Sunday, July 12, 2009

Birdy's Lesson: She Was Not Alone

My favorite uncle died last week. Truth be told, I was glad. Uncle M. was 96 and had stopped eating. In a nursing home, he didn't recognize his own daughter. When he did talk, it was to relatives long dead. Dementia had stolen his mind.

Yes, his passing gave him release from his earthly suffering. But my reasons go beyond his personal situation. Their roots are ancient, timeless, something I can't pinpoint precisely. But I'll give them shape with a narrative that revolves around a visit with an elderly woman named Birdy, some 16 years ago.

You could call this a ghost story. I call it a revelation. And it changed me to my very core.

The weekend began simply. After work on a Friday, J. and I drove out of the city into the hills of Pennsylvania. The constraining hours in the office, which had encircled us like coils of rope, faded with each mile. Our voices, strong with rich new breath, flowed freely. As we hurtled through the darkness, we grew bright inside the cocoon of the car.

Our friends waited for us beside a little store in a tiny town that had rolled up the sidewalks at twilight. They led us through winding lanes to D.'s grandmother's, a big old farmhouse. We had to drive the last miles slowly, watching for horse-drawn buggies caught out late, without lights. We were in other-worldly Lancaster County, home of many families adhering to Old Order Amish and Mennonite faiths.

D. introduced us to Birdy. He had talked about her with enthusiasm for so long and wanted us to meet her. "Before it's too late," he said. She was in her 90s, still living on her own in the big stone home of her birth, looked in on by neighbors, the parish, meals-on-wheels feeding her once a day.

She was delightful, just as D. had said. Charming, high lilting voice and laugh. I looked her straight in the eye, but also off to the side a bit, an old trick of mine that somehow allows me to imagine the young woman she had been -- sharp-featured, vibrant with energy.

Using her hands for emphasis, she directed her grandson and his girlfriend to get this and that from the kitchen and told J. to find something in a far corner.

Then she turned to me, lowered her voice to a whisper and said, "My mother has been calling me on the telephone. She calls alot. We have so much to talk about." She also told me something else. And I remember this quite distinctly. "My mother has been calling me. Because, you know, she's coming here soon."

She raised her voice again when the others drew near. She obviously did not want them to hear her talking about her mother, who had been dead for half a century. Those words were for me only. I was not surprised. People sense in me a sympathetic ear for lost causes, for what others know to be impossible.

The evening continued pleasantly, and several more times Birdy had the chance to whisper to me about her mother. She said she needed to stay close to the phone, that she was sleeping on the first floor because of the stairs. But also because she could get to the phone faster that way.

So, when we retired for the evening, J. and I went to the old master bedroom on the second floor. This had been Birdy's bedroom with her husband and the room belonging to her mother and father. It was the biggest bedroom in the sturdy house with walls a foot thick. Tired, we quickly fell asleep in the dark room.

But I woke up in the middle of the night. And I saw a small woman sitting at the foot of the bed. She had very thick, curly black hair flowing over her shoulders and down past the small of her back. She was small-boned, sharp-featured. Her frame was nearly overwhelmed by this thick mass of hair.

We watched each other for a few moments, I don't know how long. I sat up, with the idea she was about to tell me something. But J., a very light sleeper, startled awake, which scared me and I gasped. Or, I simply woke up from my dream. I'll never know. Because she was gone.

The next morning, I told D. what had happened, describing the apparition. He looked surprised. And started off through the house. He came back, finally, and said I had described, exactly, his great-grandmother, the former owner of the house. Birdy's mother. He was looking for a picture of her, to see whether I had seen it. And then conjured her up in a dream. Or something.

D. and his girlfriend were astounded. People always talked about this woman's hair. Thick, curly, black, masses of hair that nearly overwhelmed her small features. The woman at the foot of the bed in her old bedroom. And no, they had never talked about her around me and I'd never seen a picture. No one had a picture that I could have seen.

All of a sudden, my head began to pound. We were nearly through with breakfast and I just couldn't pretend I wasn't in pain. So J. gathered our belongings and made apologies, we thanked everyone and hustled out the door. I was really sick. I held my hands over my head and groaned as J. drove down the hills, alarmed.

Ten minutes later he pulled into a store parking lot to try to find something to help me. But the pounding stopped as soon as it started. The pain just lifted. I was fine. No explanation. We drove home and resumed our lives.

A couple of weeks later the call came.

Birdy had died.

She passed away quietly, at home, in that big old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills. She was pushing 100. She had not wanted to leave that home, ever, at least while living on this Earth. And she hadn't.

And I knew with absolute certainty that Birdy had not been alone at the end. Because she had told me so. Her mother had been calling her, on the telephone. And the mother was on her way, after all. And I'd seen her myself.

I don't know how to explain this kind of thing. I can't defend my idea that "we" simply do not end when it is time to leave this life as we know it, here and now.

I don't know how it happened or where they went, exactly. Or what they became. But the lady with the big hair came, when it was time, and took her daughter home. That much I know, in the very core of me.


  1. I love stories like this because I believe it happens if we're open to it.

    I don't know what happens to us when we're done in this life, and I truly believe that none of us really knows, but I think there is cross-over occasionally... a communication here and there... and I find it more comforting than creepy.

  2. Blognut: There's a saying, "scratch a southerner, find a mystic." I decided to be freaked out about all of the crossover business after I grew up. But now I've changed back again. I'm not freaked out at all. Not one bit.

  3. My mother had a similar experience about my dad. She told me that he had taken her dancing the night before. He had been dead for 10 years. The old Southerners call this "traveling". The mind is preparing the body to move to the next life. And I believe that it is God's way of easing us out of this life into the next. I really like this story. It makes me realize how there is still a connection with those who have passed on with their earthly body. You may also have the same gift of intuition and premonition that I have. It is a powerful gift.

  4. I hear versions of your mother's story so often, Syd. I just can't believe these things are the result of mis-firing brain signals, or whatever the scientific explanation of the moment. I haven't heard the term "traveling" though, thank you for that!

    This is not something I talk much about in 3D. It was nice to find this venue and people who don't run screaming from it!

    Many thanks.