was being cared for. Throwing clumsy arms around me he gently placed a kiss on the top of my head. The light in his beautiful childlike eyes telling me that though tragedy had flattened him, he had risen from the ashes of adversity once again.
Later, I watched Joe walk along that path and out of my life, turning once to flash me that unforgettable smile that melted my heart and lit up the sky like fireworks.
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