It’s dawn on Mardi Gras Day and I am on a plane headed to New Orleans. But I’m not going to see the parades, I am headed straight to see the Queen herself. She lives, for now, on the banks of the Tchefunkte River overlooking the Cyprus knees and Spanish moss of the bayou in Mandeville, Louisiana, named for the beautiful trellising flowers that spring like weeds from the muck of the Mississippi Delta.
She lives, for now, in the beautiful body we have called Great Judy ever since I birthed my son 11 years ago, and she didn’t want to age herself by being a great aunt. Why not be just great? It stuck, and Great Judy she is. As she sits, unable to move her once vibrant body, now ravaged with the final stages of ALS, a mysterious disease that slowly robs her body of its ability to function.
Only a week ago she was still riding around full tilt on her scooter, feeding the birds and squirrels and doves and ducks, scattering piles of bird seed around her lawn, inadvertently sprouting baby sunflowers in her path. At this point she can mostly only type short texts on her phone and ipad. There are these great programs where you can record your voice before you lose the ability to talk, and then as you type it speaks your message in your voice. But Judy didn’t do this, she waited too long, unwilling to accept that no “witch doctor” might be able to cure her and restore her back to herself. It was only a month or so ago that she was still only seeing an acupuncturist and a chiropractor and refusing to accept the diagnosis of ALS. Maybe just as well, our allopathic priests don’t have any special magic to fix this one either. At least she learned a lot about her dantien, in Traditional Chinese Medicine the seat of the chi, the life force, three finger-widths below the navel. And maintained as comfortable a state as she could living inside her body that was slowly dying.
So instead, a computerized man’s voice speaks for her while she types. She didn’t want to use the female voice, because it made her sound too “bitchy”. My mother offered to lend her voice to the task, to which Judy kindly refused. Judy’s voice is now gone, that unique accent that was a little bit southern drawl and a little bit New Orleans and a little bit little girl and a little bit gravely – yet not really any of those things – just 100% Judy Porter Beier. I can still hear it in my head, and I hope I always can, saying Neissy, and “I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck”. Always with a little bit of a benevolently cackling laugh. Which is beautiful. That we have to remember her sound in our minds, the resonance of how she touched us all still reverberating in us, even as her form is passing. How her laugh, her smile, her presence, in our memories, will always be a part of who we are. Those of us lucky enough to get be part of her coven.
For Judy is a bit of a white witch, in only the best sense of the term. She has the uncanny ability to know all kinds of things she could not know other than receiving some kind of divine guidance. In her case the wisdom comes from Jim, her guardian angel, who gives her advice and keeps her and her family safe from harm. You can think what you like, and Judy knows what she knows. How else can you explain how she knew to warn her son to not get abducted in Las Vegas, which he nearly did? I don’t care if it can be explained or not. I’m listening to Judy.
One of my cousins wrote on Judy’s Facebook page on Judy’s 64th birthday, just 5 days ago – I always wanted to be you when I grew up. There are a lot of us who feel that way. Judy embodies a grace that is as authentic as it is unique. She holds onto her beauty naturally, and by any means necessary. Her whole existence is her work of art. Whether you agree with her, are in awe of her, are envious of her, or not – her methods and mannerisms are honest. As a little girl I thought she was the prettiest, funniest, most exciting person I had ever dreamed of. What great good fortune I was born the niece of Judy Porter Beier! I have always counted this as one of my strengths.
We have come to help her die. To hold her hand as she lets go of trying to hold onto something that is passing. My mom flew down the day after Judy’s birthday when we got the call that Judy had turned for the worse. My sister drove 12 hours yesterday, by herself, without stopping except 3 times to use the bathroom and get some gas. Judy’s daughter spent most of the night throwing up with her baby son, not because she was in a Mardi Gras parade yesterday or even because they have a stomach flu, we don’t think, we think it is because of nerves.
For our grandfather, Judy and my mother’s father Preston Servos Porter, died in the wee hours of the morning the day after Mardi Gras Day, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. He was 64. And he could have been arguably the king of the Mardi Gras, at least to us. We grew up going to the parades on Veterans Highway in Metairie, sitting in little wooden box seats my papa built atop ladders so we could see the floats above the crowds. Our mamas could stand behind us and smile at the men to throw us beads. And we had the prettiest mamas around, so we got lots of beads.
I knew nothing of the other side of Mardi Gras until I got older, and must say, was pretty disillusioned. My childhood Mardi Gras was all family and fun and love. My granny was purple, my mama was green, Judy was gold. Papa P. Papa Porter, our grandfather, would bring his conversion van to the Lakeside Shopping Center and park it under the big movie sign so we would know where to find it. My granny would cook red beans and rice and we would stay all day. And as this Mardi Gras sun rises and Judy is 64 and dying, we all feel the writing is on the wall. We have all come to help her die, to hold her hand as she leaves this Judy Porter Beier body that has stopped working. And yet we will always remember her exactly as she always was. Alive.
I feel ready for this as I sit here writing on an airplane and yet I am comforted by playing with words, trying to hold this in my hand like I can control it, the reality of it still in the future. She is still here for me to muse about. Yet at this point she has surrendered, her body has gone to a place where she knows now it isn’t coming back. No amount of money, or doctor, or love is going to change that. She jokes about this in her playful way of attuning to the humor in everything, illuminating the comedy in this tragedy in what my mom, her older sister, would call typical Judy fashion. “Have we figured out how we’re going to kill me?”
Why not laugh? Why not be great? It’s happening anyway and we may as well go through it with joy. Because this is our life and as far as we are able to know it may be our only one. Even if it’s not, why waste this precious moment? No rehearsal, this is it.
We are not going to have a funeral, we are going to do it here and now while Judy is alive. Honor her now while she can be present, taking the jazz funeral ideal to another level. Instead of lamenting her stay of only 64 years we will give praise for all she has done in that time. And she has made a good go of it. We have been concerned that she has been in denial about her illness for the past few years, that she is not embracing death. And yet she lived with hope the whole time and never gave up in fear. With a disease like this there was nothing that could have been done anyway, it has always been a matter of time.
This whole time Judy has been embracing life. Up until there is no choice but to embrace death too. My little sister has recently moved to the south herself and has taken up singing a country song that urges us to “Live like you were dying”. She sings it to me when I get stuck in my own personal dramas and fears, to put things in perspective. And when I look at Judy I am reminded, even in the face of death, to live like you were living. And what great good fortune it is to born the niece of Judy Porter Beier. May I carry on from here.