Edd and Joe are my neighbors. For more than twenty years I’ve heard their raucous laughter through two thin walls and it always made me smile. One day there was only silence. Edd was rushed to the emergency room. His heart had almost given out and the uncertain wait for a transplant had begun.
I was drawn to do a film about Edd and the story of his heart when I would see him walking down Sullivan Street. Dressed in an ankle length, black leather coat and felt fedora, he was part of Soho’s fashion brigade - except for his white surgical mask and walker. If Edd had a transplant his chance of living ten more years was only 50%. But if anyone could beat the odds, he could because Joe - a self-described pit bull and stage mother - was by his side. When I asked Edd what he was planning for his additional years, he said he wanted to do ballet again. He was 65 years old.
After the first interview with Edd and Joe, I realized the larger story, the more universal story, was the radical and complicated act of staying together for 23 years. Sustained by their two cats, their art making, their 12 step programs, Edd’s Quaker community, Joe’s garden plot, and, most of all, by each other, they faced each day with a cantankerous, humorous gratitude and grace.
Edd and Joe brought plenty of grouchy humor to each of our conversations, yet they were very forthcoming about their story, and shared a depth of intimacy that was both surprising and very moving. I learned about their difficult childhoods, the uncertain beginning of their relationship, their combined thirty-five years of sobriety, and the recovery programs that kept them both on track. Joe talked about his endless dread that Edd’s heart would finally stop working, and about their promise to do whatever it might take to grow old together.
Edd and Joe’s story is a roadmap to maintaining a deeply-rooted, durable, and long-lasting relationship despite the many individual and shared obstacles they faced. One of their earliest challenges was the incompatibility of their backgrounds. Edd was, as he put it, ‘born a barefoot, ignorant hillbilly’ in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky where arguments ended with guns. In the South Bronx where Joe grew up as the youngest member of a large, talkative Irish family, arguments meant cross-conversations and raised voices. No one listened, everyone talked but they never doubted that they were part of the family. Edd and Joe found a way to navigate their differences and become their own family.
And then they faced their biggest obstacle of all - Edd’s ever weakening heart and the many unsuccessful attempts to extend his life: experimental treatments that worked and then didn’t, a pacemaker that had to be removed, and three defective artificial hearts. Finally the wait for a heart transplant began. The cell phone was always on, but a doctor’s call to hurry because a heart was available didn’t guarantee that Edd would receive it. Joe became nurse, patient advocate, and all around protector. Edd became Joe’s hero because he endured painful procedures that Joe didn’t think he would ever do, and was sure that he would fold in the face of it. During filming they would pull out baskets of pills, show me astronomical medical bills, and argue about which day Edd had gone back into the hospital. Together they made it through this, too.
I hope audiences who see this film will look at their own relationships with a new appreciation of what sustains this often elusive, sometimes difficult but always transformative achievement.
Gotta Have Heart is Edd and Joe’s story. A love story. And the story of a new heart and the chance for a new life.