Eighteen years later, internet decodes ailing Minnesota woman's final messages

Dorothy Holm

Dorothy Holm

Shakopee resident Dorothy Holm died of brain cancer in 1996. Almost two decades later, her family finally got around to trying to decode her final messages, left on index cards seemingly filled with random letters.

"We got them in '96 when she was about to pass, and we thought they were a fun game at the time," Dorothy's granddaughter, Janna Holm, told us last night. "We thought she was using secret messages."

But as the months turned into years, the cards were mostly forgotten about -- until this holiday season, when Janna, now a Baltimore resident, spent some time back at her family's Minnesota home.

"My dad stumbled across it in time for the holidays, and I brought it back with me," Janna said. "I thought [the letters] were song lyrics for a while, but I figured someone else might know the song better than I did, so I put them on the internet."

Indeed, on Monday, Janna published a post on MetaFilter asking readers for help "decoding cancer-addled ramblings." (Dorothy only lived a couple weeks after writing the cards, "and at that point she was kind of in and out of things, probably losing her memory, not really communicative or speaking much, and seemed pretty confused anytime you tried to talk to her," Janna said.)

Turns out Janna was probably wrong in her hunch that the letters stood for song lyrics. Shortly after she published the MetaFilter post, a commenter pointed out that the letters on this card seem to match up with the first letter of each word in the Lord's Prayer:


The flipside of that card, however, is still very much open for interpretation:

"The front of that card appears to be a lengthy message that seems to be more like a personal prayer written to her family," Janna said. "It's really hard to tell, but there are little bits and pieces where you'll see initials show up, and it seems to say, 'Please see that they are safe and sound, please see that they are all in good health.'"

But why didn't Dorothy, a Lutheran who converted from Catholicism when she got married, just write out her final messages instead of leaving them in code?

(For more, click to page two.)


"The only thing I can think of is, according to my family, she was really worried about losing her memory as she was declining in health and maybe they were just cheat sheets where she could remember what was she trying to think or say," Janna said, adding that she was 11 when Dorothy died. "But I don't know why she would have coded everything. Who knows how the mind works?"

Janna said that at the time of her grandmother's death, her family was in possession of about 20 index cards like the one above. But unfortunately, it appears they may have been lost.

"My dad only had the one posted on the site," Janna said. "The rest we think may be somewhere in my grandfather's house, but he may have got rid of them back in the day."

Janna's grandfather is still alive, and Janna says he was just as baffled about the code as the rest of the family. And as far as her grandma is concerned, Janna said if she were around today, she'd probably be "horrified and a little bit flattered" by this week's developments.

"I don't think she even saw the internet during her lifetime," Janna said. "I'm sure she'd be a little flattered, but a little weirded out that strangers are so curious about her."

Janna acknowledged that the card will "always be open to interpretation," but even so, she said her grandmother's specific message is less important to her than what the card represents.

"I don't care so much what it says, but it's nice to know she was thinking of us," she said.

h/t -- Bob Collins

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at [email protected]