Joseph Tallent: A Man Worth Waiting For, Lost Too Young

A few years ago, my father was transitioning to rehab after an infection led to a foot amputation. My sister came home to see him and brought a friend with her. He brought his guitar and asked her for a song dad would be able to recognize upon hearing it. She chose an Allison Krauss song. He threw his acoustic over his shoulder, began to play, and walked slowly, confidently, down the halls of the facility to dad’s room. The instrument was understated and scared by cigarette butts of past owners, but in his hands it sang. The melody reverberated through the rooms and made many heads turn. That is how our family met Joseph Tallent, my sister’s second husband.

Joey playing and walking with Ariel in Florida

They had a whirlwind courtship. Within months of meeting online, they were getting married. I was skeptical. My sister’s school girl giggles when they were together confirmed how taken she was with him, but he was stoic. Joey barely spoke. He was reserved with his smiles and laughter. Still he exuded peace and confidence with his silence.

Engagement Photo of Melissa and Joey by Rebecca Whitman

Joey was a petite man with wild Elvis hair and a voice that squeaked into high registers, but there was nothing small or quiet about his personality. I was soon to learn that.

This is one of my favorite pictures because it was rare to catch Joey so vulnerable and happy in pictures. Melissa took this during their dating period.

I went on a trip to see my sister and her two girls from a previous marriage. We took the girls and Joey and went to St. Augustine, Florida. I stood back and watched how he interacted with my nieces and sister. He was protective: he walked beside the girls with his head on swivel for traffic. He was curious: he explored the buildings with us and suggested places to go. He was daring: he threatened to walk the riverfront in his boxers just to show me he didn’t care what people thought of him.

In the car later, my sister was upset about something that he knew about. The whole ride home, he held her hand and fed her spirit with a playlist of songs. I watched her weep and fall into peace with the melodies. Joey had become a steward of my sister’s heart. Like a gardener protects, tends, and waters his garden, Joey protected my sister and her girls, tended to her needs for organization and cleanliness in her home, and watered her heart with their shared love language of music. Seeing the depth of his intentionality and care is what made me love Joey too.

Quote graphic by Rebecca Whitman

Lately I have been reading Jackie Kendall’s A Man Worth Waiting For. It is a study of the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz that examines the qualities of a godly man and how to recognize him. Being a steward of the heart of the woman he loves was one of the characteristics. Joey was exhibiting the heart of a man worth waiting for (MWWF) long before I learned what that meant.

Joey was not a perfect man by any stretch of the circumstances, but even his imperfections made him perfect for our family. My neices loved and trusted him. My sister rested her heart with him. Later, his son blossomed with him. He was the Winnie-the-Pooh to my sister’s red balloon.

Joey and son, Alex, at Alex’s 1st Birthday

They had a lot of plans to travel the country together. Joey wanted to introduce his son to the Yankees, but he never made it to his first game. After a non-Covid related respiratory incident, Joey passed away suddenly this summer at the age of 34.

Joey on the waterfront in Florida.

There’s not enough white space to show the gap he left in our hearts. Joey was the kind of man who was kind to everyone but close to few, and those few were people he invested in intentionally. I was one of the few, but I didn’t realize it till he was gone.

What I do know is that he changed me. Joey made me laugh at life again, and he challenged me to take myself more seriously. He encouraged my dreams, but he wasn’t afraid to speak the hard truth when I needed it. That honesty saved me from years of further heartache in relationships with men not right for me.

Joey was more than a brother-in-law to me; he was my friend. I could be myself with him and know I was always welcome, safe, and loved. Even when my sister and I fought and he had every reason to side with her and hate me, Joey was kind to me. Joey was family by marriage, but he felt more like the blood brother I always wished I had.

In the moments following his death, I found myself wondering what my last words were to him. Did I tell him I loved him? Did he know that either way? We didn’t talk often, nor did we see each other much. My sister and her family lived several states away. Was that last moment a hurried goodbye as they left my house or a hug in his living room with the baby in his arms? I don’t know.

It’s hard to know how to deal with the death of a young person. Joey had a lot of life ahead of him and a son not yet two years old to raise. How were we to move on and show his son what an amazing father he had? How could we possibly teach him all his dad would have taught him? Thank God his mother is alive and can be the voice of this knowledge to her grandson.

It’s normal to feel angry when you lose a loved one. All your emotions become raw hamburger in the wake of such a loss. Part of you wants to draw the curtains and hide inside the shell of your life and cry. But the business of death won’t let you have that freedom.

The business of death is the part no one talks about and fewer still prepare for. It’s all the decisions about funeral services, your final resting place, the bills from your life that must be settled, the lack of income your family has to adjust to, your possessions they have to store or disperse, and the memories you left them with. Joey had no idea he was going to die the way he did, but he lived with an eternal mindset knowing his days on Earth were always numbered. He proved this to me in his death by the fact that he prepaid as many of the bills as possible, and he structured the finances of his household to be dependent on my sister’s income alone.

My sister was used to trusting Joey with the finances, but she had to navigate through these muddy waters while also melting into tears whenever she looked at what Joey left behind. We developed a GoFundMe to help her through unplanned expenses, and several caring friends contributed. Nevertheless, she still had to find a way to handle life alone and without the income to do all the extras she could afford with Joey. In a moment, the red balloon of my free-spirited sister was grounded and all the joy was sucked out of her.

Everyone says that grief gets easier with time, but the truth is that it is different for everyone. One person loves intensely, grieves intensely, and moves on. Another holds on to memories and slowly opens the onion layers of their pain over time. Many more find their way through pain in a variation of something between both extremes.

When you are hurting and trying to find your new normal after loss, find someone who knows you and what you truly value and share your thoughts with them. You will need the accountability in the months and years ahead because your emotions will play tricks on you. One more thing: think twice before you throw your family under the bus in your anger. It is easy to lash out at the people closest to you and even feel justified doing it, but those words are hard to hear and even harder to step back. Even if you feel like you are the only person qualified to speak about loss and pain, you don’t have the right to silence another person’s pain.

I was never as close to Joey as my sister and her kids were, but I still grieved him more than I expected too. I still struggled for months to put my pain into words. At the time of writing this, it has been four months since Joey stepped out of this world and into the next. He is gone but still ever present with us through the smile of his son and a thousand other things he left behind.

If you have gone through the loss of a loved one or a young person, I share this very personal story to hopefully help you avoid making some of the common mistakes that have been made in times of grief and heightened emotions.

  • Let your pain draw you closer not push you away from your loved ones.
  • Learn to practice patience and transparency with people you can trust who were in your life long before the tragedy happened.
  • Be cautious about making big sweeping changes to your life. Even when you are happy, you are still in a stressed-out-emotional-survival-mode-crisis stage of life. Expect decisions right now to be based on emotions more than sound judgment.
  • Guard your tongue; think twice before you unleash all your hurt on those around you lest you scorch the earth you stand on too and end up causing yourself more trouble.
  • Let the grief have time to settle before you move on to someone new. It’s not fair for either of you to walk with the ghost of a past love standing between you.

A Life Interrupted

When you lose a loved one, it is hard to find the words to express what they meant to you in that moment. It is especially hard when they are young. Such was the case with my brother, Joseph Tallent.

You will hear more about Joey later this week, but today we want to share the poem written for his memorial. This terza rima is a celebration of his life.

by Rebecca J. Whitman

From the moment you entered the world,

you struggled for breath and light.

Life came to you unfurled

after four years of perpetual fight.

You looked around in awe and wonder.

The world–your oyster–now a beautiful sight.

You found joy in little things: sitting under

Yankees Stadium, traveling to see games, 

commiserating when they were torn asunder.

A second love took its claims

when you found the melody of strings.

You went to concerts, met famous names,

felt the inspiration and life that artistry brings,

and chose to perfect that skill as your own.

Playing music was a freedom that gave your heart wings.

Around NASCAR you had grown

faithful to the 3, 24, and 88

numbers your favorite driver had flown.

Managing numbers was your gifted trait.

You made financing dreams easy

by taking away the worry and weight.

You weren’t afraid to be cheesy.

You were fearless in frivolity–

carefree and breezy–

yet still a man of depth and quality

with deep convictions about faith and politics.

You invested time with shrewd equality

in relationships of trust not tricks.

You found happiness and love,

peace and rest from conflict.

You built a home and family to be proud of

but your dreams were cut short.

You’ve moved on to life in Heaven above

and we wait to reunite in that Heavenly court.

How Memories Help Overcome Loss

A Guest Post By Shelton D. Whitman
Desperation began with a strong urge to cry uncontrollably. It moved to a choking feeling, and I was suddenly overwhelmed. Emptiness echoed inside; I was lost in a tunnel crying out, “anybody here?” and hearing nothing back. Sometimes the sound of silence is the loudest sound of all.
As the seven strong young Army men of the honor guard from Fort Bragg went through their program to honor my dad, I struggled to keep my composure. They escorted his casket to the grave, played Taps on the trumpet perfectly, folded the American flag that had draped his coffin, and presented it to the family. They fired a 21 gun salute and picked up every shell. They carried my dad to the mausoleum he would rest in and sealed it closed.
At no time did I feel in control of myself. In fact, I was sure that I wasn’t even there. My mind just shut down. I guess it was trying to protect me. When the dam broke, a flood of emotions overtook me, and there was nothing I could do but yield. The tears flowed uncontrollably, and I made no effort to stop them.
My thoughts soon drifted to better days. I remembered happier times I had with my dad and two brothers out fishing in a cool, Colorado river or trolling down an eleven mile reservoir for Kokanee Salmon. I could hear the sizzle of the fresh catch as they fried on the pan over the open camp fire. The taste of their warm, salty meat hit my tongue as though I was there experiencing it all again.
I remembered walking for miles into the Meeker and Creede,Colorado to big game hunt elk and deer. We would start walking early in the morning when the air was so cold we prayed for sunrise to come ribbon across the mountain and thaw us. We would start the day with boiled potatoes in our pockets to keep our hands warm. Later, we would eat them for breakfast. I remembered the deep bellowing bugle of a bull elk and the way I stood in awe at his majestic silhouette. Our hunting trips were not always successful, but we had a tremendous time just being together and enjoying the adventure of the outdoors.
All of a sudden, I was back again–crash landed into the reality of what was happening now. This amazing man who had conquered wild game and worked hard to provide a good life for his family, this man who served multiple active duty tours in the US Army and was shot at and nearly died but survived, this man who seemed larger than life, this unending giant was being laid to rest. Ernest Shelton Whitman–my father–who had begun his life on this patch of soil in Duplin country, was being laid to rest in the same patch of ground he got started in.
Duplin county in North Carolina is largely a rural county. Chicken, turkey, and hog farms abound. The land is quilted in large patches of corn, cotton, tobacco, and watermelon. Trees form natural borders with neighbors and cluster around creeks and streams that snake jagged lines through the county. Modern day GPS devices often get lost finding the private roads and lanes that lead to peoples’ houses.
On September 27, 1938, a native son was born to Robert Steele and Ethel Whitman. Ernest Shelton was the third child born to them, and he was the second child to die following them. The death of Ernest Shelton Whitman reflected the life of Ernest Shelton Whitman. His wife, three sons, three daughters-in-law, six grand kids, and six great-grand kids looked on in shock and disbelief as wonderful words of honor, respect, and comfort were spoken to them. Pastors Jeff Dale and Doug Bartlett spoke very well. I am thankful for all those who stood strong with our family and helped us through such a difficult time.
I am the eldest son, and my recollections may be slightly different than the rest of the family. This day proved to be one of the worst days I would ever have to navigate. Much of the day just went by me; I just tried to remember to keep breathing. Over the next days, weeks, months, and years, the reality of all this would somehow be absorbed into the fabrics of our lives. We would learn to stand a little taller, hold on to each other a little longer, and fight a little harder to move on. I’m not sure how three years have already passed, but the calendar says it is true.
It still just doesn’t seem possible that he is gone. I still break down into an emotional mess at the mere remembrance of my father, a man larger than life itself to me. I don’t know why he is not there when I call his house fully expecting him to say, “hello, son.” I still vividly remember the last time I saw him alive. We were looking through his impressive collection of watches. He handed me watches, one at a time, his face beaming with pride and satisfaction as he told me about each one. Then he surprised me by presenting me with his much coveted Omega wrist watch. I was thankful and stumbling over my words; he was smiling and glad to have such a reaction. We parted each other’s company with familiar words: “love you, dad. See ya next time”. But there wouldn’t be a next time. I wouldn’t see him again until he lay dying in his hospital bed.
I don’t know how one goes on from something like this. I guess we have to just keep putting one step in front of the other, and try to remember to breathe. I can’t see the numbers on the watch dad gave me when I wear it, but I wear it anyway to remember him. My memories growing up with my dad have become more precious to me. Memories have great power to heal us. When I need to talk to my dad, I look back into those memories and think about the man he was and would be today if he could be here.


Shelton Whitman served as an ordained minister for over thirty years in Colorado and North Carolina. He was well known and loved for his smooth, Elvis-like singing voice and his fiery sermons. He retired early due to health issues, and now lives with his wife, Wanda, in rural North Carolina on the farm his father and grandfather started. He shares his thoughts on his blog at: https://sheltondwhitman.wordpress.com/