With Joy Hill Malone, I was nervous to begin the interview. My sorority sister survived the loss of loved ones three times over and I had yet to experience one in my adult life.
I asked for the interview on loss half hoping she would decline. Perhaps the loss of her mother in 2020 was too soon and the pain too great. I could understand that. Instead, she accepted my request.
This time, my question was not, “Why did you bite the apple?” Joy never bit the apple. She excelled in life. She mustered up inhuman strength under unbearable pressure… and I have never seen a crack in her facade or a chink in her armor. My question to her was, “Transition after transition, you appear solid and strong yet approachable and authentic. How have you managed in a life that is ever-changing? How have you managed a loss this great?”
Joy Malone is an amazing wife to a man she has loved since high school. She is the mother of an entrepreneurial 10-year-old son who can make friends and build capital at the same time. (We should all be so lucky!) And, after traveling the country upgrading and securing computer networks for Corporate America, she returned to her home state of North Carolina as the Executive Director of Information Technology for Durham Public Schools (DPS).
On a day when DPS buildings are closed for inclement weather, Malone is in the office taking care of business so students at home can continue to learn.
“Yes, school’s closed but that doesn’t mean I don’t have work to do,” laughed Malone. “These kids need to be ready for school whether we’re in the school building or not.”
Malone started her role with DPS 10 months after COVID-19 altered the way students across the world attend schools and… one year after her mother, her last parent, passed.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 25% of adults in the U.S. had lost both parents between the ages of 35 and 39 when Malone lost her mother. Just under 10% of people over 18 lost their father by age 14, when Malone lost hers.
In January 2020, Malone became a member of an exclusive club no one wants to join. Her mother, Carol Murphy Hill, passed from complications associated with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) after beating breast cancer two decades ago.
The National Cancer Institute describes MDS as a group of cancers in which immature blood cells in bone marrow do not mature or become healthy blood cells. When there are fewer healthy blood cells, infection, anemia, or easy bleeding may occur.
“Of course, I’m sad,” said Malone. “But, my mother knew she was going to pass. She planned everything the way she wanted it to be and, when the time came, I followed her instructions.”
In 2000, Hill was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. Hill’s doctors were uncertain of her future but she chose to fight and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments along with medications.
Malone was a senior in high school who was still adjusting to life after the loss of her father. He passed just three years prior to her mother’s diagnosis.
“My brother was in college so it was just me and my mother at home. I’d drive her to her appointments and back. I’d make sure her prescriptions were filled and she had food to keep her blood counts up. We knew what the doctors were saying about her chances but my mother was a fighter,” said Malone.
In addition to fighting cancer, Malone’s mother also had to pick up the reins of her husband’s rental properties across Jones County, NC and stay tapped into the business her husband ran with his mother, Hill Bros. Mop Company.
“My mother wasn’t into the business side of things. That was my dad’s area but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t do it. When he passed, she picked it up quick,” explained Malone. “I kind of take after my dad in that. My dad owned businesses but I’ve always wanted to run businesses.”
Hill beat cancer with the help of a trial medication that warned of potential complications and side effects in the future.
Over the next 20 years, Malone went on to take part in the festivities of being a high school senior. She went to college at North Carolina A&T State University, relocated to the Midwest to begin a career in Information Technology, got married to her high school sweetheart, welcomed a son, and settled not too far from home in Durham, NC.
In 2019, Hill’s health took a turn for the worst. Malone and her husband moved her into their home. Four months later, Hill passed. She left detailed instructions for what her daughter was to do and Malone did not disappoint.
“I followed everything my mother laid out,” she said. “Before she passed, she would tell me how she wanted everything [in regard to her arrangements]. That wasn’t something I wanted to hear but we knew what was coming.”
“I think for her, because her mother was so prescriptive in the things that she wanted her to do and how she should move forward, I think, sometimes we focus on getting the task done and upholding the duties and responsibilities of what we’ve been instructed to do,” said long time friend and sorority sister Patrice Withers-Stephens.
Over their 17 year friendship, Withers-Stephens has stood next to Malone during nearly every major milestone in her adult life. She was the maid of honor at her wedding, celebrated the birth of her son along with several of his birthdays, rejoiced over promotions and new jobs, and was a shoulder to lean on when Malone’s mother passed.
“I think we all process grief differently. Her story and my story of [losing a parent] are totally different,” began Withers-Stephens who lost her father in 2017.
“I see her as this, ‘Life is still moving, executive, I excel at work, I’m an amazing mom, I’m a fantastic wife’ [kind of person]. Honestly, if we were to pull a lot of those elements away, peel a lot of that back, I just wonder would she feel the same way. Would she be processing her grief the same way? Sometimes, you are able to keep going because you don’t live in it. You don’t sit in it, so you just moved past it. [Joy] is able to do all of these things because she has such a nice support system in place. I see her as kind of two-fold. She’s got this amazing support system but I also worry. Like, has [she] processed it all because you have all these things going on,” said Withers-Stephens.
Malone admitted that her grieving process may not look like others imagine. In caring for her mother, she came to terms with the fact that her passing was imminent. Unlike 2000, there would not be a trial medication or treatment to stave off her passing. She leaned on her faith, grew closer to God, and served her Durham community through her church, The River Durham. Her pastor came to know her the same way Withers-Stephens did 17 years ago, because with a voice as loud and a presence as gracious as Malone’s, you simply cannot help but to know her.
“Her pastor actually drove from Durham to [Eastern Carolina] to the service”, said Withers-Stephens. “The fact that he drove two hours, two and a half hours, away spoke volumes. It also showed me that, what I thought was happening in her spiritual life, it had been increasing. I felt like, over that journey, her faith was increasing.”
The time Malone and her mother lived together in Durham was a time for Malone’s son to see his grandmother every morning before school, every night before bed, and every free moment in between. It was a time for Malone to appreciate the woman her mother was, as she stepped into fill some of the duties Hill would have handled in better health, and return a small portion of the care her mother had given her for 36 years.
“My mom said God gave her 20 years. She couldn’t want for anything more,” a calm Malone shared as we wrapped our interview.
Looking back on two short years ago, Malone acknowledges that her mother never talked to her about becoming a wife or a mother. Instead, she set an example.
Carol Murphy Hill was a typing teacher at New Bern High School; an active member of her church, Free Will Chapel Free Will Baptist Church; a Life Member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; the hub of the Hill Family; and a staple in the Pollocksville community. She knew everybody and everybody knew her.
Malone has closely mimicked her mother’s seemingly compassionate nature. She mentors young women; serves on the Guest Services Ministry at The River Durham; and is an active member in the Theta Beta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., her mother’s chapter. Her home is the house where all the neighborhood children come to play and she works for DPS for one reason: To sow into the communities that sowed into her.