Dear Joe Hall,
I've been following your story for the past 4 years. We've never met but we share experiences in the same college ministry. Although I left this ministry back in 2008, we continue to share mutual Facebook friends, which provided me the opportunity to hear your story and carry it along with my own.
You were 21-years old when you discovered you had cancer in May 2011. I was 24 and had also discovered a tumor in the same week. Although we had a completely different diagnosis, in many ways, I always felt that we began our journeys together. As I went forward into my own surgeries and treatment, I carried your story with me as company to my own.
When I began my journey, I took on a warrior spirit. I hardly let myself feel it as it was happening and did not entertain for a heartbeat the option of dying or not getting better. Partially, this was because I was never given as grave a prognosis as you were. Partially because I don't know of any other way one is to proceed after receiving news like that. As I brought you on my journey, I held you to the same hope, standard and expectation that I had for myself. If I was going to be okay, you were going to be okay. You had to. I did not know how to have hope for myself without having equal hope for you.
Although I am still healing to this day, six months after my diagnosis, my treatment was successful and complete and I was given permission to return to my normal life. You, however, were not there yet. But as I saw you continue to beat the odds with thousands of people praying on your behalf, I rejoiced and had the most confidence that your return to health was on its way.
Then a year passed and you were still fighting. I began to feel guilty that I wasn't. I remember sitting at my dining room table on my lunch breaks reading the updates of your gruesome treatment journey and feeling completely helpless. I had given up praying back in 2009 when I left the ministry but I took it back up when my desperation for you had no where else to turn. I begged, pleaded and made demands of this supposedly all-powerful, loving God that I didn't trust with an ounce of my being but you seemed to trust with every ounce of yours. Heal him already! Dammit, just heal him! He's actually devoted to you! Give him the same grace you gave me.
The guilt of being okay when you weren't began to overtake me. It kept me up at night and paralyzed my tasks during the day. After some intervention from my mother, I realized I didn't have enough distance from my own journey yet be following your story so closely without major repercussions to my mental health. So I began to check in on you less frequently. I did so with the hope that perhaps if I waited a few months, the next time I checked in I would be pleasantly surprised by good news and you would be closer to joining me on this path of healing.
Two years passed. Three years passed. I continued to check in on you periodically, sometimes finding hope, sometimes devastation. I could not believe you were still suffering. I could not believe you were still alive. But I could not handle the alternative. You had to make it. It was the only way anything would make sense. It was the only way my life could make sense.
This past February, I was in Nepal and I happened upon a recent photo of you in my Facebook feed. It was the first time that I really saw how much this terrible disease had wrecked havoc on your body. I could see that death had began to overtake you and the reality of what was imminent became clear. I became nauseous and vomited. I closed my computer and cried for hours.
Later that evening, I went to dinner with my friend and travel partner, Brandie. She could tell I was functioning at a lower frequency and asked if I was okay. I told her about you, your story, and how, whether healthy or not, I've intwined it with my own over the years. I looked up at her after three glasses of wine in and said: I don't think I will be able to handle it when he dies.
Yesterday, you passed away. And like everything else I've learned about your journey, I found out through a casual scroll on my Facebook feed. My mental consumption of processing six weeks of third world travel instantly came to a halt and my mind was numb for the first time in months. I felt complete nothingness. The kind of all-consuming absence you feel in those rare instances in life when hope actually dies.
As I drove home that afternoon, I tried to comfort myself by telling myself that I didn't really know you. That I didn't know your story, your process, your hope or your journey. That your illness and death has truly nothing to do with me. And that it was silly and unhealthy for me to arbitrarily infuse my story into yours.
When that attempt to alleviate my grief failed, I went to internet to find answers. I watched the outpouring of love, grief and longing flood your Facebook page. I watched hundreds of your loved ones mourn your death and celebrate your life. I began to watch the video interviews you recorded back in December, hoping to find that you had a peace in your death that was beyond my understanding.
It was such a blessing to get a glimpse into the beautiful soul beyond the story and Facebook updates and listen in to how this journey had shaped you. I sat there in amazement and cried as I listened. But I didn't cry because you had cancer or that you were dying. I cried because your words were so beautiful and your spirit was so bright and the peace you've found in the midst of such profound and prolonged suffering is something that all of us on earth are seeking and few of us will ever find.
To be really truthful, Joe, I partially feel what binds me to you is the guilt that I feel for having this new lease on life; for the health and freedom I have to pursue experiences in life that you will never. I feel guilty that we began our journeys together, and six months down the road, our paths parted. Don't get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for my life, and I think if you knew me you would be proud of the ways that I have wholeheartedly and fearlessly re-entered it with a heightened appreciation for how short and precious it really is. And you'd probably tell me that guilt is a waste of my time, that it's the true cancer of the soul and that your journey, path and purpose is just simply different from mine. And you'd be right. But I can't tell you in words how uncomfortable it makes me feel that I am still here and you aren't. I can't tell you how badly I wish you still were.
More importantly, I want to express my gratitude to you -- for the beauty of your life and your generosity in sharing your story. Your death still leaves me confused, angry and lost. But in honor of your passing and in celebration of your life, I am shedding my story of guilt and taking on your story of peace. I want you to know that, although I have never met you, you are my greatest hero and inspiration. And I will carry your testimony of peace as a companion for the rest of my life until our paths meet again.
Rest In Peace, Joe Hall.