…all I know is something like a bird within her sang…
The morning Miss Judy died, the cacophony of birdsong rang out across the bayou along the Tchefuncte River in Mandeville Louisiana, where I lie, not sleeping, in a hammock on the deck of the condo my Aunt Judy Porter Beier had lived in for many years. In one of our last email exchanges I had asked Judy what Tchefuncte meant she said she didn’t know, it was just a name. To her, it meant beautiful.
I had slept here all night, at this house that now is the residence of Judy’s daughter and baby grandson. I came here late the night before from the house Judy had last been living in with her husband, just down river, in a one story cottage overlooking the river that could accommodate her condition as the disease of ALS progressed. Maybe 8 years ago or so Judy and I had explored the river in her pirogues, flat bottomed bayou boats, quietly skimming up through the nooks and crannies of the bayou where the slow flowing water of the river intermingles with the twisted roots of the cypress trees, blending together into spiny marshland. She made sounds of birds and sat quiet and listened. She told me stories of her own mothering and womanhood and listened to my own trials and confusions. The longer we floated the more I felt I was going to be alright.
…all I know she sang a little while and then flew on…
The morning Miss Judy died, the birdsong rang out way before the sun had risen. As far as I could see it was still night, even though the transformation was well on its way before I could even see it coming. But the birds, they knew, and they celebrated. It was like a jungle spontaneously unfolding from the miles of twisted trees teaming with life just across the river from where I lay cocooned in her hammock. My eyes open, looking into the dark of the night, filled with millions of stars. Ever since my grandfather, Judy’s father, had died on March 7, 1984, early Ash Wednesday morning, in East Jefferson hospital in the suburbs of New Orleans, the very same hospital in which I took my very first breath, we have said the smile of the crescent moon is Papa looking over us. And the rising star Venus our Granny, his wife, who died 23 years and 5 months later on October 8, 2007 at 3:30 in the morning, the same exact time in the early morning we three granddaughters had all been waking up suddenly for months before her passing. Would Judy be the stars, or the birds?
…tell me all that you know, I’ll show you, snow and rain…
On Mardi Gras Day, the day before, soon after I had arrived to see her, Judy requested, in one of her last legible communications, that I read aloud the story she had written, when her hand was more stable, about the Presidio. I was her voice, since her voice was gone. The story told of when Judy had traveled to San Francisco with friends and gone to see the Presidio, the former battery-now-park that hugs the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. As far as she knew, she had never been there before. And yet she kept having powerful déjà vu memories of the place, knowing what she would find around each corner before she got there. At one point she told her friends exactly what would be carved in stone on the arch above the door before they got to it, and when they arrived, it said exactly what she had foretold. Even she was stunned.
…if you hear that same sweet song again will you know why???
Later, in a restaurant, she was talking animatedly in her beautiful Judy fashion, when a man came up to her and said, “I know you, I know your voice and your mannerisms, although you are much too young to be who I know you are.” He had been stationed at the presidio and was sure she had been his nurse, many years ago. He would never forget the sound of her voice, I read aloud, hearing inside myself the sound of her voice, that I too will never forget the sound of.
Later they saw each other, randomly, in a French Quarter Hotel during Mardi Gras, the improbability of running into anyone amidst the teeming life of Mardi Gras Day cementing their experience of the cyclical nature of interconnection. And as she read this to me through my own voice on Mardi Gras Day, my sister was wise enough to note that Judy wanted us to know to look for her, even after this Judy body had passed. That she wasn’t going to leave us. We just have to recognize when she appears to us again.
…anyone who sings a song so sweet is passing by…
I lie there, completely open. The light from the sun began to filter through the sky, illuminating the thin clouds stretched like cotton balls across the Louisiana sky early on Ash Wednesday morning, 2012, 28 years after our papa had died. Birds flew overhead making tracers across the brightening sky. A mama bird flew back and forth to the pretty little birdhouse hanging just outside the room where Judy used to sleep, where now Judy’s daughter lie sleeping with her own new baby son. The bayou exalted.
…laugh in the sunshine, sing, cry in the dark, fly through the night…
I remembered how in many eastern forms of spirituality and religion they believe that if you think or say the name of god in the moment of death you will avoid being reborn into samsara – the cycle of death and rebirth that continues until we have learned the lessons we need to learn from this earthly life – and instead be reabsorbed into god. Maybe I should have told Judy.
In that moment I heard and felt as clear as anything I have ever known, a joyous epiphany that unwound lifetimes of trying to understand – Aha! She wants to come back. She wants to be with us. And us not just her family and friends who love her, but US. The birds and the stars. Everything.
The whole world opened up around me, alive and vibrant, breathing right through me. The striated clouds streaked lemon and chartreuse against the dissipating violet of the dawning horizon. The birds crisscrossing across the wakening sky above me. The slight breeze from their wings as they hummed by. And I was unbelievably happy. Like a welling up from deep inside that crested, and sustained, and fulfilled me. Maybe being reabsorbed into god is not something different from being reabsorbed into us, all of us, everything. She would never leave us, she is us. We just have to recognize. I lie there for awhile, eyes open to the sky, in a very deep peace.
Her daughter opened the sliding glass doors from the kitchen and stepped out onto the porch.
“Neis, I need you to drive me over. They just called. She’s gone.” I will never forget the sound of her voice either. I looked up and our eyes met. And held for a moment.
I got right up out of my cocoon and left the chrysalis right there on the hammock. And played with her baby boy Preston, named after our grandfather, while she prepared to go to see the body that had been her mother, one last time.
…don’t cry now, don’t you cry, don’t you cry anymore…
As children, whenever we would leave Granny’s house, our mama’s mama would stand on her porch and wave goodbye until we could no longer see each other. We carry on that tradition whenever we leave each other, even now, until we meet again. As the Suburban/hearse drove away from the Tchefuncte River with the body that had been Miss Judy Porter Beier, my little sister and I stood and waved until we couldn’t see her anymore. Then we went and sat by the slow flowing river.
…sleep in the stars, don’t you cry, dry your eyes on the wind…
May we carry on from here.
…la da de da, daaaa….