Joyce Brigish (née Hirshovitz) died on Oct. 13 at home in West Tisbury, after a heroic 10-month battle with malignant mesothelioma.
Joyce was born on Nov. 16, 1943, in Pretoria, South Africa, the third child of Matthew and Dora Hirshovitz. She grew up in Pretoria and Vereeniging, before moving to Johannesburg to complete her studies to become a high school mathematics teacher. There she met her husband-to-be, Alan Brigish, an electronics engineering student.
They lived in the same apartment block in Johannesburg, and met one day in the lobby. They became friends, and Alan conspired with her father to let him build a little intercom system that he placed under her bed with wires trailing out of the window and up the outside of the building to his bedroom. Later that day, he switched it on to hear her giving her father lip over some transgression. “Joyce,” he said. “That is no way to talk to your father.” She screamed and dove under the bed to see if Alan was hiding there, only to find a little black box with wires. After she got over the shock, Alan and Joyce agreed to leave it in place so that they could have late-night chats about their respective dates on a Saturday night. In no time, they began dating.
When he told her of his plans to leave the hateful society of apartheid and move to England, Joyce said that she wanted to do the same. They decided to get married, and Alan left for England to seek a new life for them. He returned for their wedding in June 1965, and they moved next day to England.
Alan and Joyce’s first child, Cy, was born with Down syndrome. Shortly thereafter, their second son Hal was born. Alan’s work took him first to Canada, then to the United States, and later, back to Europe. Joyce took care of all of household issues, while packing, moving and attending to the babies. Then their daughter Jackie was born. Finally, they moved to the United States permanently in 1976. Joyce took it all in stride.
Once in the United States, Joyce became an indefatigable advocate for the handicapped. Everyone loved her for her empathy and concern for others. Funny and warm, courageous, and tough-minded, she formed two nonprofit organizations and chaired them for decades. She organized an entire community in Westport, Conn. and put together recreation, educational, and community functions. When his school said he was incapable of learning to read, Joyce home-schooled Cy and proved them dead wrong.
She went into the schools to teach kids how to relate to those with handicaps. For decades she ran a local Special Olympics team for Cy and his group. One of Joyce’s finest accomplishments was teaching Cy to pass the immigration test to become a U.S. citizen. He passed his test with 100 percent accuracy, and was specially recognized by the governor.
She was also a talented sculptor, and founded a sculpture gallery with her best friend. After several successful and fulfilling years, Joyce agreed to help Alan in a new venture, and they jointly founded and built a successful publishing company, which enabled them to retire when she was 53 in Connecticut and move permanently to Martha’s Vineyard in 2005.
On the Vineyard, Joyce designed their beautiful home and garden with great style. Elegant simplicity were her watchwords. She orchestrated the great accomplishment of letting Cy live and work independently and separately in Connecticut. She became the first family member to join the board of Camp Jabberwocky, and tirelessly worked for and supported this wonderful venture. She was a longtime board member of Women Empowered. She was a Windermere volunteer who trained her golden retriever Zach to be a regular weekly therapy dog. She worked each week, in the off-season, in the Island Food Pantry. One of her greatest joys was singing with the Island Community Chorus.
Joyce had a deep-seated ability for enjoyment. She was also a very practical, down-to-earth person with a great work ethic, who was very reliable and got things done. She was an excellent knitter, had remarkable mechanical skills, and was a terrific gardener. And she was superbly creative in the kitchen, while hating every minute of cooking.
Joyce shied away from the limelight, hating pretentiousness and intolerance. She was averse to all of the trappings of wealth, glamour, and power.
Joyce was dedicated in a singleminded way in the pursuit of raising her family. Above all, she was a mother. She nurtured Cy to grow into an accomplished, popular, fun-loving adult. She pushed Hal and Jackie to be the best they could be, and they rewarded her with joy beyond her expectations. She greatly loved every member of her family equally and totally.
When her mind was made up, it was final. It was Joyce’s way, with no alternate highway. But after a diagnosis of mesothelioma, her stubborn nature and determination also led her to try to beat the odds. She went into treatment knowing those odds, and endured tremendous suffering for 10 months in a vain attempt to beat them. And to put an exclamation point on it, she refused food and liquids for 16 days before passing away peacefully. Perhaps her stubbornness was a shining example of pure, shining, world-class courage.
Joyce suffered with great pain for much of her life. Over time she had numerous physical issues. Beginning with breast cancer 12 years ago, she underwent two knee replacements, many medical procedures, and endured an agonizing spinal neck problem before being diagnosed with mesothelioma in January 2016. After three bouts of chemotherapy, Joyce consented to a seven-hour surgery in July, which was unsuccessful in removing the tumors. She accepted her fate without tears of self-pity, and did her best to live normally as her strength faded.
Joyce Brigish always put the needs and wants of others ahead of her own. Her legacy above all else embraced the ethos of kindness and generosity.
She leaves behind a fine family legacy. She is mourned by her husband Alan, children Cy, Hal (and Katy), Jackie (and Dan), and their children, Ashley, Kevin, Jake and Serah. Also Zach, the golden retriever, is clearly feeling his loss.
Joyce and Alan are grateful beyond words for 51 and a half years of marriage, a wonderful family, and the love of a community of friends and family worldwide that supported them so well through this ordeal. Particular thanks go to Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, Trudy Carter, June Miller, Mike Adell, and Jill St. John.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to either: