A friend texted me the other evening about her reading progress for Forget Me Not, mentioning that she was intrigued by the way Joe was included in the story. I replied, in part, "Oh, Joe... He has his issues, but I really do love his character. :)"
Let me tell you why.
Joe entered Forget Me Not as a sort of foil for David. He was outgoing, charming, and very sure of himself. But he acted immaturely, selfishly, and pushed too hard, so that in the end he was left behind, thinking he wasn't good enough.
This brokenhearted boy was the obvious choice for the hero of the sequel. The man left standing alone when the love triangle came apart needed his own story - so I added a couple more hurting souls and ran with the "bleeding heart" theme.
At the beginning of Bleeding Heart, Joe's change was obvious. We found him back at Lake Tahoe, the scene of his former hope and his eventual devastation: not so jovial, not so optimistic, and resolved not to be foolish twice in love.
He fought so hard to hold back his heart... Sally stirred his feelings once again, but he wasn't about to be taken in by pleading eyes and another determined girl. Yet her pain slowly, softly spoke to his own. Watching her fall apart wounded him, and though she was very different from the girl he had once dreamed of calling his wife, he felt he had to do right by her - to give her the new start he needed, too.
Despite his "noble" act, though, he couldn't risk giving his heart completely. It was never meant to be Sally's, to his way of thinking. And still the belief that he wasn't good enough, perhaps even for Sally, invaded his actions. He stopped trying. Sometimes he vented his frustrations; sometimes he hid away. And all the while, his broken heart was continually rubbed raw.
When he saw Sally in Myghal's arms, though - thinking for one moment that she might be dead - fear washed over him. He could have lost his chance to love - truly love - this girl he had committed to share his life with. He had been instrumental in giving Sally a new start; now she, inadvertently, had given one back to him.
So he took it to heart. He still struggled, not wanting Myghal to be there to distract from this opportunity. But he tried. He held his wife. He forgave her. And he didn't ask for any answers, only wanting her to know he loved her just the same.
Still, he couldn't say the words. Couldn't tell her he loved her with his voice. So he told her in another way: he gave his life for her.
He didn't know it was going to come to that. He didn't leave the house planning to die on her behalf. But when he stepped out the door, he did plan to stand up for her, to fight for her, and to protect their unity.
Joe's journey was both short and incredibly long. He died young, but he made the big step from selfishly trying to take love to sacrificially giving it.
And I love him for it.
On the surface, I know his story arc must appear very tragic. After all, he was spurned by Elizabeth, then caught up in another person's broken heart, wandering all over the west until he came back home and settled into a brief and generally unhappy marriage before he was unexpectedly killed by a bullet.
Despite all of that, though, I believe his story is a hopeful one. He grew up on a ranch with his family, had friends and adventures, met a girl who showed him that truth and love are beautiful things, traveled with a loyal companion to work among the grand redwoods, married a girl who taught him that the brokenhearted aren't alone, and finally learned what true love really means. And because of his faith, though it had been bruised and at times neglected, he went Home when he left the world. I honestly believe you couldn't ask for a more hopeful ending than that.
When Joe died, Sally, Seth, and Myghal put up a little cross with only his name and the years of his life carved on it. But if I could give him a headstone, I'd give him one with words like this (which I once found on a headstone in the Silver Terrace Cemetery in Virginia City):
He left us when his manly heart
with earnest hope was beating high;
Too soon it seemed for us to part,
Too soon, alas: for him to die.
O tell us to what land unknown
the soul of him we love has flown.
As Myghal quoted to Sally, "For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come" (Hebrews 13:14). In a time when sudden deaths (in our eyes, not in God's) are announced all too frequently, I take comfort in Joe's story, in the depth of his short life and the hope beyond his death in that "land unknown."
So this is for you, Joe. Thank you for the smiles, the honesty in your struggles, and the sacrifices you made. Thank you for helping me to gain perspective. You're loved, dear friend. Farewell.