Grandma Josie has been dead almost fifty-one years, but I read a letter from her three weeks ago that brought her back to life for me, for a few minutes.
My cousin David visited from Oregon, bringing with him a suitcase full of family photos and papers. I couldn’t believe it when he handed me a letter Grandma wrote to his mother – her daughter – sometime during the month in which she died. As far as we know, it is the last letter she ever wrote.
My parents and I lived with Grandma for my entire life. She was a grandmother to me first and foremost, but she also helped with my “raising.” During a family get-together while David was home, I said “My grandma loooooved me,” and a cousin said, “Yes, and I was so jealous of you I couldn’t stand it.”
The thing is, proximity did it. Had that cousin grown up in the house with Grandma, she would have been the special one. Grandma loved all of her grandchildren and would have done anything for any of them. I just happened to be closest to her physically, so a special bond grew between us that was never to be broken.
She began to get sick when I was eleven and was diagnosed with leukemia the next year. She died in June 1963 when I was fourteen. I lost one of my best friends as well as my grandma that day. She fought a brave battle, with courage, strength, and faith that still astounds me.
Back to the letter. On page two she wrote: “I guess I’ll have to admit that I’m gradually going down hill. Every day seems like I feel worse and have to be in bed more.” Near the bottom of page three, she addressed her own situation again: “I felt some better yesterday but my legs started hurting about 2 this morning and still do….I don’t think there’s much use for me to go to the clinic….I’ve never had any hurting until now.” Page three, out of four pages!
Here’s how her letter began: “I never feel well anymore. The rest of the folks are pretty well. Janet talked Noah [my daddy] into getting his vacation now, so they with Patricia went camping on Kelly Lake Mon. nite. Had a good time but Janet got sunburn that nearly made her sick. And she went…to a party. Some stayed and slumbered so Janet was give out yesterday.”
The woman was d-y-i-n-g, yet she was concerned about me, a teenager too silly to keep from getting sunburned and not smart enough to get enough sleep.
I was humbled anew when I read that letter. I spent many afternoons, evenings, and nights in the hospital sitting with her – after having the Sisters in charge of visitors look the other way while I sneaked upstairs with my schoolbooks and library books.
In those days, IVs had no automatic monitoring systems, and someone had to stay close by patients to make sure a nurse was called to the room in time to do a quick-change of bags of blood so the bag didn’t get completely empty, thereby allowing air bubbles into the patient’s veins. That was a job I took very seriously.
Every time Grandma had to go into the hospital, Mother took me down to Viva’s Flowers so I could have a pillow corsage of fresh flowers made for her. Except the last time.
I had been visiting relatives in Shreveport, and Daddy drove down to get me when Grandma got sicker and needed to go into the hospital. I got back home in time to sit by her for a while before the ambulance came to carry her in to St. Michael’s. The ambulance looked nothing like they do today. It was a large gray station wagon with all rounded fenders, and it looked more like a pale hearse than anything else.
I didn’t want to let her go, even though my parents were driving in right behind the ambulance.
The ambulance attendants must have sensed the special bond between us. The car held only one very long bench seat, but they asked me if I’d like to ride in with her. I was able to talk with her, and with them, all the way to Texarkana. I still have a warm place in my heart for those two big, gruff men who may well have broken rules to let me ride with her that day.
The blood transfusions that time did not give her strength. Sometimes they exhausted her even more than she had been before, because her veins had just about broken down, and they had to try multiple times, sometimes resorting to using her ankles. There was no such thing as a pic line. She’d get a few transfusions, they’d take out the needle and see how she did, they’d put the needle back in some place else if she needed more. It was a vicious cycle.
She closed that letter, the one that was probably the last she ever wrote, with these lines: “I’ll close now since I don’t feel good. Phyllis may have to write next time.” There wasn’t a next time for her.
When I read that letter a few weeks ago, I was fourteen again and Grandma was still alive, lying in that hospital bed halfway down the hall from the waiting room on the third floor, and her family was there keeping vigil.
I had no idea how bereft I would be feeling just one week later.
Yet reading that letter, I was also wrapped once again in the unending, uncensored, unbounding love of my Grandma Josie.