“Joe’s Story,” column for Aug. 16, 2016

I got in big trouble with my brother last week. Never mind why. OK, I’ll tell you. He says I messed in his business without permission. If I’d asked him for permission, he’d have said no.

Joe is 64 years old, totally blind, severely crippled from cerebral palsy. He’s lived all his adult life on his own, with only occasional help from his family or good people in his church.

His wife, Tommie Jean, was also blind. For 10 years, they were inseparable. He’d lead the way, tapping with his cane, and she’d follow holding his hand.

When he lost her to cancer 10 years ago, I feared we might lose him, too. But Joe is tough. He has known more suffering and loss than most of us will ever know. Somehow, by the grace of God, he keeps going.
All he asks for is a little independence, to live his own life, make his own choices without being told what to do.

I very much want that for him. The problem for my sister and me is this: While he is legally an adult with the right to make decisions without our consent, he’s also in some ways childlike, with an innocence that, despite his refusals, begs our protection. We have no authority to act on his behalf. We can only pray and try to help, when he’ll let us.

It’s hard to let go of someone you love and hope that God loves them more than you do.

Last week _ only days after we lost our younger brother to a sudden, unexpected death _ Joe was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and scheduled to have a pacemaker implanted. The news shifted my sisterly instincts into hyper-drive. I spent hours on the phone with our sister, who lives 3o miles from Joe. She planned to take him to the procedure. But she’s not well herself and I didn’t want her trying to care for him after he’s released.

Meanwhile, I had recently broken my foot. Not only had I missed our younger brother’s memorial service, I couldn’t fly “home” to take care of Joe. So I made the mistake of trying to arrange, without his permission, someone to care for Joe after his procedure.

Talk about hitting the fan.

As usual, our sister bore the brunt of his fury. He cooled off quite a bit before phoning me.

“Sister,” Joe said, “I know you love me and you mean well. I just want to manage on my own without help as long as I can. I need you to let me do that.”

Then he asked me to tell you this story:

Joe met Tommie Jean on the phone after a friend gave him her number. They talked long distance for several days. When he announced his plans to visit her (at her mother’s home 200 miles away) our mother threw a hissy fit.

“Don’t you dare!” Mama said. “I’ll send the police after you!”

He hung up on her. Then he called the bus station. He rode all night from Spartanburg, S.C., to Charleston, only to be told the bus to Georgetown had been delayed for hours. He got the bus driver to call Tommie Jean to say he’d be late. Tommie Jean got a friend to drive her to Charleston to pick him up.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I heard her come running, yelling ‘Hey, man! Hey, man!’ Then she threw her arms around me and we both cried. I swear, Sister, it was love at first sight.”

True to her word, Mama sent the police to Tommie Jean’s house to check on Joe, but no arrests were made. Three days later, Joe and Tommie Jean were married at city hall.

Joe asked me to tell you that story because he believes we all need to live our own lives and make our own decisions. If a blind man can hang up on his mama and fall flat-out in love at first sight, he said, he can look after himself after surgery.

“I’ll be fine, Sister,” he said, “don’t worry.”

“Can I send you a pizza?”

“Yes. And when you come home, you can pay for supper.”

“No,” I said. “Next time I’m home, I’ll make you pay.”


  1. Weldon Walker says

    I’ve loved Joe from the moment I first read about him in one of your columns. He’s a rock that I can always think of. If he can do it, no way I can’t.

  2. Pearlene Curry says

    Joe has a piece of my heart. And so do you, Sharon. He is an amazing man. Every woman needs to experience the love he held for Tommie Jean and to be loved and cared for as your family does each other. Despite the bickering and mud wrestling that goes on in families. Love can travel miles to anothers heart when we can’t be there. I could not go a Sunday without your stories. Heal fast Sharon and Joe. And no matter who pays for the meal, I pray it will happen soon.

  3. Marion Ingber says

    I hope your Mama knew what special children she raised. I know I’m glad to have “known” them.

  4. Alice Durham says

    We all loved Joe “Joey” growing up with him. My mother helped when he attended Kindergarten with Mrs.Daniels. Thanks for sharing. Praying that Joe will do better now with his pacemaker.

  5. Louise Mundell says

    Love your writings Sharon, your family stories touch our hearts & souls. I appreciate you & look forward to your stories. God Bless

  6. You manage to touch my heart and adjust my perspective every time. Thank you….can I send you a pizza?

  7. Libby nowell says

    I don’t know Joe “the Clemson fanitic” but I love him. ?

  8. Sharon Retterer says

    Wow, what an inspiration Joe is to all of us. Thanks for sharing this story. I love your columns, Sharon. Always have, always will!

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