I saw Joyce this morning.
I stepped out of the train station into the crisp air of a perfectly autumnal day in Chicago, checked the crosswalk signal, and proceeded through the intersection.
Joyce was a few steps ahead of me.
I saw her dark blonde, shoulder-length hair and when she turned to cross another street, I saw her smile— her default face that always faced the world.
But it wasn’t Joyce. It couldn’t be Joyce.
The world hasn’t seen that default smile in more than five years. The world has also missed the more joyous version of that smile that so easily spread across her face and on to the faces of those around her.
So as I continued walking to my office this morning, I found myself suddenly missing Joyce — despite the fact that I barely knew her and had not thought of her in years.
I met Joyce when she was a journalism student in the graduate school where I worked, after having just graduated there myself a few months prior. My role was to assist faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students with the school’s new and groundbreaking (in 2007) online and multimedia-focused journalism curriculum. We were all flying the airplane as it was still being built, and I served as a combination mechanic and flight attendant.
As a mechanic, I was writing up software documentation and giving in-class tutorials on how to shoot and edit video, photos and audio. I was also the point person for the implementation of a new and buggy content management system used to publish student work.
As a flight attendant, I was helping students through the turbulent air by getting them connected to campus wifi networks and printers, installing laptop plug-ins that would potentially allow the CMS to function, and troubleshooting their issues with the multimedia software and assignments.
I don’t remember the circumstances of my first meeting with Joyce, but it probably had something to do with setting up a wireless connection. I met a lot of students that way in my two years on the job, and among the multiple cohorts of students that I flew with, few of them ever took the time to get to know their flight attendants. Joyce did.
She would stop by the supply closet-turned-office that I shared with a colleague seeking the usual sorts of technical help, but she would also ask about how my day was going, ask what I was doing that weekend, and tell me about what she was up to inside and outside of her graduate classes. Eventually she was stopping by even when she didn’t have a technical question, always asking me about my life and always inviting me to something — her cousin’s band was performing in Chicago…her friends were having a Fourth of July bonfire…she had just joined an ultimate frisbee team…her fellow grad students were having a party. As off-the-cuff conversations go, these were pretty standard, but I was struck by her intense interest in my life and well-being, especially when so many others just wanted to be able to print their assignment. They didn’t ask for wifi with a side of chit chat.
Joyce and I never actually hung out beyond the walls of the ivory tower. As I said, I didn’t know her that well and I always seemed to have other plans. But she kept inviting me, kept visiting my office and always had that smile on her face.
After (not) seeing her in the crosswalk today, I got to work and searched my email for any of our electronic interactions that might still be preserved. I’ve always considered myself a digital pack rat, and today is one of those days where that kind of behavior pays off. It turns out that Joyce and I had chatted online far more frequently than I remembered.
When I was beginning to outgrow my job and was taking on responsibilities above my pay grade, Joyce was in my corner, with words of encouragement for me and apparently even an email singing my praises to the school’s powers-that-were-at-the-time. I’m saddened that my memories of her support have faded and only returned when I scanned old chat transcripts.
Eventually she took a medical leave of absence before finishing her degree and our intermittent interactions all but dried up. A year or so later, she messaged me that she had returned to finish the program and that we should catch up over lunch, but I had moved to another job by then and we never made a reunion happen.
I don’t need to consult email records to remind me of the Facebook status I saw in 2010 from Joyce’s account. It was a simple message written by a relative tersely announcing her death and providing an email address for more info or to offer condolences.
I don’t know what happened and I don’t really want to know. Whether it was a mental or physical illness doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Joyce was living with something sad or difficult or painful under the surface that was not visible to the outside world. And yet for a while she played through it and still managed to make life better for those around her with that infectious smile and a casual conversation that made you feel like you mattered.
I guess I’ve realized that it’s not just Joyce I miss, but the way she chose to live. I wish more of us would take a page from Joyce’s book and be a little bit more intentional about the people that we meet. I wish we all would strive to have a resting smile on our face when we’re walking to work. I wish more of us would really care about the answer when we ask someone how they’re doing.
If Joyce could do it, why can’t we?
As with many people who have passed away in the modern social media age, Joyce’s Facebook profile still exists in memoriam. I looked at it today and saw post-mortem posts from friends and family from as recently as February. I’m not the only one who misses her smile.
I didn’t see Joyce today, but I hope she’s smiling somewhere right now, content to know that I will try to pass along a few more smiles in her honor.