I’ll never forget the first time I met Judith. It was the month of May, many years ago, and I was singing at Innisfree Village -- a residential community with adults who have intellectual disabilities, located on 550 acres of the some of the most beautiful property in Albemarle County. The organization was hosting its annual May Day celebration, and Jenny, an Innisfree resident, had asked me to come and perform.
I could never say “No” to Jenny. She was a loyal friend and fan -- always coming to my shows in and around Charlottesville and calling me on the phone just to say, “Hello.” On this sunny day in May, Jenny was especially excited because she was planning to introduce me to her best friend Judith.
When I arrived for the festivities, Jenny immediately marched me (practically dragged me) over to Judith, who greeted me with a big grin and a happy and hardy handshake. Like three long lost pals, we took off to the stage area to set up my gear.
Just as I was getting ready to perform, I asked Jenny if she would come up and sing with me. Now, let me tell you -- Jenny is the kind of person who never met a stranger. She knew everybody. She also knew all of the words to all of my songs. So, I was pretty surprised when she suddenly became very shy and adamantly refused to join me on stage. Instead, she chose to sit cross-legged under the tent in the front row, hunched over and hiding. Judith, on the other hand, seeing my disappointment, said that she would be happy to join me on stage.
Judith was a light. A magnet, really. That’s pretty much the way anyone who knew her would probably describe her. You couldn’t help but be drawn to her. She was always positive; always smiling and upbeat. Judith’s heart knew only love; she had no enemies. She also had Down syndrome, and while some might have considered this to be a handicap, I believe it was part of Judith’s gift, part of what made her so special and what brought out the very best in those around her.
When Judith joined me on stage that day, something happened. I don’t know if I can aptly put it into words, but I can tell you it was one of the strongest human connections I have ever experienced.
I was singing an original -- one of Jenny’s favorites called “Never Ceases to Amaze Me” from my first album. The song questions society’s lack of understanding regarding our differences as people. I was enjoying the moment -- standing outside on a drop-dead gorgeous day, eyes closed, guitar in hand, singing for and with my friends. When I opened my eyes and looked beside me, there was Judith -- smiling and swaying. And she was singing. She was singing with her hands. She was signing. She was telling the story -- never missing a beat or a line -- as if she had been singing the song forever.
I don’t sign, so I didn’t know if Judith was using real sign language -- if her movements were accurate. But I do believe, from the very core of her being, Judith understood the message of the song. It was not lost on her. And as she danced and moved her hands so gracefully in the air, the essence of Judith was not lost on me. It’s hard to explain, but I felt like I was floating, and for a moment, everything seemed to make sense. Everything was in its place and right with the world. It was an amazing feeling, and in all of my years of performing, by far the most poignant duet I have ever shared.
Recently, I went back to Innisfree to join in their 40th anniversary celebration. Once again, it was a breathtakingly beautiful day. There was music, dancing and fabulous food grown and prepared right there on the farm. Friends – some going back as far as 40 years – gathered to share stories and to celebrate this one-of-a-kind community.
Some of my long-time resident buddies were still there. James, forever the charmer, pulled up beside me in a golf cart as I was unloading my guitar, flashed his killer smile and called out, “Well, if it isn’t Terri Allard.” Later, during the festivities, he stood before the stage, arms waving in the air, conducting the audience and the Charlottesville Women’s Choir.
Bret, as always, favored me with a song. Years ago, Bret and I agreed that he has a beautiful voice, and ever since then, he breaks into song whenever we see each other. Chris, the gentlest of gentleman, gave me several of his tender hugs – part embrace and part backrub – and kept me company all afternoon.
I also got to catch up with Special Olympics World Champion tennis player and Innisfree resident, Jon Fried. During Season 3 of CVIO, I interviewed Jon and got a tennis lesson to boot. He recently competed in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Greece, bringing home the Silver. It hasn’t changed him, though. He’s still his usual modest and sweet self.
Missing from the crowd were my two best Innisfree friends – Jenny and Judith. Sadly, we lost Judith to Alzheimer’s a few years earlier, and Jenny moved to Florida to be closer to her family. She still calls me on occasion, just to see how I’m doing and to reminisce about Judith.
I thought it would be strange to be back for a visit without my girlfriends -- strange not to be giggling and sharing in their laughter, running around arm-in-arm like little girls. I was worried I would be sad. Worried I would no longer fit in. But that was not at all the case. To the contrary, I felt good.
It was the light. I could see it in Chris’ smile – in the way he would glance over at me so knowingly; I could feel its warmth pouring into the tent as James led the choir – arms high, head tossed back, a satisfied grin on his face. And I sensed it in my new friend Mark who kept a vigilant eye over the sound board so that none of the other residents would be tempted to adjust the EQ knobs between sets.
No, I was not sad. I was not lonesome. I was with my friends – old and new. And while some of us were missing, the rest of us were right where we belonged. We still had songs to sing and stories to tell, and as we gathered to celebrate all that had transpired in 40 years, it was clear we would find our way. Of course we would; Judith had left the light on.