Sally Fitzgerald, the compiler of Oâ€™Connorâ€™s letters, notes that when she placed Flannery on the train to return to her Milledgeville, Georgia, home, she was â€œsmiling perhaps a little wanly but wearing her beret at a jaunty angle.â€ Less then a week later, the Fitzgeralds received the news that Flannery was dying of lupus. The cocky hat of Oâ€™Connorâ€™s ambitions and hopes now seemed to lie in the shadows of the valley into which her life had been plunged.
As I read the letters that surrounded this time, they resonated with me, fresh from the antiseptic stench of hospital halls myself, where my grandma is fighting the debilitating effects of a massive stroke. Fitzgerald notes, â€œAs she emerged from the crisisâ€¦she began to communicate again herself -- chiefly on the subject of her novel, which had never been much out of her mind, even when the lupus attack was most severe.â€ I can practically see Enoch Emery, his flushed pimply face rising out of an ape suit, regarding Flannery from the foot of her hospital bed. But still, it was he and his "wise blood," as well as every other character and the novel itself, that formed a heavy rope of purpose that pulled Flannery through. Were it not for such gifts of purpose, how would we survive these times of pain? It is such gifts that wrap 75-year-old fingers and hands pierced with IV tubing around the frame of a metal hospital bed with a grip of iron. The gifts of a novel, a character, a grandchildâ€™s hands on the forehead, a hymn hummed softly over a gray head, a hat at a jaunty angle, a desire to live.
While she lay recovering in Baldwin Memorial hospital, Flannery wrote to a friend, â€œI donâ€™t believe in time no more much so itâ€™s all one to meâ€¦â€ She had passed through a deep place in her life, a river that had not overcome her and a fire that had not burned her. In a darkened ICU ward, these words of Isaiah 43 were shafts of light. I read them softly but they glowed with their own power. â€œWhen you walk the waters, I will be with you and when you pass through the rivers they will not overcome you.â€ The sun tipped through the west-facing windows, setting my grandmaâ€™s hand holding mine awash in gold. In that second, I sensed the strong ropes that were pulling her back and in Whose hands they ultimately lay. She squeezed my hand, her breathing deep and joyful, and I knew she wasnâ€™t pulling alone.