I met her in Nursing School.
Most of the students were in their late twenties or early thirties. Many were housewives who had been teenage mothers and were getting a bit of a late start. I was a little afraid to talk to Joyce at first, because she was loud, large and boisterous. She seemed friendly to only two other women. Ones who smoked, cursed and frequently fell asleep in class. They all wore expressions that were hard and tough.
I imagined they all had tattoos and were members of a motorcycle club.
During a break one morning I noticed that one of the women wore an EMT jacket from an ambulance squad close to my home. I took a deep breath and walked over toward her. "Excuse me... but do you live in Lindenwold?" They stopped talking and turned to look at me.
The bleached blonde in the EMT jacket took a drag from her brown-papered cigarette and narrowed her eyes.
"What's it to you?", she asked. I was almost trembling. I remember thinking that it had been a mistake to approach them at all. I hated driving on the highways so much that I was willing to talk to anyone who could possibly car pool with me in the morning.
And so it began. Pat introduced me to Joyce and Lee.
I didn't know it yet, but they were the three women who I can honestly say that I never would have made it through Nursing School without.
Joyce was very heavy. Too big to fit into the standard desk and chairs around her. She had to sit on the floor of the classroom for almost a week before the school was able to provide her with a desk that wasn't attached to the seat.
It would have been so easy for her to just quit. But she stayed and she kept coming back.
She worked midnight shifts as a nurse's aide before coming to school every day in order to support her 3 small daughters.
She was exhausted most of the time but she dreamed of a better life for herself and the kids and she was willing to work hard for it.
Listening to Joyce's stories, I wondered if she had ever had an easy time in her entire life.
It was surprising that she always had an easy smile and a ready laugh. Her large size made many nursing tasks difficult, but Joyce never faltered. She never asked for help or expected any kind of special treatment. And she never once complained of anything so much as a backache. She never let her weight stop her from doing anything.
Joyce was sexy, fun loving and adventurous, and she made no apologies or excuses.
It wasn't necessary.
It had been many years since any of us had been in school and we all doubted our academic abilities. We formed a study group and the four of helped each other through many exams.
We devised ingenious games to help us memorize diseases, formulas and medications.
For one year we shared the memories that had shaped us into the women we were, and wondered aloud if we could ever become the women that we wanted to be. These three strangers became my sisters. We each knew when one needed to be pushed, dragged or carried. We screamed the loudest and clapped the longest when any of us triumphed.
It was a year that seemed to last a lifetime.
And when it was over
we promised each other that we would never lose contact.
No matter what, we would always be friends.
But life got busy as it usually does, and before long, years were rushing by with only a phone call here, and an E-mail there. Our kids grew up and married. There were promotions, divorces and new houses.
Then there were the grandchildren.
Lives much too busy for re-unions.
I never forgot those girls.
And I never will.
They will live in my heart forever.
Joyce died two weeks ago.
I had a chance to see her recently,
but I didn't take it.
I could have told her just how much her friendship meant to me, and that I would never forget her. She had a Web Site filled with beautiful, sometimes dark poetry. I could have told her how wonderful they were.
How talented she was.
I didn't go to her funeral.
It was over before I even knew she had died.
I haven't seen Joyce in more than seven years, but I will miss her terribly.
I regret missing the times I could have shared with her.
I always thought that there would be a lot more time. A better time. But there won't be.
Goodbye, Joyce. My dear, dear friend.
I'm so sorry...