A day with Joey Martin Feek: ‘I don’t fear anything’

Written by Cindy Watts  / The Tennessean

ALEXANDRIA, Ind. — Joey Martin Feek is determined to cut husband Rory’s hair. She has cut his hair every two-and-a-half weeks for the last 14 years and she’s mildly offended at how long it’s gotten. Rory thinks he might let it grow — he’s not sure Joey should be using the scissors and the idea of going to a barber sends tears down his cheeks.

Rory and I are in a private room attached to the coffee shop at Gaither Family Resources, a combination store and restaurant, here in Joey’s hometown. I’ve written about Joey+Rory since their run on CMT’s “Can You Duet” in 2008 — including their albums, restaurant and television show.

The last year-and-a-half, I’ve written about Joey’s battle with cancer. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in May 2014 and endured a radical hysterectomy to treat it later that summer. The cancer returned a year later, and despite more surgeries and aggressive treatment, the cancer continued to grow. The family opted to stop cancer treatment in October. At the time, Joey was given six to nine months to live — now her time frame may be much shorter, according to her doctors..

I made the six-hour drive from Middle Tennessee on Wednesday for what was likely our last conversation.

Rory met me in the driveway and asked me to follow him to the coffee shop. Joey had just taken another dose of morphine and was about to go back to sleep. He promises we’ll come back to her childhood home, a white two-story farmhouse surrounded by cornfields, when she wakes up.

Joey Martin Feek's childhood home.

Hours later, we return to the house. Joey’s hospital bed  is pushed against a bedroom wall; a pink pillow embroidered with her daughter Indiana’s name rests on the bed. Joey, wearing an auburn wig and shimmering eye shadow, is in a chair near the fireplace. She’s frail, her eyes dimmed by the morphine but her smile radiates throughout the room.

“I wasn’t mad at him, I wasn’t upset,” Joey says, talking about God when she learned her cancer had returned. “I was just greatly disappointed. I really thought we had it. I thought, ‘I’m going to be that exception. I’m going to be that statistic that stands out and says, ‘She fought it.’ We did the most extreme surgery we can do in the gynecologic world, and she did well.’ But for whatever reason, it wasn’t enough, and God had different plans. I was disappointed. I was exhausted.

“More than anything, I felt like I failed at something,” she says, crying. She smooths the tassels of her shawl against the leg of her pants. “I thought I did everything,” her voice breaking with emotion. “But God decided for me that my job of singing for people down here is my legacy, and he needs me singing up there. That’s how I look at it.”

Joey spoke with her three sisters and her best friend, who has sat with two of her friends as they passed from cancer. She asked if they thought she had as much time as the doctors gave her, and they said, “Probably not.” So, Joey decided to leave her Nashville-area farm and come back to her childhood home and “love on” her family.

She wanted to return to her Nashville home and spend her last days in the same room in which she gave birth to Indiana.

“It’s where God gives and he taketh away,” she says.

But in Indiana, she faced a new array of cancer-related health problems and decided to remain in her hometown.

“I said, Rory, if it’s OK with you, this is where I was born, it’s where I was raised, and this is where I die,” she says. “He said, ‘Whatever you want.’ I said, ‘That’s what I want.’ ”

Her sister, Jody, is a nurse who  took a leave of absence to care for her. Wednesday was Joey’s first day on morphine, the first time she wore one of her wigs and the first time she got out of the house for a walk. She laughs that if she feels as good every day as she did Wednesday, “Shoot fire, I may go home.”

She’s found blessings in the illness — four weeks ago her father went to the altar and gave his life to God.

“I just cried,” she says. “Now all of my family believes. And all of my family, when we die, we’re going to see each other again. I told my dad, ‘I would go through all of this again, if that meant one person came to Christ because of it. The fact that my daddy did, Dad, I would do it all over. I’m so proud of you. When I die, I’m going to be looking for you. And I want you to know, that after you hug my brother (Justin, who died in a car accident in 1994), I’m going to be next in line.’ ”

She adamantly denies that she’s scared. But she’s worried about pain, how much she’ll have to endure and for how long.

“I’m doing all these alternative things and taking things I’ve never taken before, organic, all natural, and homeopathic, it can’t hurt,” she says. “I’m doing all I can do to be more comfortable.

“I pray that one morning I just don’t wake up,” she says. “But I don’t fear anything because I’m so close to God and we’ve talked about it so many times. I know he’s close. And I know he loves me. I’m really at peace. I still believe there’s healing in prayer.”

At the end of our conversation, she leans her head back and closes her eyes. Rory’s haircut will have to wait — Joey is spent and wants to go back to bed. Her sister helps her into her pajamas and gives her more medicine. Rory takes her to brush her teeth and she stops by the kitchen to hug me on the way to bed.

“This is goodbye,” she says. “Or, I’ll see you later.”

After she’s in bed, Rory comes back into the room.

“Joey just said, ‘I think Cindy is going to write a really nice story,’ ” he repeats. “ ‘I hope I can get a copy in heaven.’ ”

The next day, Joey+Rory’s tour bus arrived from Middle Tennessee carrying a group of Joey’s friends to visit, lift her spirits and say goodbye. A simple wooden box she asked their farmhand to construct as her final resting place was tucked underneath the bus.

Waiter Brandon Quick takes the orders of Rory Feek

Waiter Brandon Quick takes the orders of Rory Feek and Joey Martin Feek of Joey + Rory at Noshville on May 9, 2008. Larry McCormack / The Tennessean

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