Tori, and the line of candles floating down the river.
I like the song "Happy Birthday," don't get me wrong.
What I hate is when it gets sung like a dirge, slow as a funeral procession. I think it's because one person usually starts it off (usually in a key no one else can sing, but that's a different problem) and holds that first syllable/note - "Haaaaaaaa" long enough to gather the rest of the singers. And it never picks up the pace.
C'mon man! It's a birthday! It's a party! It's a celebration! And the wax candles are dripping on the damn cake!
There's no reason the song can't be sung in about 10 seconds, but at most birthdays it seems to go on forever. It's like the Super Bowl in Vegas, where you can bet on the over/under for how long it will take the famous country singer to sing the national anthem. (Always take the over.)
So Monday night, I made sure that we sang "Happy Birthday" at a nice, festive clip, the words floating out over the dark waters of the Mississippi as we celebrated Alex's birthday.
Our daughter, Alexandria Gail Boedigheimer, would have been 27 Monday. She died last summer – on her mother's birthday and Tori has already said we're simply not celebrating her birthday ever again. We still don't know what happened, other than she went to sleep and didn't wake up. It still hurts every day.
Monday was her birthday. It was a rainy morning, but that was OK, since we had plans. As long as it cleared up by evening everything would be fine. We spent the day making little origami boats. 27 of them. I even folded one, and if you know me you know not to associate me and crafts.
The sky did clear up and late in the afternoon we headed out for the Mississippi. Most of its sinuous length is bordered by tall earthen berms designed to keep it where it belongs in severe weather. Much of New Orleans is actually below sea level, and the highest point is only 20 feet (and that's probably the top of the berms) so you can see why that's a good idea. There is a path you can walk along the top of the berm, but the face is fairly steep and covered with riprap to keep it from eroding. So getting to the river can be tricky.
It took us a couple of tries before we found the set of steps going down to the water's edge, off the public parking by Jackson Square. We were separated from the city lights by the berm, but there was plenty of traffic on the river, barges being pushed against the current, a small freighter moving up river, a tourist-looking stern wheeler coming down. At the bottom of the stairs were a couple of young people sitting, watching the river. They offered advice on the best way to the water, and seemed interested in what we were doing.
From the shingle that ran along the riverside, we could see a form about twenty feet out in the river – I never did figure out on what, but he was standing on "something" – facing away from the bank, his arms outraised, chanting to the moon.
We got out the bin full of little paper kayaks and the plastic bag full of tea candles and set to work – but we couldn't find the lighter! Fortunately, the two people sitting on the stairs came over and were happy to help. They were a couple of kids, young 20s, who had hitched and hiked from New Jersey and were in no hurry to be anywhere. They were a guy and a girl in their 20s, long hair, backpacks, knit caps, dog with bandana. In fact, Kate was wearing a similar knit cap that she had gotten from Alex. These kids could have been two of Alex's hippie friends. Certainly I saw enough of her friends to recognize the type. When they said by next summer they hoped to have made it to Eugene, that cemented it. Alex lived there for a couple of years. It was perfect.
They had a lighter and we set to work.
The problem was the current. Between the fact that the tide was coming in and the traffic was moving up and down the river sending out bow wakes, the boats didn't want to go out. So Robyn rolled up her pants legs and waded out. The two travelers and Kate and Max lit the candles, then carefully passed them over to Tori, who stood at the edge of the river and gingerly passed them to Robyn. She set them adrift.
The boats didn't go out far, not much more than a few feet, but they drifted bravely down the river bank, bobbing in the current, their lights flickering merrily like so many birthday candles. Which was the point, of course.
We were joined by an old man, rail thin, grizzled and with a few missing teeth. And when I say old, I mean probably my age but he looked a lot older – didn't he? DIDN'T HE?? – because of the life he was living. He offered a few comments, then asked where we were from. We told him we lived nearby, and told him what we were doing, and he started crying.
He was a Cajun, from down around Houma, and he had lost his wife, Dale, some time ago – when was not exactly clear. She was his life, she was an angel, she was everything to him. When she died he tried to kill himself, but woke up three days later in a hospital, pretty pissed off about it. He finally left town, he said, because he couldn't take it any more, everything he saw reminded him of her, and he couldn't stand it when people told him, "You'll get over it," "Things will get better." And all the other stuff that just means, "I've never been hurt as deeply as you have been and don't get it, and I don't know what else to say."
We got it. Some things you never get over, you just learn to accept that the world now has a different shape, a hole where someone important used to be. A hole the shape of Dale. Another the shape of Alex.
That's just the way it is.
He was now living under a nearby pier, just waiting – for what, he didn't say. He actually was very interesting – and funny. He told "a Cajun story" so well, so brilliantly acted, that when he got to the punchline it was a scream. Told Kate and Max a longish story about honoring your father and mother. Told me when he first saw us he'd taken us for tourists and was coming by to panhandle, but now "I couldn't take anything from you. You've already given me so much."
We let him light one of the candles and set it out. We all shared a sip of wine we'd brought down. Then we all joined together, the family who could be there and the others who couldn't be but were there in spirit, our friend Robyn standing in for all the extended family who helped raise our daughter, our new young hippie friends who stood in for all of Alex's friends, and our Cajun acquaintance representing the people you meet on life's journey. We stood together and sang happy birthday, the notes ringing out across the water, joining the sounds of the river traffic and the cathedral bells ringing in the distance as the last of the lights flickered, then went out – too soon – leaving the water cloaked in darkness.
We remember you Alex, and we love you, and always will. Some things never change.
Oops! Moved the camera too soon.