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Letters About Literature National Winners 2010

National Winner, Level 3: Anna Wichorek, AK

Dear Velma Wallis,

Last year, my 84-year-old grandfather moved in with our family. Along with my grandfather came a wheelchair, a walker, a box full of medicine, and a long list of emergency phone numbers. My grandfather had just spent the last four months struggling for his life in a hospital room and the effects of pneumonia, heart failure, and septic shock had transformed him into a person I barely recognized. As he entered our home, I stood back and watched his heroic efforts to take a small step and I listened to his humble attempts to utter a simple word. I was overwhelmed with sorrow and hopelessness.

Over the next few weeks, I watched and waited for improvement. I saw none. Instead, I saw my grandfather unable to shower, shave, or dress himself without help from my father or uncles. I saw my grandfather unable to remember what he had eaten, unable to remember my name, and unable to remember when to take his medicines. I kept looking for the grandfather I had once known, but found only a weak, fragile, and confused person. Somewhere between all his therapy appointments and trips to the emergency room, I gave up hope my grandfather would ever return to me. Gradually, it became much easier for me to isolate myself, to totally immerse myself in homework or flute practice rather than face my grandfather.

But then I read Two Old Women, and in Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, I found the hope and the strength I needed to look at my grandfather and help him make his journey. As I discovered Ch’idzigyaak’s and Sa’s perseverance and determination to survive, I began to regain a sense of hope and possibility when I watched my grandfather’s efforts that I had once considered pointless. I began to respect and admire his determination to remove his own socks at night, to take small steps on his own, to dress himself. I understood that my grandfather, like Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, wanted to hold his “chin up proudly” just as they had held theirs up when they were abandoned by their tribe and were struggling for survival.

As I read Two Old Women, I realized that, like the tribe that had abandoned Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’ because they had only seen “two weak old women,” I had only seen a weak old man and had abandoned my grandfather. With this realization, I then began to look at my grandfather differently and I began to understand life from his perspective. I felt his humiliation, his frustration, and his wounded pride. When Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’ made the decision, “Let us die trying,” I understood why my grandfather would rather take ten minutes to walk down a hallway than be pushed in a wheelchair. Instead of seeing a stubborn old man when I looked at my grandfather, I saw resilience, determination, and courage.

As I got to know Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, I began to wonder if my grandfather, like Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, felt as though he were “condemned to die” and everyone had given up on him. But, Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak had given me courage to conquer my fears and now, instead of avoiding my grandfather, I began to spend more time with him. Instead of practicing flute with a closed bedroom door, I played music for him to enjoy and watched him smile as his body and mind found relaxation. Instead of reading alone in my bedroom, I began to sit next to my grandfather and read his favorite books to him. I learned to listen long enough to let him speak and I listened long enough to hear stories of his childhood and see him gain strength from those memories. I was no longer afraid of his suffering and I learned to touch him again, to hug him, and to soothe his loneliness and fear. I also learned to accept his limitations and love him regardless of those limitations.

Thank you, Ms. Wallis, for writing Two Old Women and sharing the legend of Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’ with me because without those two incredibly strong women, I would still be inside the walls of my own world trying to escape the suffering of my grandfather. Instead, with these two women, I have been able to face my own fears, make my own journey, and discover in my grandfather a person of incredible resilience and inner strength.

Anna Wichorek