It hardly seems possible to me that on June 11, two decades will have passed since my college fraternity brother and best friend Joe passed away. I can recall the precise moment I received the news from my mother, hesitating to tell me that my friend had died after a lengthy illness. While time heals all wounds, some remain with us for life and the untimely departure of Joe is one that lingers with me to this day. It was not the first time I had experienced the loss of a friend. When I was just in second grade, a childhood friend, Freddie “Mickey” Spencer, was killed in a devastating fire; an event that haunted me for some time after learning that Mickey could have been saved but ran frightened, back into his burning home when firefighters saw him in a window. Joe’s passing was different, perhaps because as an adult you have a healthy respect for your own mortality but I think because the relationship was built on true friendship and an abiding faith that I know is rare.
Joe was more than a friend or a fraternity brother for that matter. He was a unique soul who I immediately connected with upon our meeting because his genuineness stood out. During my college years at Morgan State University, Joe, and his family, extended themselves to those of us who were out-of-state students and his house often served as our home away from home. His parents kept an eye on us, fed us, and generally assumed the role of our guardians, always inquiring about our welfare. We became brothers, true brothers; we laughed, cried, fought and struggled together as if bound by blood. My mother considered Joe her “son,” and after I graduated would always stop by to see him or call him when she visited Baltimore, whether or not I was with her. Our bond was so tight he even came to two of my family reunions, and partied like he was part of the Murphy clan.
He was raised in the church and we shared a love of gospel music, and could relate to our experiences as “church boys.” Joe kept his fraternity brothers in church, often dragging us along on a Sunday morning and then taking us to his grandmother’s house to eat after service. Along with my fraternity brother Bryan, the “Deacon,” the two Baltimore brothers never failed to keep the spiritual connection alive between their fraternity brothers. Joe was proud of his then new church home – New Psalmist Baptist Church – and spoke glowingly of its pastor, Bishop Walter Thomas. His constant preaching to his wayward fraternity brothers had an effect; several have entered the ministry and are firmly entrenched in their faith. It is a wonderful testament to a life committed to Christian service.
When he initially called me to tell me he was not feeling well, my immediate reaction was to downplay the possibility of a serious illness because he made light of his condition. It was only after his repeated visits to the hospital did I suspect the worse, though he still put on a brave front. After one of my last trips to see him in the hospital in Baltimore, a fraternity brother called me to inform me that Joe was suffering from AIDS. My heart sunk and I cried as he tried to comfort me, knowing how close Joe was to me. You see, Joe was gay. It would not have mattered had I known that all those years, but the fact that he did not disclose his sexual orientation to me, his closest fraternity brother, made me realize how difficult it must be for gay, Black men to “fit in.” As his condition worsened, our phone conversations were reduced to a minute or so as he had difficulty breathing. Our final words to each other during our last telephone conversation were – I love you frat. Joe passed away about a week after that call. He was laid to rest in one of my suits he loved so much that I had given it to him some time before after his incessant nagging.
I hesitated to write about Joe out of respect for his privacy, but his story needs to be told. When I realized that this was the 30th anniversary of the nation’s fight against AIDS, my heart told me that his life should be honored and celebrated. In the Black community we have made any reference to homosexuality taboo and made gay members of our community outcasts, while casting HIV/AIDS as a penalty for sinful behavior. I don’t think God hates nor hurts his children. He certainly did not hate Joe; as faithful a Christian as you could find. It pains me to think that Joe might have closed his eyes for the final time thinking he was not loved because of who he was, or that God would cast judgment upon him for a life he was given and did not choose. I think, no, I know that Joe was embraced upon his journey “home” and that his life had meaning as can be seen in the lives of those he touched. I cannot imagine the emptiness of life without the experience of true friendship; my life is richer in so many ways because of my friendship with Joe. I was honored to recognize him postmortem as my honorary best man when I got married three years after his passing. My heart still aches twenty years later but my spirit is lifted by the memory of a true friend. Thank you Joe, for being my friend.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.