“Joe’s Birthday Alone,” April 14, 2020

My brother has seen a lot of birthdays in his sixty-plus years, but nothing quite like this one.

Actually, Joe has never “seen” a birthday. Soon after he was born — two months early and tinier than the Tiny Tears doll I got that Christmas — he was blinded by too much oxygen in an incubator that kept him alive.

Since then, he has spent every day in total darkness. And he has learned (the hard way, as he tends to be even more stubborn than blind) all sorts of lessons, such as how to blow out the candles on a birthday cake without singeing his nose hairs.

Joe also has cerebral palsy and needs leg braces and a walker to get around. Those needs slow him, but don’t stop him from living life as he chooses. He takes cabs to buy groceries or eat out on occasion. He uses Dial-a-Ride for appointments. And he counts on a Life Alert button to get help if he needs it, like when he broke his ankle.

But birthdays are meant to be celebrated and shared. Due to the coronavirus quarantine, Joe’s latest birthday was the first he has ever spent alone. He is not, of course, the only one. Countless individuals — whether single, elderly, disabled, homeless or, worse, infected with the virus — are in quarantine alone, with no one to comfort or care for them.

Joe would tell you he is blessed and thankful to have family and church friends and neighbors who check on him often to be sure he’s all right and that he has all he needs. I, too, am thankful he has all of that. I just wish he didn’t spend his birthday alone.

Joe lives in South Carolina, where we grew up, 3,000 miles from California, where I’ve spent most of my adult life. We keep in touch by phone. Our older sister lives 30 miles from him. She doesn’t like to drive anymore, but she offered to bring him to her house to celebrate his birthday.

“I appreciated her offer,” Joe said, “but I didn’t feel up to it. It’s just easier to be at home.”

Home, for most of us, is often the easiest and best place to be.

I wanted to send him a gift for his birthday — a new Clemson hat (his favorite team) or a birthday cake. But packages tend to get stolen off his porch. And his apartment complex’s office, where I can usually send him things safely, apparently was closed for the quarantine.

So when I phoned on his birthday, instead of a gift, Joe and I opened memories.

He recalled cakes our mother baked for him. I recalled candles that singed his nose hairs.

He remembered getting in fights at the school for the blind. I remembered picking him up to go home on weekends, how he’d come hurrying out, swinging his cane almost as wide as his grin.

His happiest memories were the 10 years he spent with his wife, the love of his life, Tommie Jean. She, too, was blind. They went everywhere together, Joe leading with his cane, while she followed holding his hand. He lost her 15 years ago to cancer.

In that loss, Joe learned — as we often do in losing someone we thought we could never live without — that being alone is not the same as being lonely.

We can’t always be with those we love. We are often kept apart by death or distance or disease. But we don’t have to be in the same room together to know we love them and they love us.

When Joe was 7, he spent weeks in a hospital recovering from surgery that was supposed to help him walk. A nurse told my mother he fell asleep every night singing “Love Lifted Me.”

Love still lifts my brother. It lifts us, one and all, alone and together, in the brightest of moments and darkest of days.

It’s the only thing that can.


  1. I wondered how your brother was doing since we don’t get your column in our paper any more. I was happy to read he is doing well. You are truly a blessing to me. Thank you for your wonderful stories.

  2. Priscilla Smith says

    What a beautiful article about an amazing brother! He’s lucky to have you and so many people who really care. Blessings on both of you!

  3. Ruth Copsey says

    Say “happy birthday” to your brother from all the way out here in the Philippines! We’re confined in our house, too and I’m glad we can still.connect on line. Thanks for sharing his story.

  4. Kate Sciacca says

    Happy Birthday Joe! Hope things get back to normal soon…. we’re surviving Spring without baseball but Joe doesn’t need a Fall without football 😉

    Happy Easter Monday to all of you.

  5. Cath Tendler says

    This is your BEST article ever! Perhaps I am biased, since I was a teacher of visually impaired for four decades, so I’ve always been dialed into your Joe stories. Just for perspective, you’ve known Joe for more birthdays than your husbands, children, or grandchildren. It’s our privilege to know our siblings longer than others who get married or birthed into our lives. As written in braille, Joe, “Happy Birth Dot 5 D!” I would have loved to have you as my student! May your birthday next year bring double joy!

  6. 💚💚💚 Love this, Sharon!!!

  7. Sheri Titcombe says

    Beautifully written. Joe is so lucky to have you as his sister. The distance for all of us, 6 ft. apart, not spending Easter with my daughter and her fiancé, my son and his fiancé are both RN’s and had to work, made me feel lonely. I have my husband, made the traditional Easter dinner, but it wasn’t the same. I’m use to socializing and going out and seeing a movie, or lunch with a friend and now it’s like we have to stay HOME!!!.. Happy Birthday to your brother..

  8. Dick Daniel says

    So deeply touching. Thank you, once again, Sharon.

  9. Shirley Thacker says

    Beautiful! I felt your love for your brother. And the pain in the distance between you! Thank you for sharing.

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