"I have a very rare form of ovarian cancer," Joy told me back in December. "Stage four. The last stage. I've been given five months to two years to live with this cancer. My surgeon, a Harvard educator, has never seen anyone make it past two years. So it's a grim picture. I was diagnosed in April this year. No idea. No clue. No warning. No bells whistling. No angels coming to tell me. Just cancer, which is, to most people, a death sentence."
Though she lives under the Rescue Mission's hospice care, Joy — with the help of her friend and caretaker Shirlene — is full of fight and faith.
Our afternoon begins with my first lunch at the Mission. During the meal, I observe just how protective Shirlene is over Joy. "I watch her every move," says Shirlene, whose trained eye detects even the slightest warning signs in Joy's appearance, like eye weakness and paleness. Often during lunch, Shirlene offers Joy her food. Her leftover chicken. Her extra piece of fruit. This, because she has witnessed Joy at her frailest — a mere 87 pounds. "I was skeletal," Joy recounts.
After lunch, I follow them to the library. Poring over Shirlene's laptop, the women — who have bonded as sisters — prepare for their upcoming trip to Cleveland, where they will speak at a conference called Tea, Testimony & Truth. Directed by Joy's renowned oncologist, Dr. Jason Knight, the inaugural event (held Jan. 12) is a safe space for cancer patients, caregivers and others impacted by the disease. As the guests of honor, Joy and Shirlene shared their incredible story with nearly 300 women.
At the library, Joy also shows me several photos taken after her surgery last spring. I was shocked — not so much at how weak she looked then, but by how far she has come. Where her cheeks were once hollowed, they are now full and often plump with a smile.
"I gave her family my word when she was in Cleveland," says Shirlene, who documents Joy's medical journey for Joy's family in Africa. "I gave them my word that I would watch out for her and be there for her. I came up old-school, so when I give somebody my word or shake their hand, that means I'm going to do it no matter what."
We end our day back at the Mission, where I spend a few minutes in Joy and Shirlene's home — a shared bedroom, living room and kitchenette. It is bright and roomy — much like their hearts, I've come to learn.
I take portraits of Joy. By the window. In her favorite, flowered armchair. Reading from the books that uplift her. (Shirlene did not want to be photographed — "Do good and disappear," she says.)
Then I leave, feeling once again bettered by their presence, warmed by their light.
Throughout the day, Joy asked me to include a thank-you to five Rescue Mission staffers who serve in the Women and Children's Center: Beth Barnhart, Bernice Flores, Sommer Smith ("Sommer is a ray of sunshine and warms my heart."), Laura Johnson ("Laura encourages us on our journey.") and Melissa ("She always laughs and smiles. She has a big, happy and loving personality.")