The Last Spring

A sweet Carolina sunset taunts me with spring. There’s promise in the tulips, hope in sparrows, and new life evident in the allergy attack seizing Pickens County.  The juxtaposition of life and death sobers me now, and the mountains here are likewise juxtaposed with the oceans I left behind: the abundance of muchness with the absence of anything at all.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Because he’s neither here nor there.  Joshua Welker is in heaven.  Yes, I blink as I craft a euphemism, and yet another to account for his passing, most enigmatic in the daytime.  A great light went out of the world, and I need to write through this twilight.  I’ve been selfish with my words recently, storing them up in my head, discarding them before they make it to the written page.  Tonight, I emerge to honor Joshua.  Only God could know that last year would be his last spring.  This one starts without him.

His may not be a universal household name, but it extends across the country from his West Coast professional contributions.  In Hampton Roads, there are a hundred kids who will remember him well.  It was 2020, just weeks before the whole world shut down.  My middle schoolers were writing research papers about recognizing what was most important in life.  Josh came for a visit, and I roped him into being interviewed by each of my classes. 

Reading through those essays in the days since Joshua died so unexpectantly is admittedly a bit surreal.  His words of wisdom to my students are captured in a Google Time Capsule.  Each class asked different questions, but within his responses were universal themes that convict me in this moment.  Post-quarantine, Joshua’s answers appear all the more relevant and timely.

He told them that life was fragile, so we needed to set priorities.  “You’ve got to have goals, something you’re working towards,” he told them, “Do what you love.  It’s easier to gain success if you work at what you like best.” From stage to screen, Joshua was never more himself than when he was performing.  He could manage a restaurant and command authority.  In each phase of his career, Josh made a living doing what he was made to do.  That’s living well. 

Another continued theme was about relationships.  Josh shared with my kids, “My family was very supportive.  Without family, it’s harder to make big decisions and take risks.” We hit a similar crossroads at a similar time, and when I opted to leave everything I’d known for Music City, Josh and his brother made the move to Los Angeles.  That was the kind of support he got to experience from family while alive.   “Relationships play a role in almost everything we do… they can be like a grounding force,” Joshua had told my students.  They certainly motivated all his major life choices.  He smiled and made people better for having shared moments with him because they mattered most to him.

Joshua collected family in more than blood, abiding friendships wrought through time, shared trials, and doing life together.  We first met when I was seventeen at my oldest brother’s wedding in Huntsville, Alabama.  When this handsome country boy four years my senior asked my father for permission to take me on a date the next night, I suppose Dad was thinking a love interest who was older but far from New York was a safe concession, and he said yes.  I soon understood what southern charm was, and I don’t know how many syllables he made “Laura Joy”, but that drawl made me want to hear it again. 

“I have three friends that are as close as family,” Josh told the middle schoolers. “They can make school – and even life – more bearable, especially in the teenage years.”  He believed that the friends we pick had a huge effect on our lives, and he prioritized those relationships.  After we met, we corresponded with calls and letters and AOL Instant Messenger, and it’s true that he both made my life more bearable maturing into adulthood and prioritized me. 

“Positivity is important,” he’d told my kids, “because negativity and positivity are both contagious.” For my first two years of college, we were both in the Chicago area, and my best summation is that we tried not to date seriously.  Joshua was pretty much the perfect guy, and I knew his acting aspirations would take him to far and unpredictable places, and I’d still have years of school to complete, but our friendship endured.  Josh told my students that without family and friends, you can become isolated and feel lonely.  It was impossible to feel lonely around him.  I’ll never forget turning nineteen in a college dorm with my girlfriends dressing us up in evening gowns, leading me to a limo on campus with Joshua and a bouquet of red roses at the heart of the surprise.  Josh took the time to know his people well so that he could love them well.  Italian cuisine in the Windy City could never taste as perfect as it did that night.  Joshua’s optimism was palpable, hope in the recipe.

More than goals and relationships, Josh told my kids that it was important to balance life with hobbies to keep a healthy mindset.   Josh’s passions were contagious, too.  He took me up the Sears Tower when I was eighteen and showed me what the world really looked like.  He made the drive west from Oak Park to Wheaton to pick me up and take me north for Willow Creek church services on Sundays.  When we were grown, it was trading gardening secrets and cooking together that added spice to life.  When I learned of his death, I started playing “Walking in Memphis” on repeat… but in my humble opinion, Marc Cohn can’t hold a candle to the vocal stylings of Joshua Welker on this particular song.  He could take my breath away when he sang, literally the only thing I could see or hear or feel. 

Josh taught my kids that failure was to be an expected and accepted part of life.  “If one thing has failed, others may do the same, right?” He’d challenged them.  “You’re going to fail way more than you succeed, but it’s also a way to learn from your mistakes.”  I see that now in a way I didn’t before.  My marriage failed ten years ago, and I thought I’d fall in love again and have a family.  But there were more failures, more mistakes, and ultimately, more growth amid successes that I gloss over while focusing on the loss.  Josh would tell me to see all I’ve gained instead.  We never had children of our own, but our brothers’ and sister’s children have gotten our full love and attention, present in ways only singleness could have fostered. 

“Some people say that living and surviving are the same.  Well, they aren’t to me,” Josh posited before COVID-19 rewrote our routines.  “Living means really be the best in life and work on your goals with trial and error, whereas surviving means just being able to live with the bare minimum.”  Refusing to settle for surviving is a consistent theme in Joshua’s life.  When I was content to be a school teacher with a predictable paycheck and schedule, he took all the risks my performer spirit never could abide.  Even in death, I admire his daring, let-me-be-first attitude in facing the unknowns beyond the grave.

And while Josh lived intentionally and poured into those relationships he cherished consistently, he would be the first to admit he didn’t have a well-balanced life.  “I have too much work and not enough of the other things,” he told one of my classes.  I get it. Like him, without the family ensemble, I’ve found myself settling into the imbalance of a workaholic lifestyle, as though a career deserves 150% to compensate for our social shortcomings.  I’m reading his words now and, again, feeling conviction. 

Nevertheless, there is a message of promise.  A common emphasis in each of Joshua’s interviews was on the importance of faith.  “It affects my family and friends. If religion is a part of your life, it may guide you with love, work, and your social life.”  Joshua’s faith was fundamental, and it was the ultimate relationship grounding his life.  He believed that he had a Savior, that no matter how much good he accumulated this side of heaven, he was a sinner saved by grace through faith. 

And so I cannot grieve as one without hope, and I might comfort myself with the thought of a choir of angels welcoming Joshua’s booming baritone contributing to harmonies I’ll join in on myself one day. 

Joshua told my class that of all the relationships you’d find in life, “the relationship with your lover is the most important because it lasts the longest.”  Oh, ours wasn’t the typical love story.  We started and stopped too many times to count.  It was never the right time.  But Joshua Welker loved me well when I was young and carefree and beautiful.  When I was old and beaten down and worn out, he loved me well too.  He loved me for twenty-three years, longer than any man not related to me.  We didn’t have to be in the same city; I felt more tethered to the world when Josh was in it. 

I haven’t been writing. But Joshua is no longer breathing and I am.  He will never capture another audience and I can.  He can’t anything anymore, so Lord help me to do something more with what time I have left.  We will never have a right time.   Waking up is not guaranteed.  Joshua’s still impacting my life, advising me even now, though I wish I wasn’t learning it the hard way… the hard-to-breathe way. 

Joshua lived intentionally, loved passionately, worked courageously, and spread positivity like it should be a pandemic.  “If you live life to the fullest,” Joshua told those hundred kids and me, “there will be less regret in the end.” By that standard, may Joshua Welker rest in peace.  He didn’t say there’d be no regrets, but less.  May the same be true for me when I’ve seen my last spring.

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