WATERTOWN — In a Facebook post earlier this year during his battle with glioblastoma multiforme, Joseph “Joe” R. Nunez wrote:
“As I get closer to the end of this journey of life I can’t give you all a lot of advice, the one thing I can say is enjoy what you have. You don’t get another go.”
His attitude of enjoying life started long before his diagnosis and persisted through his cancer journey, providing inspiration for many.
On Feb. 4, 2020, Joe was told he had a malignant tumor growing on his brain, and later returned to Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse for an eight-hour craniotomy and biopsy on the right temporal lobe to determine how aggressive the glioma was. About a week later, he received the news that this cancer was glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of tumor in the brain and one of the most lethal forms of brain cancer, according to the Glioblastoma Foundation.
Joe went through numerous rounds of radiation, chemotherapy and MRIs. Along with the tumor found on the back of his cerebellum, two smaller ones were found on his left and right ventricles and were suspected to be in his spinal fluid as well. He previously said that with his leptomeningeal disease causing the cancer to spread into his spinal fluid, there were not a lot of options for treatment.
On Monday, Joe died in his home under the care of Hospice of Jefferson County, surrounded by family. He was 34.
“It was scary, but you got to do what you got to do,” Joe said in a previous interview about his diagnosis. “You’ve got two choices when something like this happens: You can either sit around and wait for the worst news to come and lay down, or you can just keep moving forward.”
And move forward he did. Joe retained his quick wit and humor to the end, according to those close to him, even cracking jokes to ambulance crews picking him up to take him to the hospital. He once even asked if they could make a stop at the club first.
Joe and his wife, Lindsey R. Nunez, bought their first home in July 2019. The high school sweethearts got together when Lindsey was a sophomore and Joe was a senior. Fifteen years later, they were as strong as ever and have three children together: Braelyn, Bennett and Maddox.
The two were married on April 26 at Upstate Medical Center with the Rev. Terry Culbertson presiding. Though the avid hikers dreamed of being married in the Adirondacks in the summer after Lindsey finished with school, the plan shifted due to Joe’s declining health.
“Cancer does not define him,” Lindsey wrote in Joe’s obituary. “Happiness, craziness, and courage define him. Remember him for having strength and dignity in this tough battle.”
Countless Facebook posts and comments about Joe have been flooding in, along with photos — some Lindsey hasn’t seen before, which she said she loves.
“I remember I was home and he called me and he said, ‘They just told me I had a tumor.’ I was hysterical,” she said, recalling when Joe was diagnosed. “I got there and he was fine. He was happy as can be because there was no reason to be upset about it, there’s nothing you could do. We just kept living, did what we had to do.”
As Lindsey described him, Joe’s personality was truly rambunctious and he was not quiet. Along with being on the wilder side, he had a big heart. If someone needed $20 and that was all he had, he would give them his $20.
Joe was determined to fight and stick around for his family as long as he could, fighting hard in his last weeks.
The news of Joe’s diagnosis prompted an outpouring of community support for Joe and his family. Those many instances helped to remind them they were not alone, that they had a large network of supporters rooting for them, both near and far.
Two of those supporters were former President Donald J. Trump and The Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker, whose bandmate, lead singer Gordon Downie, died of glioblastoma in 2017 at the age of 53. The two sent videos to Joe to help brighten his day and let him know they were rooting for him.
Various fundraisers and benefits were held in Joe’s honor through his journey with glioblastoma. Following the news of his death, the Watertown Wolves announced that they will be honoring Joe by wearing a JN sticker on their helmets for the 2021-22 season.
“It was a humbling experience,” Lindsey said of all the support shown to her family. “There’s just no words for it, it’s great and I just love everyone. It’s been amazing.”
Joe was a 2006 graduate of Thousand Islands Central School and later attended North Country Community College. He was most recently employed as a salesman for FX Caprara Honda and had previously held a position as a salesman for Davidson Chevrolet.
Brooke R. Downs met Joe in June of 2017 after getting out of the Army, when he started working at Davidson Chevrolet.
“He was at the desk next to me and the first day I met him, we just kind of hit it off as buddies really fast,” he said. “I think our humor kind of fit the bill for each other.”
Noting that the two could make anything into a joke when together, he recalled Joe’s knack to make light of any situation, to put a smile on anyone’s face.
Joe was the one who got Mr. Downs interested in golf, though he admitted that he was never all that good at it. The two would often go to Highland Meadows to play at least nine holes and also participated in tournaments each year.
Mr. Downs recalled the heat during one year’s tournament. Joe said to him, “I’ve got this, don’t worry about it.” The next thing he knew, Joe was in the retention pond. The year after that, because the two were always trying to have fun, Mr. Downs said Joe teed off in a dinosaur costume.
At a work function years back, Davidson employees gathered at a casino with a buffet paid for by the dealership. After about two plates each, they said they were “going to get dessert,” but instead they were slipping away to go back to the casino floor to gamble.
“We realized there was a wall that wasn’t tall enough to hide us the whole way, so we’re almost crawling to get past our co-workers to get back to the casino floor,” Mr. Downs said. “They found us later but they weren’t mad, it was fine. No matter what we did we had a good time together.”
Among the family members Joe is survived by, besides Lindsey and their three children, is his sister Tiffanee M. Savage of Gouverneur.
Joe’s older sister recalled that he was always looking out for her, even from a young age. Each August growing up, the family would go to the Watkins Glen NASCAR race. One year, when Joe was about 10 years old, Ms. Savage had a crush on Jeff Gordon at the time and they saw him walking to a helicopter, prompting her to say she wished she could meet him. That was all it took for her “little buddy” to grab her hat off of her head and take off running.
He climbed a fence and went into the restricted area on the other side, ran up to the race car driver and, after apologizing for rushing in on him, told him his sister was a big fan.
“Before he got to Jeff, security is chasing him and this little guy outran them to get me my signature; he was always thinking of me,” Ms. Savage said. “We may have had our fair share of fights, but he always had my back. Our golden rule was we can pick on each other, but no one else was allowed to.”
With Joe being a high energy kid growing up, he was also silly and would do what he could to get laughs. Joe was ever the outgoing one, and Ms. Savage said that if they went somewhere like the beach or an amusement park, he had friends within five minutes of being there.
Joe was the kind of guy who bought a mullet wig specifically to goof around and make people laugh.
According to Ms. Savage, he said he had it to hide his hair because he was bald from chemo, but what was funny about the situation was he had been bald long before chemo, purposely shaving his head for years. He was also into shaving his mustache different ways, always trying to find styles Lindsey didn’t like, then proudly displaying them on his face, like the “monkey tail” mustache or one reminiscent of the ’70s.
Hours of driving didn’t stop Ms. Savage from seeing her brother as much as she could toward the end, being there all day last Thursday until Friday. She went back to visit that Saturday before work and again Sunday night. She said she was glad she did because she didn’t get a chance to go Monday until after he was gone.
Though maybe not family by blood, Coty J. Morgia and Frankie X. Caprara were there with Lindsey and Joe pretty much every step of the way, from carrying Joe down the stairs and loading him into ambulances when necessary, to visiting and lifting his spirits in the hospital. They were his “ride or dies” and wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Mr. Morgia has known Joe for about 10 years, with the two previously working together at Papa Tino’s Pizzeria. Mr. Caprara met Joe in 2018 and knew he also worked in sales. When they first spoke, he knew right then the special gift Joe had for his job. About a month later, they chatted again and he later reached out to Joe and offered him a position at FX Caprara Honda. Joe started at the dealership in June of 2019.
“Joe had something you can’t teach, was always one that not only was amazing at his job but would go out of his way to help everyone and when he did something, he did it out of the love for what he did,” Mr. Caprara said. “For me, growing up in the car business, he’s probably one of the best I’ve ever seen, he had the whole package. I didn’t know one customer that came in here that didn’t love the guy.”
Going above and beyond for everyone, Joe once hand delivered a Cadillac Escalade to a customer all the way in Wyoming.
With Ms. Savage’s mom and aunt being into “The Golden Girls,” Joe would sing the theme song for them, and grew up watching the show. Later on, Joe’s ringtone for Mr. Morgia was the theme song for the show, which Mr. Morgia hadn’t even heard of before Joe came along.
While Ms. Savage’s daughter will not be attending Joe’s funeral, she will wear a Golden Girls outfit in his honor.
“We all want to think or believe that we’re going to be tough if we were in the same situation, but personally, I don’t know if I would be able to handle it as well as he did,” Ms. Savage said. “He made it almost like he was putting us first, saying that it wasn’t bothering him.”
Both Mr. Caprara and Mr. Morgia agreed that Joe’s courage and strength were an inspiration, and through his journey, he taught others how to live each day, to enjoy life.
Having a great love for his job, Joe was determined to work as much as he could, even calling Mr. Caprara once just a few days out of brain surgery asking to come back to work.
More than just co-workers and friends, Mr. Morgia and Mr. Caprara had tough times with Joe, a truly wild ride, but they had lots of highs as well and will forever hold onto those memories.
Toward the end, the two were with Joe almost every day — often multiple times in one day — including the day he passed. They said he never showed weakness and that having a partner in life as strong as Lindsey helped a lot, that she was most likely responsible for much of the strength in Joe.
Last weekend, Mr. Morgia said he had Joe alert and talking and asked him if he could see him. Joe’s response was, “Yeah I can see your eyes, your nose, your ears ... and you’re just as ugly.”
Even until hours before, Mr. Morgia and Mr. Caprara were by his side, something that Lindsey said amazed the Hospice nurse.
Having lost their close friend, the priority now for Mr. Morgia and Mr. Caprara is to continue to support his family.
“I have no regrets and I’m not scared of death, I’m scared for my family to be without me but I know they will be taken care of,” Joe once wrote. “I can’t begin to thank everyone enough for all you’ve done.”
Aside from his family and lesser loves, like gas station pizza and sending funny Snapchats, Joe had a great love for his souped-up Subaru WRX. One of the hardest days was when it came time to sell the car, which Mr. Caprara and Mr. Morgia took care of for Joe earlier this year. As they were cleaning it out, they found the mullet wig, which Lindsey now has and said she might bring to the funeral so people can have a laugh.
Though Lindsey had been grieving pieces of Joe for 19 months, the thought of him physically leaving was always the hardest. Having found writing as an outlet over the years, she said his obituary and eulogy were the toughest things she’s ever had to write.
His free spirit, humor and wild streak are not lost now — they live on in his children. Lindsey described Braelyn as being very smart and going with the flow like her father. Bennett is smooth with everything and loves making people laugh, just like Joe. As for Maddox, he’s wild, already “100% his father.”
Their oldest, Braelyn, has been struggling with Joe’s death, with Bennett remaining brave, and Maddox not fully understanding the situation. The other day, Maddox was on the bed and said he wasn’t going to sleep on his father’s side because he wanted him to come sleep there.
“He loved our kids, plain and simple,” Lindsey said. “He was a great father and really did everything he could for them.”
Calling hours for Joe will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at the D.L. Calarco Funeral Home. The funeral service to follow will be held privately just for family. Contributions may be made to Hospice of Jefferson County, 1398 Gotham St.