I met Joyce in “The Commuter” office at the junior college where I began my tenure in higher education. “The Commuter” was the student newspaper, aptly named because there were no residential students at the institution. As I recall, the office was just a small interior room in the student union building, which also housed the offices of student services, a short-order grill, and a room with several billiard tables where I spent way too much time as a freshman resulting in a quarter marked with the stigma of scholastic probation.
By the time I met Joyce, I was gaining clarity and getting more serious about academics, learning to accept some of the responsibility that accompanied the freedom of the college experience. I had also given up on the dream of majoring in biology after encountering chemistry at the college level and discovering it was nothing more than higher math hiding behind glass beakers and Bunsen burners. English classes were always my favorite in high school and where I consistently made the best grades. With encouragement from advisors and after a careful look at the curriculum requirements, I decided an Associate’s Degree in Journalism would be my best hope of staying in school. A wonderful benefit from choosing that path was the friendship I developed with Joyce.
Joyce must have been about 40 years old when I met her. She would have been labeled as a non-traditional student by the college faculty. I’m almost certain she was divorced by then and had several sons, probably ranging from teenagers to young adults. I do not recall if she was returning to school or if she had just decided later in life to pursue a college education. I also don’t remember if she were actually seeking a degree in journalism or just liked writing for the newspaper. I don’t know if she ever received a degree. Our friendship started in 1979, so my recollection of details that long ago is foggy.
Joyce was a contemporary of the two professors, a man and a woman, who ran the journalism program. It was a new experience for me to have a classmate who was halfway in age between me and my parents (I was a “late” child). Junior colleges and community colleges tend to attract nontraditional students, and our institution was no exception. I knew several others by name, but I didn’t associate with them outside our mutual classes, nor did I stay in touch with them after graduating. I knew at the time that Joyce’s life was not an easy one, a stark contrast to my own. She had challenges that I simply could not appreciate at the time – a single mother trying to make ends meet while going to college and taking care of the mundane frustrations of adulthood. Honestly, I will never fully comprehend how tough her journey must have been.
After graduating from the junior college, I left my hometown to pursue my education further at another state school about 45 minutes away; however, I continued to come home on the weekends to work at a grocery store, go out with a girlfriend from high school, wash clothes, and attend church. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church, that last part of the routine was expected and not even questioned. When I wasn’t out on a weekend date, I would often visit Joyce, usually after I left work at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening. She lived in an apartment complex not far from my home. Perhaps she still had a son living with her at that time, but I don’t recall seeing anyone regularly.
When I arrived, Joyce would ask if I wanted her to put on a pot of coffee, and I imagine the answer was “please” most of the time. She typically drank instant iced tea during my visits. Even though I was of legal age by then, I was always under the influence of Baptist temperance and never alcohol. I don’t remember ever seeing Joyce imbibe. We would sit at her kitchen table sipping our drinks and smoking cigarettes. Joyce was practically a professional smoker, never letting more than a few minutes pass without lighting up. By comparison, I was a novice, only picking up smoking while being around it so much at work and with the journalism students. Although I never would smoke around my parents (my father had quit when I was a child), my mother knew I was doing it and was greatly disappointed.
I’m sure there were plenty of times when Joyce would rather have been alone or was too exhausted to spend a late evening with me, but she never failed to open the door. I probably never called in advance – just showed up like the impertinent, clueless guy I was back then. I don’t know how many times I stayed past midnight, but it was more than once or twice. We sat at that kitchen table and had conversations deeper than my green intellect and Bible-saturated head could properly process. We talked about life, death, love, sex, religion, and more. She was widely read and had a sharp, critical mind. She was full of compassion and never judgmental, but she hated injustice and had no time for moral superiority. Although I don’t remember, I must have taken my guitar with me a few times and sang for Joyce – probably to get her opinion on songs I was composing. I shudder to imagine what she thought of my efforts, but I’m certain she smiled and encouraged me just the same.
Sometimes Joyce would tell me about the latest trouble one of her sons had landed in, which usually involved an arrest and charges for violations associated with drug use. Her eldest son was the one who no doubt kept her up at night when I wasn’t around. She spent so much time pleading with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and influential friends, always defending him unconditionally regardless of the circumstances. Her love was true and unwavering.
After earning my B.A. in English, I decided to stay on at the same college and work towards an M.A. in history. I started working on campus and had no reason to return home every weekend, which meant my visits to see Joyce eventually ended. However, we stayed in touch through correspondence after I graduated, got married, and started a family. I can recall getting thick envelopes with multiple pages of hand-written letters from her, filled mostly with her thoughts about current events and books or the latest news, good or bad, about her sons. She was a much better correspondent than I was. I kept her letters in a box for many years, and I painfully regret that at some point I disposed of them, probably during a move to a new house.
In the mid-1990s, Joyce was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that would ultimately take her life. She got in touch with me and asked me to sing two songs at her memorial service that was going to be held at the Unitarian church. I have no idea if Joyce was a member there or ever attended, but Unitarianism would have been about the only brand of Christianity Joyce could have tolerated. Up to that point, death was more of an abstraction to me, manifested primarily in family visitations and funerals. Joyce’s death was perhaps my first real confrontation with mortality. I visited her once while she was in the hospital to talk about the songs. I was woefully unprepared to fathom the finality she was facing, and I remember asking her, “How are you doing?” She could have easily shot back with, “How the hell do you think I’m doing? I am dying for Christ’s sake!” Instead, she told me she was having a lot of anxiety but that the doctor was giving her medication to help. Gracious, as ever.
Her request was that I accompany myself on the guitar and create two medleys of four songs in the following combinations: “Graceland” by Paul Simon and “In Your Time” by Bob Seger along with “Circle” by Harry Chapin and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a popular Christian hymn written by Ada R. Habershon in 1907. I was more nervous singing those songs than I had ever been up to that point. I had to get it right – no mistakes. I suppose I did. I was honored that Joyce had asked this favor of me. But now, 25 years later, I understand clearly that I didn’t do Joyce a favor at all. Like so many times in the past with our late-night conversations, her sage advice, her endless patience, and her enduring friendship, Joyce was giving me one last gift. She was confirming that I mattered to her, and that my modest musical talent was a worthy expression of my love for her. I am forever grateful, and I am a better human being because of Joyce.