I remember the day, the moment, the time like it was yesterday. I was watching the Cowboys play the Packers on a Sunday afternoon and I glanced down at my cell. I saw my friend Doug's name appear and I immediately knew something was wrong because while Doug and I were always tight, he didn't usually call me. We texted, we played poker, we hung out, but a phone call from him on a Sunday afternoon was unusual.
I accepted the call and immediately heard trembling in Doug's normally strong, assertive, confident voice. Fighting back a hurricane of tears and an avalanche of grief, Doug had to be the one to tell me about our best friend Joe. Some of you may hear or have heard me refer to him as 'Poker Joe'. We met playing cards, but our friendship blossomed not over hands at the poker table, but hands dealt in life.
I waited for Doug to say words, and then he hit me with a ton of bricks. It didn't start with "are you sitting down" or 'Brian, do you have a minute?" None of that.
I remember not just what Doug said but how he said it because it was literally the hardest thing I've ever heard a human being say to me. He was trying to say strong and get it out but I'm not convinced he really believed what he was about to say.
Doug was able to summon the strength, choking back tears and emotion and anger and shock and grief and then came the news: "Joe's dead, Brian...he died"
I was too shocked to cry, too confused to process what he was saying. I kept saying "No way...no he's not! Joe's not dead. He's fine...he's going to be fine."
As I was saying this to Doug, I started to put sneakers on, I stumbled around the house looking for my keys....just anything, something so I could get the f**k out of the house and go see Joe, but I didn't even know where I was going. Doug told me to get to St. Peter's Hospital.
There was food cooking in the oven, the dogs were out, the TV was on, but none of that mattered. I bolted to St. Peter's hospital with my girlfriend Samantha and I don't even remember driving an actual vehicle.
"Doug said Joe died, but there's no way. He's fine...he's fine, you'll see when we get to the hospital that Joe's fine," I kept saying to Samantha.
Joe was not only my very best friend but he was Doug's very best friend too. If Joe wasn't with me hanging out, playing cards, watching sports, going to bars, eating sushi or getting breakfast, he was with Doug. On many occasions, we all hung out together. The night before Joe passed away was one of those nights. The whole crew got together at my house to watch some UFC. It was the night that Conor McGregor kicked Jose Aldo's ass in like 12 seconds and I'll never forget it. In fact, this may sound weird, but I love watching Conor McGregor fights because it feels like a piece of Joe is still with me. Like, as long as Conor is still fighting, Joe's going to be at my house to watch it. And it was a great night; nearly perfect. My 41-year-old friend looked great, was as fun as usual, cracking jokes, making drinks...heck he even ran a few errands for me before he came over (something I don't think he enjoyed doing lol) showing up with a much needed bag of ice.
At about 1:30 am, the crew was leaving the house. Joe, Doug, Meredith, my buddy Jason, our friend Josh and a few others said our goodbyes, told everyone we loved each other, promised to get home safely, and called it a night.
Joe was gone about 13 hours later, suffering a massive heart attack the following morning. The details are still somewhat sketchy but from what we pieced together he stubbornly refused a visit to ER until it was probably too late. I get mad at him sometimes. "You stupid fuck, you knew something was wrong!" I'll say while looking at pictures of him. Why did he wait until 3 or 4 hours after he felt like shit to go to urgent care? I don't know. That's how Joe was. He did stuff his own way, on his own time. He was stubborn, but that was Joe.
My best friend, our best friend, and just the best all-around guy you'd ever wanna meet died on Sunday, December 13th 2015. Hard to believe it'll be 4 years this weekend.
My son Brody who is 4 1/2-years-old now never got to know him, but knows exactly what he looks like and that "he's daddy's best friend who died when his heart got sick". I mean, how else do you explain that to a kid? Brody knows how important Joe is and was to me, and maybe I'm giving a 4-year-old too much credit, but I feel like he understands to some degree the concept of death. Sometimes Brody, completely unprompted, will wear Joe's old fedora hat that sits in my living room and ask questions about him. Brody has been to Joe's grave site with me a few times. He stands quietly by my side while I talk and shoot the shit with Joe and clean off the area his body has been laid to rest.
I still tag Joe in Instagram posts that I know he'll get a kick out of. I still secretly root for the shitty teams he loves; the Dolphins, Orioles, Pittsburgh Penguins and Miami Hurricanes. I sent him an email last week just saying what's up that was promptly returned to me with an 'error' message. I used to text him all the time telling him I missed him. One time, a few years ago, I got a message back from Joe's phone that said "Who's this?" and I nearly passed the fuck out. It was from the person that now has Joe's old number. Twisted and cruel for sure, but life goes on I guess.
Why this long post, you ask? I don't know. I really don't. Just to get it off my chest perhaps...just to say something about my man who I miss the shit out of. Just to mention maybe how much I appreciate my friends Doug and Meredith who I met through Joe. The three of us, and many many others, are actually closer now then we've ever been. I am truly and eternally grateful for those two kind, amazing, honorable and wonderful humans.
We're lucky to have one or two gems of people in our lives that make food taste better, jokes funnier, sports more exciting, tequila shots a little smoother, and life more colorful. Tell that person, if you're lucky enough to have one like Joe, you love them. Appreciate the gift of having someone in your world you feel like you couldn't and wouldn't want to live without. For over a decade, and every day leading up to Saturday night December 12th, 2015 that was Joe. You never know when you're going to get a phone call from a world class guy like Doug, voice trembling...unable to say what he's about to say.
I wish my phone never rang on Sunday December 13th, 2015. But when life (or death) calls, you have to pick up the phone and then some how, some way pick up the pieces. But it ain't easy...
Joe Shapiro, Poker Joe , "The Best of the Best" you are missed every single day.
Rest in Peace my brotha...see you for the next Conor fight!