I was happy to be part of school year to remember

The message from my sister was brief: “Sissy, call me.” But I knew by the sound of her voice the news wasn’t good.

I wasn’t sure if it was about her or our brother. Lately, they have both had some trips to the ER and several hospital stays.

Bobbie is home recovering from a stroke. And Joe, who is blind and suffers from cerebral palsy, has had a few bad falls.

They live in South Carolina, 30 miles apart, and 3,000 miles from me in California. But as the sole survivors of the family we grew up in, we try to bridge the miles with phone calls. I took a deep breath and dialed my sister’s number. No answer. Minutes later, she called back.

I was right. The news wasn’t good. Joe was in the hospital again. But this time it wasn’t because of a fall.

“He’s got COVID,” Bobbie said.

Bobbie is a retired ICU nurse. When Joe told her he was having trouble breathing, she insisted that he call 911.

“He’d been vaccinated,” she said, “but he got so short of breath he could barely talk. So he tested positive and was admitted to the hospital.”

Bobbie and I talked a while, trying to convince ourselves and each other Joe would be OK.

Then I phoned the hospital (I know the number by heart) and asked for Joe’s room. The line was busy. In the next hour I called back four times. Still busy. Joe never talks to anybody for an hour. I figured the phone in his room must be off the hook, and he didn’t know it, because he couldn’t see it.

Finally, I called the nurse’s desk and asked if someone would please check his phone for me. Sure enough, it was off the hook. Minutes later, I was transferred and Joe answered.

“Hey, Sister! Sorry about the phone. I try to hang it up right, but sometimes I get it wrong. Anyhow, we’re talking now and I’m glad to hear from you.”

His voice was a bit ragged, but his spirits, as usual, were high. In his lifetime, Joe has faced far bigger challenges than COVID-19, always with a steadfast faith.

Our mother loved to tell this story: When he was 7, Joe spent weeks in Shriners Hospital for Children, recovering from surgery that was meant to help him walk. She said a nurse told her a lot of the children cried every night. Not Joe. He’d sing his favorite church song, “Love Lifted Me,” until he fell asleep. The nurse said his singing helped to calm the other children and the nurses, too.

He sang that song again when he had to board at the state school for the deaf and the blind, and when he lost, one by one, our mother, our stepfather, our younger brother, and — the hardest loss of all to bear — his wife, the love of his life.

But Joe won’t be singing tonight. Silently, maybe, but not out loud. The congestion in his lungs won’t allow it.

“I don’t want you to worry, Sister,” he said. “They’re taking good care of me here and I know Mama’s watching over me, too.”

If all patients were as pleasant and appreciative as my brother, nurses would have fewer headaches and more fun.

On a brighter note, Joe (a huge Clemson fan) said he was happy to hear Clemson’s quarterback Trevor Lawrence was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

“I’m proud of him,” he said.

I didn’t want to say goodbye, but Joe needed to rest.

“I’ll call tomorrow,” I said, “if your phone’s not off the hook.”

He laughed, then stopped for a bit to catch his breath.

“Listen to me, Sister,” he said, finally. “Everybody hits a rough patch once in a while. This patch might be rougher than some I’ve had, but I’m just gonna take it one day at a time and trust the good Lord to help me.”

Sometimes I find it hard to trust. Joe makes it look easy. He’s had a lifetime of practice. I will fall asleep tonight praying that Love will lift my brother.

Randall is an author and longtime newspaper columnist who may be contacted at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley, CA 93924, or via her website, www.sharonrandall.com.