Fifty summers ago, Flannery O’Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, “So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you.” In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O’Connor’s dormant lupus; the tell-tale “lupus rash” broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O’Connor spent a month in Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital–from May 21 to June 20.
A prodigious letter-writer, O’Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of “Parker’s Back” in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer. O’Connor seemed to understand that there was something different about this hospital stay, about this recurrence of a disease that had come and gone but had been mostly manageable to that point. The letters she wrote that month didn’t have the same cheery tone that she usually assumed in her hospital letters. “I don’t know if I’m making progress or if there’s any to be made,” she wrote her friend Maryat Lee. “Let’s hope they are learning something anyhow.”
Writing from the hospital to Janet McKane, a favorite pen-pal, O’Connor mentioned that she admired the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins–and especially the sonnet titled “Spring and Fall.” The poem is a meditation on death, the transience of life, and the nature of sorrow, spoken to a girl named Margaret, whose first taste of grief comes with the dying of the autumn leaves:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Flannery O’Connor would never see autumn leaves again. The day after she wrote this letter, her doctor sent her home–not because she was improving, but because there was nothing else that he could do for her.
It is heartbreaking to think of O’Connor in that hospital room, out of medical options, not yet forty and heading home to die, scratching out those sorrowful words to a woman she had never met: Margaret, are you grieving?
Once home at Andalusia, O’Connor cycled through ups and downs for six more weeks. She finished “Parker’s Back” and rewrote “The Geranium” her first published story, as “Judgement Day.” Originally a story about pathological homesickness, “Judgement Day” became a meditation on death.
In early July, when a priest came to the house to give her communion after so many weeks away from Mass, she asked him to give her the Sacrament of the Sick—the sacrament formerly known as Extreme Unction.
Flannery O’Connor lived another three weeks after receiving the Sacrament of the Sick. On Wednesday, July 29, she fell ill and was taken by ambulance to Baldwin General Hospital in Milledgeville. On Sunday, August 2, family and local friends were alerted that the end was near. O’Connor received the Eucharist that day in her hospital bed. She lost consciousness that night, and shortly after midnight on Monday, August 3, 1964, her kidneys failed and she died.
O’Connor’s funeral was the next day—a low requiem funeral Mass at Milledgeville’s Sacred Heart Church. None of her out-of-town friends could come on such short notice; only local friends and family were there to see the red clay cover her casket.
Two weeks before she died, O’Connor wrote Janet McKane a letter in which she reproduced a prayer to Saint Raphael that she prayed every day:
O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those that we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country. Remember the week, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
It is an amazing thing to think about, this woman who made a name for herself with stories of earthly terror and grotesquerie, meditating every day on the province of joy, preparing herself lest she be ignorant of the concerns of her true country. All that darkness was in the service of eternal brightness. All that violence was in the service of peace and serenity. The writer whose every story was a thunderclap took her place beyond the region of thunder.