“How do you write about what happened tonight?” my father asked me just now. “All those people, they all came out for your sister. She’s touched so many people, honey.”
Then he started to cry, and so did I, because that’s what you do after a night like this. So full of love and grace and generosity. A young man — well, not so young anymore, because none of us are — who was in my sister’s high school class told me just before I left the show, “You see Ruthie, you tell her I love her. You tell her that. Because I do.”They all do. Hundreds of them. In fact, at least one thousand, according to the gate receipts. They kept coming, the people. Somebody said tonight, “Everybody’s house is going to get broken into, because nobody in the whole parish is home tonight.” Nope, they were all there for Ruthie.Tonight at the show, Ruthie recorded a short thank-you for all of you kind readers of this blog, for whose prayers she is grateful. Her voice is breathy, and the crowd is loud, but here she is.Our folksinger cousin Emily Branton had started playing early in the evening when Ruthie and Mike walked in. A cheer went up from the crowd, and Ruthie ducked her head and covered her face, emotionally overwhelmed. She sat down near the front and started receiving well-wishers. Before long, Emily played Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” which is Ruthie and Mike’s song. Ruthie, who struggles to breathe, nevertheless got up and danced with Mike — with our mom and dad dancing beside them:It was so good to see my folks having such a great time tonight, considering the burden they’ve been under. It was astonishing to see people coming in from all over. The three girls who grew up next door to us all came in — two from north Louisiana, one from Memphis. What a treat! I spoke to a reader of this blog who drove in with her husband from Houston. They used to live in town, and Ruthie taught their kids. “We love her so much,” she said. “She has given our family so much. We couldn’t not be here.”I kept hearing this, over and over, all night long. We had to be here.I’d gotten to spend about half an hour with Ruthie earlier in the afternoon, after I got here. Yes, she looks rough from all the chemo, but her spirit was so admirably strong.”Wow, you look like shit,” I said to her.”Yep, it’s the look of cancer,” she said, snickering.That’s the kind of relationship we have. Oh, I loved being with her, though I had to go because she was having so much trouble breathing, and coughing, and I wanted her to rest. Who wasn’t at the concert tonight? So many of Mike’s buddies from the fire department were there. Most of my extended family were there, as were most of our neighbors. I saw so many people I’d been in school with many years ago; it was like old home week. Hundreds of people came up to Ruthie, greeting her, telling her they loved her. The food sold out quickly, and they had to make a second beer run, at least. I was talking to the ladies selling tickets for the beer and the food, and a stranger stopped by and gave them $100 for Ruthie.”That’s been happening a lot tonight,” one said.David Morgan, our friend who grew up across the road from Ruthie and me, took the stage with his band after Emily finished her set. Here they are setting the tone for a Louisiana Saturday night:Later, David tee-hee’d Your Working Boy and his blogging from the stage while singing the greatest country song of all time. I damnsure knew the words, but if I could sing a lick, I’d have jumped on the stage and let ‘er rip. Fortunately for all concerned, I hadn’t had too many Abitas, and resisted the urge. Tonight there was dancing, and merry-making, and beer-drinking, and the kind of pleasure there has been too little of since cancer came into my family’s life on February 22. You stood there and looked at all the people, and realized they were there because of Ruthie, and the kind of woman she is, and always has been. She is not alone. A friend of hers and Mike’s brought a camper trailer to the barn tonight, to give Ruthie a place to go rest and take oxygen, which she’s been on since seeing her oncologist this week. Folks are so thoughtful. Daddy looked in on her before I drove him and Mama home, and there was Dr. Tim Lindsey, kneeling down beside Ruthie, explaining in that gentle way of his what’s going on with her body now. And her dear friend Abby Temple was right there with her. They raised $15,000 from ticket sales, and a lot more from the concessions (though there’s no final figure), and who knows what else from all the extra money people gave. Mama saw a lady there whose children Ruthie once taught, and who Mama knows has no money to give. But she sure came, and she sure gave. Emily and David and his band, and the organizers, and the folks who donated food, and Amanda Temple, who designed the t-shirts, and everybody who put this show together, and all those who came — how on earth can we possibly thank them all? On the drive home, Daddy kept saying, “It’s overwhelming … all those people … all for her.” Ruthie is only 40 years old, and she’s already lived a life so filled with kindness and service to others that so many folks around here have taken her into their hearts. For me, the most touching tributes I heard to my sister tonight was from people whose children she taught in school, and who wanted to be there tonight to say thank you for being so good to my child. This is the difference a teacher can make in a family’s life. And tonight was the difference those families can make in a teacher’s life.”This is how it’s supposed to be,” someone said to me tonight, looking out over the crowd. “This is what folks are supposed to do for each other. And look, we’re doing it.” Yes indeed. I don’t know that just anybody would have gotten this kind of honor from the people of her town. Ruthie has been such a part of this place, and so kind and giving for so many years. Tonight was kind of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment for her, in which her friends and neighbors could show up to lend their support and show their love and appreciation for all she is, and all she has been. It’s so beautiful to see that it’s almost painful, and so unreal in its generosity that you think it must have been a movie.I told a friend tonight that if this cancer takes our Ruthie, she can go to her God knowing that Mike and the girls will be taken care of. The whole town’s got her back. The whole town! Can you imagine? You invest your life in a place like this, and look what comes of it. Back home late tonight, Mama said, through tears, “I’ve never been prouder of this town.” This town is St. Francisville, Louisiana. This is where my people live. This is home.