My husband Michael and I were sitting on the front steps of our new home in Atlanta. I tell you this because it is one of those moments that gets seared into your consciousness, one of those Where Were You When moments.
Michael was explaining where he wanted to plant a tree in the yard. He gets to decide these things. I dig the holes if my back allows it. The scene was a relieving bid toward normalcy after a shattering 48 hours.
A close friend back in Baltimore had just died of cancer. He wasn’t very old. We loved him very much. Another friend, older, was surrounded by family during his last hours and we were awaiting the word. It was the kind of day when life shocks your system with a reminder that our very existence is as precious as it is precarious.
And then there was Josh.
By then, on that late Tuesday afternoon, the facts of the matter had settled in but our hearts ached from the fresh wound. In the darkest part of Monday morning, the day before, my friend Josh Kruger had been shot seven times in his Philadelphia home. He made it as far as the street outside before collapsing. Josh was dead. He was 39 years old. The news was everywhere.
Many, many people knew Josh, as much for his life challenges as for his formidable talents. He was a fellow writer with a ferocious transparency that stunned even me. I know something about presenting my life on a platter for all to see. Josh displayed his, through blog posts and journalism and social media, as a life almost constantly under assault, from forces of injustice or the broken civic systems in the city he loved or from life with HIV or the drug addiction that wafted in and out of his life.
To know Josh was to worry for him. His monumental ability to unfurl a story was sometimes eclipsed by the characters who inhabited them, the forlorn and the dangerous, the desperate and the unloved. The act of violence that took him from us was the climactic terror, and as easy to solve as the clues strewn throughout his final days. The who and the why will be known very soon. Despair is sloppy.
As Michael pointed this way and that, considering his options for the location of a maple tree, I noticed a stack of mail beside him on the stairs and, among the usual collection of coupons they send to new homeowners, what appeared to be a handwritten card. I leaned down and looked more closely.
The return address said Josh Kruger. Philadelphia.
I’ve never had an out-of-body experience so I can’t say for certain what one is like, but it might feel a lot like those next few minutes.
I showed Michael the envelope and then we both held our breath. I shook my head in disbelief and opened it.
“HIGH FIVE,” trumpeted the glittery text on the happy Hallmark, “WAY TO GO, YOU.”
And then, in a handwriting I don’t believe I have ever seen before, such is the nature these days of emails and social media feeds, was a message from a friend whose voice I will never hear again.
While it’s not a car on Bob Barker’s “Price is Right,” a celebrated memoir and being toast of our global village ain’t that bad, either.
Enjoy it. Hold onto the happiness you’ve cultivated, both as a writer and as a man with a wonderful love story to tell.
Thank You for being a mentor to me and so many others. If you can make it, so can we.
– Josh Kruger
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you… for being the man so many of us needed, whether you realized it or not.
The inside of the card is dated September 7, 2023. The postmark, though, is September 29. I imagine it sat on his desk while he kept meaning to get a stamp, which he eventually did.
He mailed it and two days later he was gone. I would receive it after the horrible, senseless act.
It is at this point I feel the pointless urge to try and explain what the hell this means, to assign a lesson to it all. I don’t think I can do that, any more than I can do that for his murder.
This much is true, however. After my describing Josh as talented and troubled only a moment ago, Josh is not-so-gently asking me to amend that with a few more adjectives, even if they describe qualities he often kept concealed.
Thoughtful. Caring. Sentimental.
The holidays are coming, and by then there will be a new tree taking root in the front yard. I know a few things I will be thankful for next month. And after that, the Christmas tree will have the usual collection of ornaments we have curated from vacations and family, representing memories we like to recall year after year.
And, on that tree, there will be a glittery card tucked between the branches with a message, sent under circumstances both tragic and miraculous, that I will treasure forever.