Early in the story, we learn that Phoenix Jackson is “very old and small,” and that she doesn’t see well: “Her eyes are blue with age,” the narrator says, implying perhaps that she has cataracts. Despite her “numberless […] wrinkles,” however, Phoenix’s cheeks are “illumined by a yellow burning under the dark,” and there is a golden color that runs underneath her forehead and cheeks. Figuratively, then, she seems to embody her name—Phoenix—as she is like a creature who burns and yet lives, inexplicably and magically renewing itself so that its life can go on.
When the nurses at the doctor’s office in Natchez speak to Phoenix about her grandson, “there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face,” another reference to Phoenix’s internal fire. She talks about her grandson, whose medicine she has made this journey to retrieve, and how she and he are “the only two left in the world” and how he has no one else but her to care for him. Though she had forgotten for a moment why she was there, once Phoenix remembers her grandson’s lye-burned throat and his need for the “soothing-medicine,” she declares that she is “not going to forget him again.” Perhaps without him to look after, she would die, but he provides her with the figurative fire that she needs to continue to live, and her dedication to him proves her unconscious heroism.
Despite her age and frailty, Phoenix Jackson seems to will herself to stay alive and to keep going to retrieve that medicine because the “doctor said as long as [she comes] to get it, [she can] have it.” Her grandson does “suffer,” Phoenix says, but he is still a “sweet” child. Her devotion to him compels her to throw caution to the wind and make the journey to Natchez again and again, despite her age. She seems unaware that she is doing something extraordinary, and her care for her grandson is clearly heroic.