It was deep July when the cicadas and crickets and fireflies made their songs and flicks of life come alive at night. Mama and I would always sit on the back porch this time of year, and the squeak-squeak of her rocking chair added to the evening’s music. I was thirteen this year, and I closed my eyes tight, trying to remember last July. Mama and I were on the porch and it was about ten at night, and she let me lick the cake batter, because she made Marty a cake and he wasn’t supposed to know what flavor it was. Even though the oven heated the house up even more, baking birthday cakes was what we did at birthday time. She wanted to make the cake the night before his birthday, so things could be cooler when we celebrated the next day.
There was no Mama this year on the porch, and there would never be again.
I tilted my head way back and looked up at the million stars. I couldn’t believe there were so many of them.
Uncle Jimmy came out and the screen door slammed. He messed up the evening, letting the door slam and coming out like he did. I frowned through the dark, but I think the starlight gave my face away.
“You need to get in there and see her,” Uncle Jimmy said. His voice was flat. “Time’s running out.”
“She’s already gone,” I half-whispered, and my throat tightened. “She won’t know I’m there anyway. I’m not going to do it.”
For a moment, Uncle Jimmy was silent. I hoped he’d go back in the house, away from me. I thought about walking into the woods but it was too dark except for the fireflies, and the thick trees choked out most of the stars anyway if I decided to go. And Uncle Jimmy — he didn’t understand anything. Mama was as good as gone. Let Marty stay with her if he wanted. Mama didn’t need me there.
“You’re selfish,” Uncle Jimmy said. His voice was rough. “You need to tell her good-bye. You need to tell her something. My God, Josie. Get yourself in there right now.”
Tears filled my eyes. How dare he say that to me.
Mama wasn’t talking, I didn’t think, and the doctor said it could be any day before she died. Mama didn’t need me there.
“I said to get in there,” said Uncle Jimmy. “Your brother’s in there. He’s not running away.”
“It hurts too much,” I argued. “Besides, when she dies she’ll be in heaven and everything will be better. That’s what I’m waiting for. For everything to be better.”
Uncle Jimmy went back inside, only this time the screen door didn’t make a sound.
I moved to the edge of the porch and sat down, my gangly legs dangling over the side. I could feel grass blades biting my toes. I hoped there weren’t any snakes under the house or slithering through the grass. They scared me. But right now if a snake bit me, I probably wouldn’t have cared because my heart was in a million pieces and I wanted my Mama so bad.
Thoughts of last July filled my head again.
I remembered one night while we were sitting out on the porch, I ran to the barn and brought back the smallest kitten that had just been born the day before. Kat the cat didn’t want this one for some reason, and Kat refused to take care of her, so I adopted her. My fear was that the little kitten I named Bumble would die. Mama came up with a way to feed Bumble, but she said there were no promises and sometimes things die.
“Why do things die?” I asked Mama as she handed Bumble back to me. “If God’s so good why does he let things die? I don’t want this kitten to die.”
“You know as well as I do that nothing lives forever on earth, Josie. Come on. It’s just the way it is.”
“It shouldn’t be.”
“If everyone and every thing lived forever, there wouldn’t be room for the trees. There’d be so many people and animals that life would get clogged up and no one would be able to look up and see the night sky, because we’d be pushed against each other, and we wouldn’t be able to move.” I think Mama smiled when she said that. “It’s going to be OK, Josie. Just love Bumble and go from there. Love stays with us forever. It never leaves us. My own mama died twenty years ago and she’s still alive in my heart, you know.”
I knew death was part of life. Living on the farm, I’d see things die. But they lived a lot, too. The cows and horses and the dog and cats…but not people. I never saw people die. I watched Uncle Jimmy kill chickens for dinner and we’d catch fish in the river, but that was different. It wasn’t the same at all.
I also knew all about conscience. Mama used to tell me all about it, especially when I did something I shouldn’t. Conscience was like an inner voice that told you something was good or bad.
Conscience couldn’t be willed away, because it stuck like glue. At least it stuck like glue to me. And no matter how much I tried to forget what I knew I needed to do, I couldn’t do it.
By now, I was crying. The crickets were chirping and the frogs were singing their song and my mama was in the other room, dying.
I stood up and went inside, and found Uncle Jimmy.
“Please, can’t we carry Mama to the back porch? I want her to hear the night sounds one more time.”
“Her window’s wide open,” Uncle Jimmy said. His voice was flat.
“It’s not the same,” I argued.
Sad, I went into Mama’s bedroom. Marty had his head on her shoulder. I was surprised that Mama was awake. When she saw me she smiled.
“Please, can we take you to the porch?” I asked her. “Uncle Jimmy will carry you.” I knew he would, at least I hoped he would.
Mama nodded. Looking back, it probably hurt her pretty bad to move but I think she wanted to be outside as much as I wanted her to be outside.
Reluctant, Uncle Jimmy gathered Mama up in her quilt and I made her a nest in the rocking chair, complete with pillows and everything. Marty and I crouched at her feet.
“I love you, Mama,” I whispered. I tried not to cry, but my voice gave it away. I decided it didn’t matter if I did cry, because I was too tired to fight anything anymore.
So there on the back porch in deep July, my brother and mother and I sat for the very last time together. I kept thinking to myself that this was now and nothing before or after mattered. It was all about this moment. I wasn’t sure where the thinking came from. Maybe it came from a book I read or something.
“This was a good idea,” whispered Mama, as she looked out toward the woods where the fireflies were flitting around, and the woods looked like they had little lights scattered all over the place. She ran her fingers through my hair.
There was a soft sound at the corner of the porch. It was Bumble.
She came up and hopped onto Mama’s lap.
So it was Mama and Marty and me and Bumble. And there was the slightest squeak of the rocking chair where Mama sat. And the stars were in the millions (maybe trillions) that night, and the wind was soft like melted butter when it touched my face.
The sound of night will always include the resonance of an old rocking chair, the way wind blows ever so slightly in the dark, and the song of frogs and cicadas and crickets. The sound of night is a feeling, too. And it means life, it means Marty, it means Bumble, it means the old farm. The sound of night is the scent of freedom, and the green, earthy breath the earth exhales into my heart.
And always in deep July I remember.
And I’m back, and I hear night’s song all over again.
My heart is glad.