Imagine you had a pen pal. Someone like you, who also longed for a faraway friend. Someone who responded promptly to your letters and answered even the most mundane questions about pets, favorite colors and what he or she did last summer.
Would you share your hopes and dreams? Would you send cards and gifts for birthdays and holidays and just because? Would your relationship blossom until you were no longer simply pen pals, but the best of friends?
Now imagine finding out that your pen pal was fighting for her life, her brain hemorrhaging and her lungs failing. Would your family drop everything and travel halfway across the country to stand by her bedside?
Autumn's family would.
A friendship begins
The two girls were nearly 10 when Autumn wrote her first letter to Hosanna.
"When I got Hosanna's address, I remember being really excited," Autumn says. "I could hardly wait to write her."
Hosanna's older sister spotted the invitation to request a pen pal in Adventures in Odyssey Clubhouse magazine, and their mother signed up all four of her kids. Published by Focus on the Family, Clubhouse has been matching young subscribers with pen pals for 25 years.
Autumn lived in Michigan, Hosanna in Florida. Letters and gifts — and, eventually, phone calls — flew back and forth. In one of those early letters, Hosanna wrote: "I hope we get to meet in real life!”
The girls wrote to each other for a couple of years, and then in May of 2015, Hosanna's letters suddenly stopped.
Fighting for her life
She came down with a fever first, then stomach pain. Soon Hosanna was vomiting dark brown blood.
The downward spiral was swift and terrifying. Pneumonia in both lungs. Plummeting oxygen levels. Hosanna kept saying she couldn't breathe.
She was transferred to another hospital, where a physician pulled her mother, Nanci, aside. One of Hosanna's lungs had collapsed and the other was barely functioning.
"I don't know how much longer she is going to last," the doctor said.
Hosanna's eyes rolled back and she started to shake — her oxygen levels in freefall: 29 percent . . . 23 . . . 20 . . . 19 . . .
Legs trembling, heart pounding out of her chest, Nanci watched the hospital staff surround her daughter's bed. Nanci somehow made it to the hallway. The wall felt like ice as she slid down to her knees. Wailing. Praying.
A ventilator kept Hosanna alive. Every morning another X-ray. Each image the same: lungs virtually white as snow.
"There's nothing else we can do," the doctors said.
As if things couldn't get worse, a CT scan revealed that Hosanna had suffered a massive stroke. Even if she lived, she would never be the same. Her parents were urged to let her go.
Instead, Nanci placed a call to Autumn's family in Michigan.
A life-changing connection
Autumn's parents, Jim and Vicki, described the situation to their church. Through his tears, Jim asked the congregation to join with him in begging for God's mercy on a little girl none of them had ever met.
Hosanna needed emergency brain surgery. Blood clots besieged her body. Gangrene set in, and doctors had to amputate her leg. Four times the family heard that Hosanna wouldn't make it.
Autumn's family couldn't get Hosanna out of their minds. Two weeks after those first phone calls asking for prayer, Jim, Vicki and Autumn booked a flight for Florida.
"I was really excited when I found out I was going to see Hosanna," Autumn says, "but I was nervous, too.
"It was sad to see Hosanna laying in the hospital bed, all hooked up to machines."
Autumn and her parents stayed in Florida for six days — long enough to fall in love with Hosanna's family. To hear Nanci describe it, the feeling was mutual.
"They watched Hosanna while we went home to do laundry and pay bills, and they prayed and cried with us," she says. "This beautiful family left everything to pour Jesus' love into our lives. This is an incredible, loving friendship put together by God through Clubhouse.”
Autumn and her parents had to head home, but Autumn continued to write Hosanna, even quilting for her a "Joseph blanket" of many colors.
The same neurosurgeon who recommended taking Hosanna off the ventilator was amazed by her eventual recovery — and by the number of people who came to visit and to pray. Hosanna is in a wheelchair now, with a regular regimen of intense therapies. The damage to her brain means she's had to relearn everything, yet Hosanna still considers Autumn her best friend and saves all her letters.
"My relationship with Hosanna is better now than it was before," Autumn says. "I hope we will be writing to each other forever."