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Week 46: Joyce Siwarski

“The best things happen unexpectedly.”  This quote is all over Pinterest, so while I can’t attribute it to anyone, I can vouch for its veracity!  Unexpectedly my scheduled hiking companion for the week had to cancel but that led to one of the best things…a chance to hike with Joyce Siwarski!  As my hiking companion for the 46th week of “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail” Joyce met me at my home on a cold and overcast Sunday morning in November. We jumped in my car and a half hour later we arrived at the Appalachian trailhead just off route 77 in Smithsburg.  After pondering how many layers to wear and what to carry in our packs, we started down the trail.  

Crossing the field toward the woods, the low clouds blanketing the sky looked like the cotton batting that fell out of the well-loved quilt I made for my husband more than 40 years ago.  I reached for my i-Phone to take a picture of Joyce standing in what a few months ago had been a field of wildflowers only to realize I had left it at home.  Joyce to the rescue…she pulled out her phone and lent it to me for the rest of the hike.  Not only that, when we were trying to identify a plant with lovely red berries, Joyce used the “Picture This” app on her phone and within seconds identified the plant as a Japanese Barberry. I love learning from the women with whom I am privileged to hike and have already downloaded this app on my phone!  Thanks for the tip, Joyce!

Heading down the trail, we recalled separate conversations with a mutual friend, Mary Beth Ross, who said, “You two should connect.  I think you would click.”  Like E.F. Hutton when Mary Beth talks people listen! We did and she was right!  Prior to our hike, we met once a few months ago over coffee but our time on the trail provided a couple of hours to share our stories and learn about each other while enjoying the seasonal pause between summer and winter. 

The trail was covered in leaves which made for tricky footing as we couldn’t see the rocks buried beneath.  But that didn’t stop us, in fact we admired the colors and patterns of the leaves decorating the forest floor and even stopped to take some pictures of individual leaves that were particularly colorful.  We took our time, used our hiking poles, and navigated the trail like two experienced hikers.  And Joyce is extremely experienced!  She walks between 5-6 miles a day, which makes me look like a neophyte!

As we moved down the trail, a couple of times when I was speaking, Joyce asked me to turn around and look at her.  She explained that although she wears a hearing aid and has one cochlear implant, sometimes communication is improved when she can see a person’s face.  Of course, as former Speech Pathologist, I had a million questions which Joyce was more than willing to answer.  Joyce has a genetic sensorineural hearing loss, inherited from her father.  She told a hilarious story, when, as a young woman, she owned the world’s most perfect cat, so quiet and undemanding was this cat.  After the birth of her daughter, when Joyce realized she couldn’t always hear her daughter’s cries, she got her first hearing aid.  And don’t you know, just like that, that extremely quiet cat began to meow all the time!  

After laughing at her story, our conversation turned serious.  I asked Joyce, “What advice would you give to others who may be experiencing hearing loss?”  Here’s what she said, “There are many potential solutions to dealing with hearing loss. Be open to all sorts of possibilities. Don’t worry about hearing aids making you look older. It’s much more aging to keeping saying, “What did you say?  Can you repeat that?”  Now that’s some authoritative and credible advice from somebody who has lived with a hearing loss for most of her life. And as a former Speech Pathologist, I would caution that untreated hearing loss can also impact physical health and emotional wellbeing.  In fact, according to Johns Hopkins expert Frank Lin, M.D., Ph. D. mild hearing loss doubles dementia risk, moderate loss triples risk, and people with a severe hearing impairment are five times more likely to develop dementia.  Anyone besides me planning to get their hearing checked?

Continuing down the trail, Joyce pointed out a pileated woodpecker on a tree branch up ahead.  Mostly black, a piliated woodpecker has white lines down each side of its throat and a bright red crest on the top of his head.  For all the world, it looks a like a guy I occasionally see at the gym who has a shaved head except for the tippy top which is moused high in the air and dyed bright red!  Once the bird flew away, I asked Joyce to let me get a picture of her by the lichen-covered rock wall. Even as she stood in front of the wall and told me that she not a fan of posing for pictures, it is one of my favorites! 

Walking across the powerline field, I learned that Joyce and her husband, David, moved to Hagerstown 8 years ago, knowing that they would like to retire closer to their daughter. Three years later, after almost 30 years with the Federal Government and 25 year managing information technology for the Food and Drug Administration, Joyce did just that.  She is now retired and living not far from Keedysville where her daughter Emily lives with her husband.  When I asked about her birth family, Joyce said, “Well, now that is a bit complicated.”  Joyce was born in post-World War II Germany to a half-Jewish widow with one daughter and an American soldier. When her birth father was sent state-side, he promised to send for Joyce’s mother and her but that didn’t happen. Joyce’s mother married another American soldier and when she was 5 years old, they left Germany and crossed the Atlantic on a military ship.  As Joyce said, “It was a traumatic beginning, but resulted in tremendous resiliency and her belief that she could handle anything.  Years later when she finally got to meet her father, she came to believe that, in addition to her hearing loss, she inherited his optimistic outlook, confidence and resilience.  As Joyce struck the “strong woman” pose, I imagined her resiliency as the foundation and her strength of purpose, good humor, and natural curiosity as the building blocks of her successful and happy life.  

Heading back up the hill I told Joyce that I was going to visit my twin daughters in Austin, Texas. As it turns out, Joyce recently returned from Texas after visiting her 93-year-old father and 89-year-old stepmother. According to Joyce, her father and stepmother still live in their own home and do all their own cleaning cooking, yard, and home maintenance.  What’s more, Joyce’s father still walks two miles a day!  I don’t even know them, but I love that just by living life on their own terms they are busting the stereotypic myths about aging!

As we approached the end of our hike, I asked Joyce about her hobbies.  She is a voracious reader, finishing 3-4 books each week and is a member of three different book clubs!  Wowza…that’s a lot of reading!  Of course, I told her that the Prime Time for Women Book Club, which this month is reading “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles, would welcome her with open arms!  I’m not certain but I would bet a million dollars that every book club in the world has read at least one book by Louise Penny, perhaps one of the best-known mystery writers ever and winner of five Agatha Christie Awards. Joyce reported just finishing Penny’s latest book, “State of Terror”, co-authored with Hillary Clinton.  Together in this new crime novel, a former Secretary of State and a best-selling author, tackle nuclear war and diplomacy. It sounds like a great Prime Time for Women COVID project to me…two women in their prime collaborating, sharing ideas and exploring new ways of being in the world!  I haven’t read it yet but from the reviews I gather that it includes lots of intrigue, terrorist attacks and brilliant young foreign service officers. 

After 2 ½ hours on the trail, despite wearing warm winter gloves, my hands were freezing cold.  Joyce and I jumped in the car and I turned the heater on high. Though my fingers felt like they were frostbitten my heart was warm with memories of the wonderful stories Joyce and I shared with each other.  It’s just like that when you “click” with someone!

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