For hours after her stroke, Esther Nedlo of Joliet crawled on her bedroom floor, searching for the door.
"I said, ‘God, let me see the light because I had to go to the bathroom,” Nedlo, who was nearly 100 at the time, said. “He said, ‘Turn around.’ So I turned around and I saw a big fire. I said, ‘Oh my God, the house is on fire!’ What am I going to do now?’ I stared at it and saw it was the sun coming up.”
Up until that point, Nedlo was living alone in her own apartment, cooking her own meals and corresponding with a young relative from Italy who was interested in her family history.
“I did everything on my own,” Nedlo, who will turn 103 on Jan. 30, said. “All except the grocery shopping.”
After the stroke, Nedlo lived off and one at her daughter’s home in Lockport until 2018. After a series of health challenges, Nedlo began receiving hospice care in late 2017.
During that time, her family brought Nedlo her beloved statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The statue had once belong to Nedlo's mother-in-law (Esther and her husband Walter Nedlo had lived with the mother-in-law on Garnsey Street) and Nedlo dusted it every day.
Esther also talked to that statue as informally as one might a good a friend, sharing her concerns and the concerns of her loved ones: surgeries, job prospects, making the cheerleading team.
But Esther, upset because she was suffering and God was not letting her die, turned her back on that statue.
'I had to hold the scissors'
Esther had spent the first 30 years of her life in the family home on Water Street in Joliet, the third of four girls. The family was very poor and Esther’s mother used to make the girls’ clothes from scrap cloth, Esther said.
A brother died at age 3 from diphtheria, an upper respiratory infection that is now preventable through childhood immunizations, the “d” in the DPT vaccine.
But diphtheria produces a thick gray membrane that can cover the sick person's nose, throat and tonsils. Esther recalled her family sending for the doctor and how the doctor cut her brother’s throat to help him breathe.
"I had to hold the scissors,” Esther said. “He did not last very long. A couple of hours and then he was gone.”
The family could not afford a casket.
“So we got an orange crate from the store and put him in that,” Esther said. “And that’ show we buried him, in that orange create.”
Esther’s father was only 39 when he died from complications of an appendectomy0my.
“They [accidentally] cut into his liver,” Esther said. “And he died.’
Hardworking and honest
That’s partly why, when Esther and her sisters graduated from eighth grade, they had to quit school to help support the family.
Esther’s own mother was never employed until she was 65 and needed a work history for Social Security,” Ester said.
“She went to peel onions,” Esther said. “There was a farm by the city dump. All my nieces worked there so they got my mother a job. My mother wasn’t fast at 65, so one of my nieces helped my mother peel onions and put them in the box. She peeled onions for about three years.”]
For four years, Esther worked for a local grocery store. At age 19, she worked for a wallpaper factory. The factory was located near Pilcher Park in Joliet and Esther walked to and from work for 12 years, she said.
But those weren’t grim years. Esther liked working and The Church of St. Anthony in downtown Joliet, where Ester belonged, had started an all-girls baseball team when Esther was 14.
The team won a championship for the city, Esther said, and lasted give years. Esther played first base.
Only the catcher had a mitt. Esther broke her pinkie catching a ball. Esther continued to play baseball with broken finger and it shows on that finger.
But Esther doesn't mind.
“I wanted to play,” she said.
Esther met her future husband Walter because her sister’s boyfriend had a roommate who knew Walter, who had spent over three years in the Navy and “never got no girls,” Esther said.
Esther herself had never really dated because she'd been too busy working, Esther said.
She didn’t remember her first date with Walter, where they went or what they did.
“It was probably a [neighborhood] tavern,” Esther said. “That’s all we knew. We didn’t go to a show. But I never drank either.”
But Esther does recall what she liked about Walter.
“He was funny. He told a lot of jokes,” Esther said. “He was kind.”
After her two daughters were in school, Esther worked as a cashier for Walgreens. She recalled the couple times her register was short and had to take a lie detector test, which she passed.
“I loved working,” Esther, who retired at age 63, said. “Everybody came into that store, all the courthouse people, and they were all nice.”
But the fact anyone could accuse her of stealing and lying still bothers her.
“I’ve never lied in my life. My kids can tell you that,” Esther said. “I can forgive you for anything, but don’t lie to me.”
The stroke took Esther by surprise. It was evening, and Esther had gone into her bedroom to pull the shade down.
“The light always comes into my room,” Esther said. “I went to pull the shade down and I turned – and that’s the last thing I knew.”
Esther recalls hitting her head on a steel stool. When she regained consciousness, her vision was gone and would stay gone for 11 hours.
She tried grabbing onto the bed to pull herself up and pulled the bedspread with her. Lying on the floor, Esther felt the air conditioner blowing on her back and realized she must have knocked that down, too.
“The doctor said I was lucky not to have gone to bed or I would not be alive,” Esther said.
After crawling around for hours until her knuckles were raw, and finally realizing she’d spent the night on the floor, due to the sunlight she detected, Esther crawled into the kitchen to answer the phone, which was ringing.
Because she could not stand, Esther felt for her gripper tool, knocked the phone off the hook, and asked the voice on the other end the reason for the early phone call?
Except it wasn’t early. It was 11 a.m.
Even then, no one guessed Esther was having a medical emergency until help finally arrived because she only told the caller, “I fell. Can you come over and help me up?”
Esther said her story should have a happy ending, even though she still doesn’t understand why God is keeping her on earth.
In fact, Esther only wanted to live until 85. Most of her family has lived to at least that age, with many living into their 90s.
She’s tired, she said, but happy.
“I’ve gotten to see my great-children grow up and to go to school and work,” Esther said. “Everything I’ve been praying for.”