I’m as free as a bird now…

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Joey Jello Ghost Bike Memorial at the intersection of Pleasant Valley Rd and W Cesar Chavez (site of accident)

Joey Jello Ghost Bike Memorial at the intersection of Pleasant Valley Rd and W Cesar Chavez (site of accident)

Today marks one year since the world lost Joey Jello, and one year since my world turned upside down. It has been the toughest year of my life while simultaneously teaching me that I’m tougher than I ever thought.

As most of you know, I traveled to Austin on Friday morning to run the Keep Austin Weird 5k on Saturday evening. Joey’s passion for life and early death awoke in me the need to live my life to the fullest and pursue my dream of becoming a runner. The entire weekend was full of emotions from start to finish, and it may take a bit to get through all of it, but bear with me, and I’ll make it worth your while.

Thursday night after putting my kids to bed, I headed over to my parents’ house to spend the night since mom and I had an early flight in the morning, and they live quite a bit closer to the airport. I got to bed late but had trouble putting my mind to rest with the anticipation of what was to come. An added concern for me was the fact that this was my first night away from my boys overnight.

Friday morning, mom and I packed it up and headed to the airport incident free. It wasn’t until take-off that my emotions grabbed the control panel. Looking out the window as we rose above the clouds, I couldn’t help thinking of myself as a Freebird taking flight, setting off to run my race and overcome sorrow and grief. I shed several tears at this point, but that was only the beginning. As we made our descent into Austin and landed, I realized that I was coming too late. Joey wasn’t here anymore, and as glad as I was to be visiting, the Joey-shaped void in Austin was apparent before I’d even really seen the city.

IMG_0774Since we arrived several hours before check-in time at the hotel, Mom and I decided we should find a place for lunch. Our first stop in Austin was for a PBR and bar food at The Jackalope where Joey worked when he first moved to town. I think we were both a little disappointed that the waitress didn’t know Joe, since she’d only been working there a few months; still we enjoyed just being in one of the places he’d spent so much time.

Also, I ate a sloppy but delicious chicken sandwich with bacon and melty brie cheese. Yummmmm! There wasn’t much here to get too excited about, but there was a familiar vibe to the place that made it easy to see Joey working there, and I’m glad we visited.

IMG_0772Our next stop before check-in was to visit the ghost bike. Joey had the best friends a man can have in life. I believe that’s a testament to the kind of friend he always was to others. Not long ago, they erected a bike memorial painted white and chained to a utility pole at the intersection where the accident occurred. Since we chose to have Joey’s body cremated, we have no gravestone to visit, but this ghost bike has become a place to remember him and feel a point of connection with his life on this earth. For me, it was a painful but important moment in my grieving process. Up to now, a part of my heart has been protected by the irrational hope that all of this is a mistake, and Joey is still living in Austin having lost his phone or just too busy having fun to answer it. Seeing the ghost bike, seeing that this intersection is a real place with a real memorial to my brother who is still mourned by his friends in Austin as well as his family and those friends around the globe brought home the terrible truth that he is never coming back. I sobbed and sobbed, but somewhere in that moment, I also began to feel peace as I told Joey again and again, “I’m here.”

Later that afternoon, after checking into our hotel and relaxing for just a while, Mom and I headed to a get together with some of Joey’s Austin friends. It was so good to finally meet many of my new Facebook friends in person and see many other new friends again. Most of all, it was so special to see how these dear people just accepted us as part of their family and shared their Joey stories with us. All we want to do is talk about him and keep his memory alive, and we are so glad not to be alone in that desire.

IMG_0773Saturday was probably the hardest day of all for me, harder even than today on the actual anniversary of Joey’s death. As I mentioned recently, I have felt for some time that running this 5k race would be the time for me to let Joey go, and start living for me, not just for him. Just knowing that was my purpose made the anticipation so great it was at times hard to bear. I felt like my stomach was in knots most of the day. Our intent was to take it easy that day, which we did; however, I’m not sure I got much rest out of our rest. As we drove to where the race would be held, I kept feeling as though I might get sick and the tears just wouldn’t stop. Once we parked the car and started heading to the starting line, I managed to relax a bit, at least enough to take a pre-race photo. While I wanted to be sure to stay mostly true to myself, I figured my “weird” attire should reflect at least a hint of Joey Jello, hence the Peter Pan pants and striped knee socks. Additionally, the vial around my neck contained a portion of Joey’s ashes.

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Some of Joey’s friends also met mom at the starting line to help cheer me on when the race finally kicked off. It was such a huge mass of people that it seemed I’d never even get to the starting line much less have a chance to actually start running. But I did make it and managed to yell something like, “For Joey Jelloooo!” as I passed my crew. Those people beside me with the homemade white race bibs were apparently only there to crash the start of the race. They exited the route just after this picture was taken, and I may or may not have pushed one of them out of my way when they stopped directly in front of me. (oops!) I had made a Jello-esque running playlist for the race to keep me motivated and was also running my RunKeeper app to keep track of my time since this was not a timed race.

A side note about the Keep Austin Weird 5k: This is a great race to run with friends because it is not timed and laced with “Fun Stops” along the route including liquor shots, ice cream, and a slip & slide to name a few. Since my reasons for being here were to give the run my best effort, I chose not to participate in the stops (unless they were passing out much needed water).

That said, I managed to keep up a steady running pace for the first mile of the race, nearly 15 minutes in for me, at which point I decided to walk to the center point of the route. For probably the first half to three-quarters of the route, I focused mainly on keeping myself motivated with only the occasional drift into imagining Joey running beside me. I listened to a lot of his music with The Wrong Kids and during one of my running intervals, I finally heard “Dolphins” in a different light. I’d always had trouble listening to the lyrics of that song which say, “I don’t care if we die tonight……we never wanted to swim with no dolphins anyway…” It always made me uncomfortable thinking that he had lived recklessly, but as I was running and my gait and breathing were in sync, and I felt a humidity-taming breeze, I suddenly felt the joy of those words, the utter abandon that said, “It’s ok if this is our last breath because we’re LIVING right now!” And in that moment I was connected totally with the way my brother lived his life and knew that he would be so proud of what I was doing right then.

As I approached the last quarter mile or so of the race, I began to run again and Freebird began to play. I’ve never really liked that song much, maybe because I hate to jump on a bandwagon and so many people just love it. But Joey’s last tat was “Free Bird” and apparently he’d spent the better part of his last trip to Burning Man annoying everyone by playing it repeatedly. So it made the playlist, all 9 minutes of it, though I did cut it short to cross the finish line. I was amazed as I really listened to the lyrics at how it could have been a message from Joey just for me in that moment.

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now,
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.

These were the words ringing in my ears as I crossed the finish line, yelling, “This is for you Joey Jelloooo!” A few feet from there, I uncorked the vial around my neck, raised it in the air and promised Joey I’d love him forever and live every day of my life. Then I released his ashes and let him go. No one I knew was there to witness the moment, so I don’t have any pictures for you all. But that moment was for me and only me.

IMG_0764Not long after that, one of Joey’s friends picked me up and took me to a bar where everyone was waiting for me. When I hugged Hey Red (Joey’s girlfriend who was injured in the same accident that took him from us), I began to sob again. The emotions of everything I had just done were overwhelming, and it was time to let them out. Someone was quick to bring me a beer, and we toasted to Joey Jello.

I was a little disappointed that my arm kept accidentally hitting the pause button on my running app, so I didn’t get an accurate time count, but I think I finished at least as good as my last 5k, even in spite of the crazy heat & humidity, not to mention the emotional aspect of this race for me.

Joey’s friends took us to a great little taco stand afterwards with yummy guacamole and queso on the side, and we spent several hours just enjoying each other’s company and reminiscing about Joey and the impact he had on all of us. Good memories were shared and enjoyed as well as made.

It was at some point during that time that Noska convinced us we couldn’t leave Austin without a visit to his tattoo shop, so we made plans to meet him on Sunday after we checked out of our hotel.

My very first tattoo was two small gears on my foot that I got on spring break while I was in college getting my Mechanical Engineering degree. I’d never been happy with the way they’d turned out, and had often regretted not going with my initial idea of a feather. Since I’ve been running, I’ve often looked to Isaiah 40:31 for encouragement to keep going:

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Noska told me that the solid black tip of the eagle feather would be perfect for covering the misshapen gears, and I am thrilled with the outcome and the way it symbolizes who I am becoming rather than who I have been. As the eagle has released this feather, I release my past. I release Joey to be free, and I release myself to run free, to live for me, and to be happy.

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4 responses »

  1. It is always bittersweet to see a ghost bike. I hate why they are there but love the tribute. I saw your brother’s the other day and was compelled to find out the story of who the cyclist was. I always find myself silently sending comfort and healing out to the family, even though I know I will probably never know who they are. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jen, thank you for your kind words. it blesses me so much to know the ghost bike still stands at that corner heralding the legend that was Joey Jello. He will ever be in my heart, and I hope his story continues to reach others.

    • Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth. I hope it stays there for many years. Some day I would like to take my boys to visit.

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