Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joy Sylvester-Johnson reflects on moments of joy

Joy Sylvester-Johnson and her husband, John, built a life of service together at the Roanoke Rescue Mission. After his death in May, her strength has been tested.

Joy Sylvester-Johnson lost her husband of 35 years, John, just days after he had a massive seizure on Easter.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Joy Sylvester-Johnson lost her husband of 35 years, John, just days after he had a massive seizure on Easter.

Roanoke Rescue Mission Director Joy Sylvester-Johnson kept a journal while she and John spent two months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for rehabilitation treatment.

Roanoke Rescue Mission Director Joy Sylvester-Johnson kept a journal while she and John spent two months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for rehabilitation treatment. "How do you keep living when you're waiting and hoping?" she recently asked.

Roanoke Rescue Mission Director Joy Sylvester-Johnson walks the mission's dog, Tallulah, outside of the mission's thrift store last week.

Roanoke Rescue Mission Director Joy Sylvester-Johnson walks the mission's dog, Tallulah, outside of the mission's thrift store last week.

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Original story

Feb. 13, 2011

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John A. Sylvester-Johnson, 62

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Joy Sylvester-Johnson spent half of this year waiting and hoping.

Her husband of more than three decades, John, was recovering from a traumatic brain injury that happened in December 2010 when he slipped on a patch of ice and hit his head. He needed 24-hour care, he couldn't walk without the help of two people and a walker, and he didn't talk much.

But there were glimmers of hope and times when she felt the old John shining through.

Like the time they were eating at the dinner table and she asked him to tell her one thing that he'd never told her before. "You are much more beautiful than you realize," he said. It melted her heart.

Another time, he belted out a hearty prayer, reminiscent of the prayers she was used to hearing from her husband. And when his physical therapist asked him to count to 10, he did it in Chinese.

"Just when things seemed like they wouldn't get better, something wonderful would happen," said Sylvester-Johnson, director of the area's largest faith-based charity for the homeless, the Roanoke Rescue Mission. "But it seemed like for every one step forward, we took two back."

As she recently sat in the Taubman Museum of Art auditorium watching her children's play, "Christmas Cookies," she reflected on the time she'd spent writing it. She started the script when her husband was away at a Northern Virginia seminary, taking classes to become an Episcopal priest. He was close to finishing when he suffered the fall that he would never recover from on Dec. 27, 2010 — the couple's 35th wedding anniversary.

John Sylvester-Johnson had a massive seizure on Easter Sunday and spent nine days in the hospital before he died May 3. He was 62.

Writing was one of the ways Joy Sylvester-Johnson coped with her husband's injury, rehabilitation and death. She kept a journal while they spent two months at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta.

The play features a single mom of two girls who is deployed to Afghanistan before Christmas. It teaches empathy, optimism and charity. It also touches on the emotions felt when a loved one is gone during the holidays.

"How do you keep living when you're waiting and hoping?" Sylvester-Johnson asked before the play started. She answers that question in the play with the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,"the girls recited.

The prayer kept Sylvester-Johnson motivated and inspired through her husband's illness — and it still does.

She said she never questioned why this happened to her family.

"I know every moment there is someone somewhere suffering," she said. "It was our turn. Whether you suffer is not an option. Your option is how you choose to respond to it."

Her husband responded with the way he lived, she said: "He did the next right thing."

During the five months of his rehabilitation, she said she learned things about their relationship, herself and life that she wouldn't have otherwise learned.

"I learned to treasure the time you have with loved ones," Sylvester-Johnson said. "Time is our most valuable asset. Most things you spend energy on have no meaning. The things we spend less energy on have more meaning."

She admired her husband for his strength and graciousness.

"He never complained," she said.

While the couple were away, the Rescue Mission team in Roanoke continued their mission: "Helping hurting people in Jesus' name."

The staff smoothly filled John Sylvester-Johnson's position as spiritual director and head of the recovery program, food services and health clinic.

The local pastors he had mentored stepped in and continued the mission he had modeled, Joy Sylvester-Johnson said. His son, Anders Sylvester-Johnson, now fills his father's role as the director of programs.

Kim Gembala, director of administration at the mission, said the staff has been grieving with Sylvester-Johnson and her family.

"John had a really close relationship with the recovery program participants," she said. "He was very fatherly and pastorly to the staff."

She said the staff kept Sylvester-Johnson in the loop about big decisions that needed to be made and communicated every day via phone and email.

She described Joy Sylvester-Johnson as the "rock" of the mission.

"Joy doesn't have a job where she can turn it off at 5 p.m.," Gembala said. "She was raised at the Rescue Mission, and she has always been very devoted to her family.

"She always told us the mark of a really good leader shows when the leader is gone," she said. "We wanted to prove to her how great of a leader she was."

This past year was an unusual year for the mission.

Demographics changed from mostly men to mostly women and children in need of shelter. And there were more sick people.

The Rescue Mission filled a record 429 beds in September and has plans to repurpose spaces to include more beds to house more people.

At the play, Sylvester-Johnson greeted two women who had recently lost their husbands and would be spending Christmas without them. She says she is glad the play was able to give them hope.

"It's about giving time, time," she said of the grieving process. "You were two joined as one. It's like part of you is gone."

This holiday season was especially difficult because their wedding anniversary — and the day of John's fall — came two days after Christmas.

"I haven't made it through one day without shedding a tear," Sylvester-Johnson said.

She reflected on the marriage the couple had while raising a family and running the mission.

"We worked really hard to get to the place we were," she said. "We had gotten to such a sweet place.

"Most people never get there. The fact that we had it all is its own little miracle in itself," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I don't apologize for the tears. ... It would almost be disrespectful to. It is just evidence of how real and wonderful it was."

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