Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
‘Every day’s a blessing’ for couple
DEVOTION: COMBATING CANCER TOGETHER
BY EDIE GROSS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Jullian Grante figured the pain in the right side of his chest was from a pulled muscle, and during a routine physical the day before his 50th birthday, his doctor agreed.
Two months later, with the pain and swelling considerably worse, Grante received a different diagnosis in the Mary Washington Hospital emergency room: There was a grapefruit-size tumor growing in his chest and it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It was very, very scary. You think, ‘Could they be wrong?’ I just remember being in shock, total shock, and not knowing what to think or do,” said Jo Draper Grante, who remembered hearing the news and then walking out to the car with her husband.
“And we just sat there and cried,” she said.
That was in December 2000. More than 11 years later, Grante is on his third battle with the disease, which is linked to his exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide, while serving in Vietnam.
In the four decades since his combat days, Grante has dedicated himself to public service, working to prevent child abuse, mentoring troubled youths, providing job training for adults on public assistance, helping draft Virginia’s welfare reform legislation and even briefing members of the British Parliament on the topic.
Now, the Fredericksburg man who fought to improve countless lives is fighting for his own.
Grante, 61, credits his doctors, his faith in God and, perhaps most of all, his loving wife for seeing him through the chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries and sleepless nights.
“When I wake up in the middle of the night in pain, she’s there,” he said. “When I go to bed, she’s there. I have such a dedicated wife. We have an incredible marriage.”
‘A LIFE OF INTEGRITY’
The couple met in 1987 at Springfield Mall in Fairfax County. When an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman called in sick one weekend, Grante, who worked part time training the company’s sales teams, had to take the man’s place outside a Waldenbooks store.
Jo Draper was buying items to furnish her new home when she crossed his path.
“I was carrying these big bags, and I thought, ‘I have to go home. I’ve bought enough.’ I look over at this guy and I’m saying, ‘Oh my goodness, that is a good-looking man,’” she recalled. “Then I thought, ‘Take another look. Is he really that good-looking?’”
The answer was an emphatic yes. Furthermore, Grante caught her looking and waved her over.
Though she didn’t want any encyclopedias, he managed to talk her into an appointment.
When he called a few weeks later to confirm, she was painting her bathroom because her family was coming into town for a reunion. She still didn’t want any encyclopedias, and she rebuffed his offer to come over and help her paint.
But she invited him to the reunion banquet, figuring a dinner with 600 family members would be a safe place to meet him and “I could find out if he had any manners.”
Grante gladly accepted.
“I was really excited because she had a family that appeared to be loving and they cared about one another,” he said.
Grante’s own family life had been chaotic. His father, a World War II veteran, went to prison when Grante was a toddler, and when he came home eight years later, he was angry and abusive.
“To see a family like Jo’s was a breath of fresh air,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jo Draper loved his gentle nature, the way he wrote poetry and his easy manner with children.
“He’s like a gentle giant,” she said. “I thought he was a keeper.”
They married in January 1990, raising Grante’s daughter, Jamil, and son, Dusan, together. They’ve now got six grandchildren: Blake, Zoe, Kailah, Faith, Gianna and Savion.
“I never wanted to embarrass my kids as a father or my wife as a husband,” Grante said. “The one thing Jo helped me do is have a life of integrity.”
Jo Draper Grante, 61, grew up in Memphis, Tenn. She studied special education in college, but most of the jobs were in institutions then, and she didn’t want to work there. So she took a “temporary” position as an auditor with the IRS. Over the next 20 years with the agency, she’d travel extensively, to places like Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines. She ultimately helped design its electronic filing system.
Jullian Grante, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, served more than 24 years in the Air Force, including two tours in Vietnam, where he worked in medical evacuations and military intelligence.
He studied business administration and special education in college and eventually became a legislative strategist, advising lawmakers and private companies on policies related to health care, education, criminal justice and welfare reform.
Shortly after their marriage, the Grantes established the FOCUS Group Foundation for Literacy and Academic Excellence. For more than a decade, they mentored at-risk kids, taught parenting techniques and, using a restaurant in D.C., trained welfare recipients for hospitality and food-service careers.
In 1992, the couple was designated one of the country’s Thousand Points of Light for their efforts.
They suspended their work with FOCUS in March 2001, not long after Jullian’s cancer diagnosis.
By January of the next year, he was in remission, just in time to celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary with a vow renewal ceremony at Wilderness Baptist Church on Plank Road.
Grante planned the event as a surprise for his wife, telling her only a week beforehand.
“He’s always doing things like that,” she said, adding that they were thrilled to tell their guests that Grante was healthy again. “Over the next seven years, it [the cancer] was always in the back of my mind. Every year, I’d be so grateful we got another year. When we got to seven, I said, ‘Yes!’ You hear if after seven years, you don’t have any recurrence, you’re good to go. When it returned, I was in shock again.”
‘PUT UP YOUR DUKES’
In December 2009, Grante learned his cancer was back. It had spread to his lymph nodes, neck, shoulders, hips, abdomen and spine, where the force of the tumors broke his back in two places.
They spent Christmas, New Year’s and their 20th wedding anniversary at Mary Washington Hospital.
“I remember my husband urging me to go home. I said, ‘I’m not going home,’” said Jo. “When it snowed, I pushed his bed over to the window and raised it up so he could see it. We’d sit there and look at the snow together. It was so pretty.”
A friend of Jo’s mentioned that Jullian’s cancer might be related to his exposure to Agent Orange, and urged the couple to apply for veterans benefits. The frustrating process took two years, recalled Jo, but eventually her husband was declared 100 percent disabled due to service-related illness.
“We were put through the wringer so many times, it was draining,” she said. “It just made me more determined in my care for my husband, more determined to help him get through this—and a heart for people who don’t have someone to help them get through this. It strengthened me because you have to put up your dukes.”
Grante’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma went into remission again, but in May 2011, he had to have surgery for colon cancer. While still hospitalized, he suffered a stroke.
And then two months later, his lymphoma returned. The setbacks have slowed him down physically, but Grante isn’t sitting around, brooding.
Mike May, the minister at Potomac Valley Church of Christ in North Stafford, said Grante somehow makes it to nearly every Sunday service, even texting him when he’s running late.
“In spite of the challenges and all they’ve been through, they’re always there,” said May, adding that the couple mentors military families and helps with missionary work in Uganda. “They’ve honestly been an inspiration to people that way.”
Grante has also written a book about his struggle, called “Jesus Christ the Promise: A Cancer Survivor’s Message of Hope Born on the Journey of Forgiveness.”
“I hope I can use it to just help people get through,” he said of the book, slated for publication by Xulon Press next month.
And in August, Grante will start taking online classes through American InterContinental University. He plans to earn a master’s in business administration in project management and a doctorate in intelligence with a specialization in homeland security and crisis management.
“I don’t want to retire,” said Grante, who hopes to have time for a book tour. “I don’t want to stop serving my community.”
Jo said she’s confident her husband will achieve his goals.
“We may have more challenging times, but we’re going to get through it one way or another,” she said. “Every day’s a blessing for us.”
When The Free Lance–Star asked readers to nominate extraordinary people for stories, Jullian Grante suggested his wife, Jo, who has cared for him during an 11-year battle with cancer. Jo, meanwhile, will tell you her husband is pretty extraordinary himself. We think they’re both right. You can read Jullian’s letter about his wife, here.
To contact Jullian Grante, email him at email@example.com.
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428