The Death of My Best Friend, The Birth of My Angel

I first met Joseph Gilliam in the Fall of 2010 at Purdue University. We were both football players on full scholarship, living in the same dorms, eating at the same table, sweating, and bleeding for the same team. I have to admit though, at first Joseph and I did not get along. It wasn't anything malicious or hateful about it, we preferred the company of other people. Freshmen year I thought Joseph was slightly annoying and loud. He was from Indianapolis and even though I had only ever met a handful of people from the state I now played football in, I determined quickly didn't like them. The sentiment wasn't one-sided. I was an awkwardly silent, large, black man with a blonde mohawk. I was oftentimes mistaken for a psychopath that could snap at any moment. People start rumors of me only talking to myself or inanimate objects. My first true introduction to Joseph was through my roommate at the time Reggie. Reggie and Joseph were addicted to the same video game and couldn't go one night without playing each other. Joe had the biggest laugh and smile of anyone I had ever seen. He laughed as if he never knew hurt. He smiled as if he had never felt pain. The wisdom in his eye told you he had experienced much of life's uglier sides, but that didn't jade him.

I'm not sure if boredom or curiosity that attracted me to the game and also to Joseph. I learned through some hard-fought video game battles that Joe wasn't necessarily loud to be loud, he was passionate. Everything he did was with all his heart and soul. I watched him compete in video games and that naturally extended to me watching him on the practice field. No matter how tough practice was, or how bad the coaches treated us, Joe gave his best. It wasn't just on the field either, off the field, in the classroom, in his relationships with his family, in his faith. Joe was centered, grounded, and while all us were trying to figure out who we were and whom we wanted to be. Joe knew, he knew who he was, he knew what he wanted, and he worked tirelessly to achieve that. I was like the rest of the freshmen, I had no clue. The one thing I knew was that I wanted to at least try to go in the same direction as Joe. My roommate transferred that next year and Joe and his freshmen roommate decided to go their separate ways. That summer Joe and I decided to live together, and without discussing it, we began to do everything together. We took similar classes, we workout out together, we played the same video games, watched the same shoes, ate the same food, and slowly our lives grew inseparably. We made many great friends along the way as well.

As was I, people just seemed to be drawn to his energy, and his consistency. You know what you were going to get with Joe and you knew it was going to be what you needed. I went from the scary psychopath mute to an all big ten performer, a team captain, and one of the more popular guys on campus. Without a doubt that was because of Joe. Even though Joe's football career was hindered by a horrible knee injury he never stopped encouraging and celebrating his teammates.
Towards the end of our college career, Joe had his sights on a young lady. Someone whom I happened to grow up within Texas. One day Joseph asked me about Rachel, my good friend, and expressed a genuine interest in her. Now, this was monumental because like I said before, Joe was someone who knew what he wanted. It was clear through our time in college he was not impressed with any of the girls at Purdue. Joe without a doubt is one of the best men I've ever met, and to Rachel's credit, she was his female counterpart in that aspect.

The match made perfect sense to me, and after formally introducing them they became inseparable. A few years later I had the honor of being Joe and Rachel's best man at their wedding. Life was better than it had ever been. Two of my closest friend had found eternal love within each other. After graduation, we all fought to see each other as much as possible. Guy trips with Joe and some of the fellas were an annual must. March 17th, 2017, Joe, Rachel, and I flew to New York City to celebrate Joe's birthday. On the way to New York City Joe had brought up some numbness, and loss of feeling in his leg. We attributed it to Joe's past knee injury and tried to make the most out of a big weekend. Joe's birthday also fell along St. Patrick's Day weekend, offering a plethora of options and adventures. We shopped, we drank, we danced, and laughed. For a birthday gift, Rachel and I took Joe to a Brooklyn Nets vs Boston Celtics game, with floor seats. One of his favorite players at the time Isiah Thomas wasn't playing that night but Joe treasured the experience just as much.

The next morning Joe had lost feeling in both his legs. The alarm started to set in. We had to go to the emergency room, powering through and waiting around wasn't a choice anymore. We visited Mount Sinai West Hospital where Joe was tested for almost a months time before finding out he had stage four spinal glioblastoma. A rare form of cancer with a tumor wrapped around his spine, crushing it, and causing paralysis. The news was devastating. The news spread to Joe's friends and family, and the love began to pour immeasurable amounts. In the start of Rachel and Joe's relationship, Joseph had been Rachel's rock through enormous health battles. Now it wasRachel's turn to be there to support her husband, and she rose to the occasion gracefully. Without certainty for the future, without his ability to walk, Joe did was Joe always did. He began to be the rock. Joe's faith was unmoved by his circumstances, and he was often a comforting force to those who came to comfort him. The illness progressed and eventually, Joe lost the use of almost all his motor functions. To this day I can't wrap my head around how the most egregious thing can happen to the purest person I know. Everyone in Joe's life prayed, cried, comforted, visited, and just loved on Joe.

September 11th, 2018 Joseph Marlow Gilliam was welcomed into heaven and fully restored by our heavenly father. For me as well as many others Joe was my rock. Without him, my relationships started to shift, my emotions raged, my faith wavered. I tried every coping mechanism possible. Substances, therapy, church, I leaned on my friends, I became a recluse, but nothing filled the gaping hole in the middle of my life. Time heals all wounds, but people have been known to bleed out. I didn't have time. Everything was falling apart. What was the point? Of being a good person? Of loving people? Ofstriving to be the change in the world. Joe had done all that, yet he was taken from us in 26 short years. Maybe the world doesn't deserve those things? Why would I try to give it to them? So I stopped. I stopped living for the world. I began to live for Joe and for myself. There is zero doubt in my mind that Joe is in heaven and what I wanted more than anything was to see my best friend again.

I took things on one by one. In the morning I focused on waking up and silencing the pain long enough to get out of bed. During the day I focused on being productive, being consistent, being as close to Joe as I could. At night I prayed to God to let me see Joe again one day, to let him visit me in a dream, to let sleep come without night terrors. Time is doing what was promised and I feel myself healing. I have good days and bad days but I aspire to be consistent to be Joe. My best friend died but our memories, our lessons, our love live on forever. I was rewarded with a visit from Joseph in my sleep. He didn't say anything to me and I didn't say anything either. He hugged me, and even though I was crying I was smiling. Then Joe smiled back at me and began to laugh. I should've known long ago, his laugh was the laugh of angels. I love you, Joseph.


10 thoughts on “The Death of My Best Friend, The Birth of My Angel

  1. Wonderful words for a wonderful man we all loved. Thanks for being vulnerable and showing others that our lives can be complex, even when it doesn’t appear that way. Love you for everything you are to Joe & Rae. Blessings to you and your mom! 💕

    1. Thank you. You’re the best. Joe brought so many amazing people into my life. Also made Rachel and I closer then we ever have been. I owe him so much. I’ll spend my whole life repaying him and making him proud.

  2. Annnd I’m crying. Thank you for sharing. I think we’re all coping and dealing as best we can. I’m so grateful to have met Joe. My heart breaks for Rachel and all who love Joe daily, but I know he’s with us and will continue to be our angel!

  3. I didn’t know either of you when I was at Purdue but I always saw y’all around campus and always heard amazing things about the both of you from other players I did know well. This literally brought tears of sadness, love, and joy all in one while reading this. It is truly amazing what difference a single person can make in your life. Thank you for sharing this with the world!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and be so very kind to me. I’m glad that Joe was even known in good light by those who weren’t close to him. He was truly something special. Thank you again for reading and commenting.

  4. POWERFUL, inspiring and encouraging. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your story and his life. He is still and will continues to inspire. What a powerful testimony from you, Joseph, and Rachel. Blessings!

  5. Ryan,
    This is so very beautiful. Your friendship with Joe and Rachel has been so fun to watch and heartbreaking to see take a different path. You have so much in you to keep striving for and I am glad that Joe can be your driving force now just as much as he was before. There is no better way to honor him and your friendship.

  6. Ryan this was very touching. My heart goes out to you. I’m sure is smiling down on you. He was an Awesome young man who was taken too soon… i remembered when i first met him the day him and my son Ryan isaac move into there dorm room at Carri Quad.. he had the biggest smile and great personality… Very respectful… I’m praying that your strength will grow continually… Be Bless!! Always …

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