Prophecy runs in the family. Mary once told a friend who despaired of Al, "Jackie will always shine, but Al will have moments when he's brighter."
Mary seemed to treasure every moment with her brood, and she watched them drawn into the world with regret. "I'd say, 'I've got a track meet this weekend,' " recalls Jackie, "and she'd say, 'This weekend is not promised to you, you know.' She'd tell us that she might not always be there." That seemed a little morbid to Al and Jackie. Mary was healthy and strong, and vibrant. "My mother was so beautiful," says Al. "She'd visit my high school, and guys would whistle at her. I wanted to beat 'em up. Jackie thinks she looks like her. I just say, 'Hah!' "
Jackie convinced the 18-year-old Al that consistent training and discipline would pay off in better performances and maybe enhance his chances for a track scholarship, and in his last three weeks of high school he abruptly improved by 2½ feet in the triple jump, to 50'2½", and earned a ticket to Tennessee State. A semester later he transferred to Arkansas State.
In 1980 Jackie traveled to the glitz and glorious distractions of UCLA. At last she was freed from Mary's strictures. She was 18. "When I got to UCLA, I didn't care as much anymore about men and clothes and parties," says Jackie. "The crisis had passed."
Now she faced a true crisis. In January 1981, Al and Jackie were summoned home from their colleges to find their mother in a coma. Mary had been suddenly stricken by a rare form of meningitis. Jackie tells of arriving at the hospital unprepared to see her mother, swollen and mute, already on a life-support system less than 24 hours after sensing what she thought to be a cold. The four Joyner children—Al, Jackie and their younger sisters, Angela and Debra—gathered in a hospital room with their aunt, Delia Gaines, and their father and were told that Mary was brain dead. She was 38.
The family had a conference to decide whether to turn off the life-support machines. "Our father didn't want to be the one," says Al. "It was left to Jackie and me."
As soon as she saw her mother, Jackie knew it had to be done. "If we left her on the machines," she says, "she'd never have known us, and she would have continued suffering indefinitely."
Besides, Mary had once told Alfred, while watching a TV movie on the subject, "Don't ever let me get that way." So Al and Jackie prayed, took one last look, and the family instructed the doctors to remove the life-support system. Two hours later, Mary died.
"She was the family's inspiration," says Al. "She turned me from bad to good. She taught me to be a gentleman. It preys on me that I never really told her, as an adult, that I loved her."
Her mother's death did not really transform Jackie, "but it brought about a clearer sense of reality," she says now. "I knew about setting goals and things, but with her gone, some of her determination passed to me."