Death could never defeat a man like him, so wise, so gentle, so decent, and so brave. For the rest of my days, I’ll remember Jaybird
I’ll Remember Jaybird
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I was raised on a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation, a barefoot boy’s paradise. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t the place so much as the people – mainly one man – who instilled in me the beliefs and values that guide my life.
He was a black man named Jaybird. Whenever I come to forks in life’s road where I must choose between the easy way and the courageous way, I ask myself, “What would Jaybird do?” Let me tell you about him.
Although he moved slowly, Jaybird rarely stopped moving and had rocket fuel energy. His gray head was intelligently shaped, narrow with protruding eyebrows and sloping forehead. His shiny black eyes snapped vivaciously. From tightlipped pensiveness, his face exploded often in capricious smiles as refreshing as the sun popping from behind clouds.
Jaybird was a study in opposites: His lean body looked frail, but was bound head to toe with strong, wiry muscles; his gait was bow-legged, but he stood ramrod straight; his demeanor was stern, his smile light-hearted. He was health in motion, but smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey; he possessed a powerful intelligence and bedrock wisdom, yet never darkened a schoolhouse door.
Jaybird spoke like he moved – paced, rhythmic. Work-hardened hands accentuated his speech. His Southern drawl sloughed off words, and those possessing knowledge of field-hand vernacular understood him best. His deep, raspy voice was hypnotic, like a swamp bullfrog’s precisely spaced croaks on a dead calm, summer night.
We children sat at his feet, rapt, wide-eyed, mute, vicariously participating in adventure stories about the Delta of his youth — about bears, panthers, screech owls, rattlesnakes, alligators, the Great Flood, hunting, fishing, fighting, loving.
Poet Robert Frost said it best: “Dawn goes down to day, nothing gold can stay.” I grew up, or down, really … into the rat-race world of paying bills, raising kids, sweating out crops.
I loved farming. Jaybird taught me about the perpetual magic of soil, water, sunshine, and chlorophyll. His faith in God was unfaltering, and each spring when he stooped to work the ground and start yet another fine garden, he prayed, “Lord, let my love for this soil show in the plants I grow from it.”
One fine summer day I heard his wife wail, “Jaybird is bad sick!” My sinking heart told me it was more than sick. Fighting tears, I raced to his house and found him under his favorite tree.
He had been rigging his fishing pole, and monofilament line coiled in his fingers. Beside his head lay a cigarette, its smoke swirling lazily over his old hat. The frozen grimace on his face gaped his mouth open and turned the corners upward, in a final, gold-toothed smile. The massive stroke felled him instantly, but he faced it with the same indomitable courage that sustained him all his life. In death he smiled.
Death could never defeat a man like him, so wise, so gentle, so decent, and so brave. For the rest of my days, I’ll remember Jaybird.