Sometimes french fries poked out of Brooke Joy’s ears, her playful laughter filling the restaurant. Her girlfriend, Jo McCall, would look around to see if anyone else was watching this jokester — this woman who rescued too many dogs and never learned to swim, whose hazel eyes were warmer than cocoa and may have been the easiest thing to look at in the world.
“Joy laughed all the time,” McCall said. “That was my girl, always making jokes.”
Once, while on the Jenny Lake trail at Teton National Park, the couple heard a grunting sound come out of the woods.
“I took off running,” McCall said. “And then [Joy] said, ‘Thank you for helping me! Glad you care about me!’”
Of course, caring was crucial for both of their careers. McCall was a physical therapist, Joy a nurse anesthetist. They first met in Birmingham in 1966, when being lesbian was one of the many surefire ways to be unjustly marginalized in Alabama. While McCall was at Auburn studying health science, she felt sick in the head. Every day, the same questions tortured her: Am I alone? Will I be hurt if I’m found out?
After graduation, while living like “a second-class citizen” in the shadows, McCall drove back to her home city of Birmingham — now soaked with firehose water and the blood from black protesters. It was a time when differences meant death and homosexuality was a synonym for crazy. A time when McCall looked around and saw a city in turmoil and looked in the mirror to see a woman afraid to love.
“Back then, you could be killed for being gay,” McCall said.
And so she hid. Then someone else who was hiding, a Chicago girl studying nursing, came up to her at a party. Her hair was brown, her name Joy. And quickly, McCall wondered if it was normal to laugh this much with another person. And Joy looked at her with those almond-colored eyes. And the floor, McCall said, ruptured beneath her. And, now that she thinks about it, it does feel like falling, she said.
“She was so fun,” McCall said. “And she loved to dance.”
McCall pauses and walks toward the wall with a calendar hooked on.
“Here, to give you an idea of us,” McCall said.
They stand beside mountains in the pictures for January. On the next page, their gloved-hands are clasped as they pose in Bar Harbor, Maine. In March, Joy’s fingers touch a rubbery dolphin by the Gulf.
When McCall flips through the calendar, all she sees is her girl, and all she can do is go back to that mountain, wondering how it was that they danced on so many trails and so many beaches, feeling the fear of their youth crumble like the sand beneath their feet in June.
“I don’t think our love would’ve been as special if we didn’t love others,” McCall said.
On Valentine’s, they never went out. People would “stare at two women eating out on that day,” McCall said. Instead they stained their mouth purple with wine and ate pasta until they felt bloated. They watched the cinders fall from the fire as they laughed. They — who once felt like the only “different girls in the world,” who heard their country call them sinners and could still feel a familiar, hateful Alabama gaze when going out — looked at one another, McCall said, as if to ask: Who ever loved as we do now?
She’ll still look at Joy’s eyes today, but she might not look back. Or she might be asleep, resting those pretty brown things that have gone through too much since 2007, when she first got lost.
It was a late afternoon a few years later when Joy, crying in her car, called McCall. She told McCall she had no idea where she was — by a church but not sure where.
“I panicked,” McCall said. “I asked her ‘what’s the church?’ and she said ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’”
She asked her to walk in the church and ask for help. Then McCall asked the same thing to God.
Another night, Joy woke McCall up around 3 a.m. In a frenzy, Joy told McCall, “I got to go home. I got to go see about my dogs.” Their dogs were there beside the bed, as they were every night.
“The next day we went to a neurologist, and that’s when he diagnosed her,” McCall said.
Normally, there’s a series of tests one goes through when checked for dementia. But after watching her girl struggle through the first one, McCall asked the doctor to please stop. It was clear.
She forgot the names of the dogs she rescued. She asked Joy where her bedroom was. Sometimes her blouse was on backward. When Joy wanted “to go home,” the two got up and rode around the neighborhood looking until Joy got tired.
“I hope you do not have to watch someone you love disappear before your eyes,” McCall said.
And she hopes no one has to listen to their loved one tell them they’re going to see their mother who died 26 years ago. Or see them drive their car into the mud, forcing someone to take their keys. That is her car, she’ll scream, and people must give her back the things she’s losing because she is angry, and she is tired, and she is so deeply, adamantly, dangerously afraid.
Joy is now in the advanced stage of dementia. She can’t speak anymore, so McCall tells her stories, sings for her and plays their favorite CDs that they took on their trips to see the dolphins.
There’s a video of Joy, before she was in the advanced stage, that shows her dedicate a dance to McCall. “My Girl” by The Temptations plays in the background.
When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May
She wears a lime-green shirt and swings her feet gently, trying to match the nurse dancing next to her. McCall, like always, laughs along.
I guess you’d say, what could make me feel this way?
Her fingers point to McCall, then to her heart. There’s hollering in the background, the type heard at school playgrounds when a kid walks to their crush.
My girl, my girl, my girl. Talkin’ ‘bout my girl
She messes up the timing and laughs, saying to her lover sweetly, “I’m sorry.”
And how, McCall asks, could she be upset at this beautiful thing.
“Everybody wants the same thing. Everyone wants to be with those they love,” McCall says, as she watches her girl twirl and relives the memory for them both.