It was 1951 and she was much too young to be so sick. Much too young. And she had her suspicions about what it was. The fevers. The drenching sweats. The profound fatigue and the joint pains – oh, the joint pains. She had her suspicions. After all, Flannery O’Connor had seen her father endure something like it before her…and he died one month into his forty-fifth year. Years later when she fully grasped that she too had the mysterious yet ravaging rheumatologic disease, systemic lupus erythematosis (commonly known as “lupus”), she wryly recalled the treatment – or rather, the lack thereof – available to her father during his final years.
“At that time, there was nothing for it but the undertaker.”
Flannery loved her father. Deeply. And though she spoke little of him, a private reflection scribbled in her college notebook revealed the pain that endured years after his death,
“The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder. Our plans were so beautifully laid out, ready to be carried to action, but with magnificent certainty God laid them aside and said, ‘You have forgotten – mine?’”
She was much too young to be sick. Convinced she had rheumatoid arthritis, her physician knew otherwise. So did her mother. But they concealed the true diagnosis from her fearing it would devastate her. The truth would come to her from a friend, Sally Fitzgerald, on a car ride running errands in the summer of 1952.
“On the way back, on a lovely summer’s afternoon, [Sally] glanced over at her passenger, wondering how she could disturb such peace; but she had made up her mind, following much inner struggle, that Flannery should finally know the true nature of her illness. At that instant, Flannery happened to mention her arthritis. ‘Flannery, you don’t have arthritis,’ Sally said quickly. ‘You have lupus.’ Reacting to the sudden revelation, Flannery slowly moved her arm from the car door down into her lap, her hand visibly trembling. Sally felt her own knee shaking against the clutch, too, as she continued driving along Seventy Acre Road.
‘Well, that’s not good news,’ Flannery said, after a few silent, charged moments. ‘But I can’t thank you enough for telling me…I thought I had lupus, and I thought I was going crazy. I’d a lot rather be sick than crazy.’”- Excerpted from Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
She was much too young to be sick. Flannery O’Connor would struggle through steroids and antibiotics, transfusions and infusions, hospitalizations and bedrest. Biting pain, oppressive fatigue and distracting fogginess would be her constant companions. The vision of her father was always before her. And yet from 1952 until 1964, Flannery wrote her novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. She compiled a series of short stories collected in A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge and others. She wrote dozens and dozens of book reviews for her Catholic diocesan newspapers.
Even more, Flannery wrote letters. To friends. To family. To mentors. To aspiring writers. These letters were collected posthumously and edited by her friend, Sally Fitzgerald. The Habit of Being is an extraordinary testimony to the brilliant, witty, confident yet self-effacing, loyal, struggling yet surviving beauty that is Mary Flannery O’Connor. And in those letters she guided Alfred Corn (see my previous post, Dear Ms. Connor:On Writing Letters to Flannery), she sparred with Cecil Dawkins, and she confided in her friend, “A”. And she touched me and thousands more readers to this day. What is more is that during those letters and between those letters, Flannery O’Connor, in her suffering, in her uncertainty and in her fear…was simply there. She was there to feed the peafowl at her Andalusia Farm. She was there to pick up the mail and eat breakfast. And Flannery was there for her aging mother to come late at night into her room to look upon her beautiful, yet dying child. She was there when many in our modern world might argue she didn’t have to be. Her suffering, some would argue, justified her to leave it all behind. Just leave it all behind.