#1889: Willa Cather to Edith McClung Sawyer, October 24, 1938

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⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ My dear Edith1:

Please excuse my typing this letter. My hand-writing grows more and more difficult to read, and I don't wish you to puzzle over it.

I feel very remorseful that I did not telegraph you when I received a cable from Jan3 a few days after Isabelle's4 death5. I thought, of course, that he would have cabled you at the same time. On the same afternoon that I got Jan's cable I got a long distance telephone call from my sister-in-law6 in Sacramento7, telling me that my older brother8 was having dangerous [illegible]hemorrhages after an operation, and asking me whether I could come on by air at short notice. His condition remained dangerous for four days, and during that time I was in a half-stupified condition. This house9 was full of paperers and painters, so I went to the Lowell Hotel10 and took the rooms which Isabelle used to occupy, awaiting the issue. If conditions had been otherwise, I would naturally have written to you at that time, even though I took it for granted that Jan had cabled you word of Isabelle's death. He should have done so, but I cannot blame the poor distracted man for anything he did not do; there is so much red tape to be gone through when a foreigner dies in Italy11 and is buried there.

Jan's letter to me about the last days of Isabelle's illness probably came on the same boat as his letter to you, and it tells practically the same story. In one paragraph he says: ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩"During nearly five days I watched her strong, loyal and loving heart resist death. Not more than half a dozen times did her face show anguish or anxiety, then only for a few minutes. She slept as though under the influence of a potent anaesthetic. As she died her face took on a perfectly calm remote look. After three hours her lips shaped into a gentle gracious smile. The parish priest came on Saturday and prayed for her. The Nuns (who had been at her bedside day and night) dressed our Darling in her favorite lace dress and she looked so handsome - her distinguished self."

Isabelle's last letter to me was a short one, dated September 24th. It was written on her knee as she was sitting in the garden. She says: "These September days are soft and warm and lovely. We are down on the terrace, so this untidy note is being written on my knee." All the first part of September she was able to walk with Jan down to the end of the garden and sit looking at the sea. I think September 24th must have been her last walk to the terrace. The letter is short, but the tone of it very cheerful.

Everyone who saw Isabelle during her stay at the Hotel Cocumella12 speaks of the beauty and dignity of her life there; how she never oppressed anyone with a sense of her illness, and how everyone loved to be with her and felt privileged to have a little private conversation with her. When she did not feel strong enough to see people (which was often) she stayed in her room or sat on her little balcony in the sun. She did not go down to dinner except when she could appear with graciousness and ease of manner.

I had made all arrangements to go to Sorrento13 in July, ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ but on June 13th my brother Douglass14 died in Los Angeles15 of coronary thrombosis - having had no previous illness. After that I felt unequal to the voyage, but had planned to spend a part of this winter in Sorrento.

Surely, when you saw Isabelle last16 you must have realized that her time was short. Her doctors at the Lenox Hill Hospital17 thought she could scarcely hold out through the year. That was why I followed her a few weeks after they sailed for France18, and rejoined them there, and spent the autumn there, at a nearby hotel, so I could be with her every day. Nobody ever bore a long and fatiguing illness with more courage and more dignity. When I went over19 to Paris20 in 1930, she was already very ill. I went over in April and stayed until late November. She was even then struggling under a dragging fatigue which almost never left her. She had lived for years on the strictist diet, cutting out everything that increased blood pressure, except weak tea in the afternoon and a few cigarettes. She knew nothing definite about her kidneys being wrong until she came back to New York2. Perhaps that was just as well. As you know, when people have that particular defect of the kidneys, they are born with it, and it develops slowly all through their lives. Nothing can be done about it, and I think it was better that she was spared the knowledge of an incurable defect as long as possible. It seems just too cruel that such a thing should fall upon her, of all people. But even that slow poisoning could not take away anything of the beauty, oir charm, or great heartedness she had for the people who loved her,- and they were many. Jan's absolute ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ devotion to her during her long illness was very precious to her, and even people who sometimes found him a little difficult could never find anything to criticize in him as a husband. She hated being handled by nurses. She loved having him give her her bath, lift her when it was hard for her to rise, and by so many delicate attentions disguise her actual infirmities from everyone.

You probably do not realize, Edith, how much it pleased her that you took the trouble to come down to New York and see her several times when she was in the hospital. Her uncle Will's21 going to Cherry Valley22 to see her was another thing that warmed her heart - she could never speak of it without tears.

Poor Jan; I am very impatient with him sometimes - he is so impracticle in some things, but Heaven knows he loved and admired Isabelle every day they lived together, and that was her one great solace in the cares and anxieties and suffering that she lived through during these last twelve years. I think I can say that she was not never really unhappy, and I know that she had times of great happiness. She made many warm and beautiful friendships, and even on the date of her last letter, September 24th, she was still loving life. You can understand that living will never be the same for me again. I don't yet know where I am or what kind of future there will be for me in a world in which there is no Isabelle to write to or to go to. It will take me a long while to get used to things as they are now.

I have written at greater length than I intended, Edith, and I will ask you to regard this letter as confidential to you. ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ I don't wish to be telling more about Isabelle than she would have told about herself. To anyone who truly loved her you might wish to quote from this letter, but not to anyone else, please. Near of kin are not always kind of heart. I feel sure she would not wish her cousins, the Lees, to know anything about her life, though she was very fond fond of their mother, her "Aunt Beck"23. I know she was truly fond of her cousin Mary Griswold24(?) I am not sure25 about the name, though I remember the girl very well. I think she and her brothers26 now live in Florida27.

Sincerely yours Willa Cather