It was a beautiful spring day. It was already warm as spring comes early in Central Missouri. It was graduation day at the University of Missouri. I stood at the hospital window and watched the proud graduates stream out of the Hearnes Center. A happy future awaited them. I went to high school with some of them. I was too far away and there were too many to look at faces.
It was 1975. The hippies were finding Jesus. The war was winding down and would end. Patty Hearst was in the news. And I had just given birth to my third child. She was in trouble.
I had seen her rushed from delivery by forceps to the pediatricians. I asked, what did I have? The doctor in his haste had failed to look to see her gender. He went and looked and announced it was a girl. He looked at me and said Joyce, don’t get too excited, I don’t know if she’ll make it.
As I stood at that window watching the happy students and their families, I cried. I cried for my daughter. I cried for myself. As my peers walked into their future, I wondered what mine would look like.
I was now a single mother in a time when that wasn’t common. I had two other children, two very rambunctious boys. How would we live? How would I ever feed them? The food stamp program with its Monopoly type money, had just started and I had been first in line to apply.
My father had died several years before, and my mother had remarried. She still was a “blushing bride.” Her attention was on her new life, and not her daughter. My husband, Allen, came to the hospital with his girlfriend to ask when I was going to file for divorce. I asked him if he wanted to see our child, he said no. I told him her condition. He wasn’t interested.
Life was over. I was a high school dropout with three children. While I did have a GED, I couldn’t type and the only job I could get was fast food and very low-level jobs. And then there were all the issues of childcare.
By the next May, I had finished my first year as a student at the University of Missouri. Something came over me in my tears the year before – it was a voice that said, you don’t know if you don’t try. I pieced together financial aid and welfare benefits. I struggled and we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese.
I went to school year-round and by May 1977 I had chosen my major and my grades were good. Between summer classes I had a random conversation with a graduate student who would become a father to my children, be my husband, and my life partner.
May 1978, two more semesters to go. I was married. I completed my practicum that summer, applied to graduate school, and was dually enrolled as a graduate student. Graduation came in December of 1978. In three and a half years, with three children, I had finished a degree, married, and was expecting. But there was no ceremony. There was no cap and gown.
May 1979 and I was back in the same hospital. I was once again giving birth to a daughter. This time she went home with me and was healthy. But I was done with school for then. I’d get to the Master’s later.
Years came and went. Joys, sorrows, pain, success, multiple moves, the most recent from Connecticut to Tennessee. I had a successful career and one of the highlights was in May 1995 when I was a congressionally appointed delegate to the White House Conference on Aging.
Our family welcomed four more children. Four of my 8 children were born in May. I now had grandchildren including the one we buried.
Fast forward to May 2009. The day had come that for the first time in my life, I would wear a cap and gown. I would have my first official graduation. And finally, I walked in a graduation procession as I received a Master’s degree. Instead of sociology that had been my previous goal, this MA degree was in Biblical Studies.
The baby who almost died that May in 1975 was there with her daughter. In December of 2009, that daughter had her first grandchild, my first great grandchild. The journey from May 1975 had been hard. And I’m often asked, “How did you do it?” The only answer I have is by the grace of God.
But there would come another May of significance. On May 4, 2013, I was once again a graduate donning a purple gown and a tam. Over my shoulders was a doctoral hood. All my children were there for this graduation. We threw a graduation party. For on that day, I officially became Dr. Joyce A. Lighari.
That same May, on May 15, 2013 I got a call for my first appointment as a Pastor with the United Methodist Church. May 2023 I will complete ten years as a pastor and move to something else. What that is, I don’t know yet? I know God is leading me onward. I know my journey isn’t complete. There will be more Mays to remember and celebrate.