‘Focus on getting better, Mama,’ Central High student tells her sick mom before graduation

Macon mom battling lymphoma misses daughter’s high school graduation

Joy Marshall hoped she'd be healthy enough to watch her daughter graduate from Central High School on May 25, 2019. Instead, she's fighting for her life at the Medical Center, Navicent Health.
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Joy Marshall hoped she'd be healthy enough to watch her daughter graduate from Central High School on May 25, 2019. Instead, she's fighting for her life at the Medical Center, Navicent Health.

Joynadia Marshall graduates from Central High School Saturday morning. But when she looks out at the crowd of cheering friends and relatives, one important person won’t be there.

Her mother, Joy Marshall, will be in a hospital bed in the Medical Center, Navicent Health, fighting for her life.

Joy, 44, has been battling lymphoma for nearly three years. Her skin, once smooth with a copper glow, is now dark and discolored, peeling off in patches from her cheeks, her stomach, the backs of her hands. And beneath those layers of cancerous skin, her kidneys are failing.

Everything hurts, Joy said.

“It feels like somebody is ripping my skin off every day. I leave flakes of skin everywhere I sit, everywhere I stand,” she said. “And it’s not a skin that’s gonna peel off and grow back again.”

Joy hoped to be healthy enough for her daughter’s graduation. She wanted more than anything to watch Joynadia walk across the stage and get her diploma. She wanted to see her to smile and say, “I made it, in spite of everything.”

But for now, Joy is resting in her hospital bed, a blue scarf tied around her bald head and thick cotton socks covering her hands, reminding her not to scratch.

“She said she’ll be walking for me,” Joy said. “She told me she loved me and she said, ‘Focus on getting better, Mama. I’ll be OK.’”

Joy was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2016, after finding a spot on her back. When the biopsy results came back positive, she was terrified.

“The word cancer just scared me so bad,” she said. “It just made me feel like that was it for me.”

Joy was raising two kids on her own, struggling to get by. When she found out she was sick, Joy knew she had to fight for them.

The past few years have been tough. Joy has been in and out of the hospital, gradually watching herself wither away in the mirror. She hardly even recognizes the reflection she sees anymore.

But her family has supported her every step of the way.

On Friday afternoon, Joy’s sister, Cheryl Bay, wiped salty tears from Joy’s eyes and held a straw to her mouth as she sipped on vegetable juice.

“She’s been with me every day,” Joy said.

The cancer has been hard on her kids, too, she said. Joynadia and her older brother, Joiterius, don’t like to be away from their mom for long. They tell her every day they love her.

Joy doesn’t want her children to put their lives on hold to take care of her. Joiterius is a student at Middle Georgia State University and Joynadia will join him this fall. She wants them to earn their degrees, to live a life not consumed by constant worry.

Some days, Joy is in so much pain that she wants to give up. But her children keep her going, she said.

“I fight so hard for them, because I don’t want to leave them here,” she said. “I love my children to death.”

It’s hard to watch them suffer, Joy said. When she first got sick, Joy said, her daughter lost her smile. Dancing brought her smile back. And it brought the two of them even closer together.

“It’s given her mom and her something to enjoy together,” said Pilar Lowden, Joynadia’s dance teacher at Hayiya Dance Theatre. “What parent doesn’t like watching her child excel and grow in something, especially like dance? It becomes something for them to bond over.”

A few months ago, Joy and Joynadia competed in the dance company’s mother-daughter dance competition. Despite Joy’s illness, the pair took home first place. She said it was one of the best moments of her life.

“I was so excited,” Joy said. “And I kept looking at her, like, ‘Wow. I’m doing it. I’m dancing with my daughter.’”

Joynadia choreographed the routine and walked her mother through each step, practicing with her day after day. Joy was happy to see her daughter smile as she taught her how to move. When they took the stage on the day of the competition, Joy was “so proud.”

“I felt like that bond was so tight between us,” Joy said. “And she made me want to fight more. It just gave me another big reason to fight.”

When Joynadia gets her diploma, Joy plans to be wide awake. She might not be in the crowd at Central High School graduation, but she’ll be cheering for her daughter from her hospital room.

“At 9 o’clock I will be woke, just for that feeling. Just to know that she’s graduating,” Joy said.

Tears welled in her eyes as she thought about staring at the gray walls of her hospital room while her daughter graduated. But she doesn’t want Joynadia to think about that. She just wants her to soak in her moment of accomplishment.

“She made it,” Joy said. “I’m so happy for her.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.