I owe a lot to butterflies.
In 2009, my older daughter died. That’s still a hard sentence to write.
In the dark months after that, there were brief, but important moments of light. They were like little morsels of food that sustained us.
One day my wife and I stood in the kitchen on opposite sides of the island. We barely knew how to get ourselves out of bed, much less provide comfort or support to each other. My wife was crying, which happened a lot. Going to sleep was hard. Starting a day was even more of a chore. “I just wish I had some way of knowing that Emma was okay. That she was at peace,” she said.
I had neither the energy nor the conviction to reassure her. I had the same wish, but what could I say?
At that moment, a small, white butterfly flitted through our kitchen. I don’t remember this ever happening before or in the eleven years since, though we see many in our yard. This butterfly zigzagged through our kitchen for a few moments and then started toward Nancy. For some reason, she put out her hand, and the butterfly landed on her palm. It rested there for a moment. We said nothing. We held our breath. After a bit, it took off, circling Nancy once, twice, and then heading back toward the porch door.
To us, this was exactly the sign that we sought. Skeptics might have other explanations, but to us, it seemed that Emma, or something spiritually Emma-ish had flitted back to us, said, “I’m okay, now,” and flitted off.
Since that day, as you might imagine, our eyes and hearts have been drawn to butterflies. I could, and have, written about several of those experiences. We also have friends who have contributed to those moments, making butterfly houses, framing butterfly photos, gifting butterfly bushes.
One friend with a similar love for these creatures has for the last few years brought me caterpillars with the hope that we could watch them grow, transform, emerge, and fly. This year she came through again. In mid-August she brought over a tiny caterpillar and a healthy supply of milkweed, the caterpillar’s favorite food. I hoped it would take its time and not complete its transformation until I could bring it into my classroom on September 8. It ate well. By late August it had consumed almost all of the milkweed and had assumed its comma-like pose on a twig. I missed the transformation to chrysalis. Two weeks of waiting would bring it very close to the beginning of the school year. On Saturday night I checked before I went to bed. Still that emerald green. On Sunday morning I checked again, hoping to see that same green or the darkening shape, or the transparent look that said “I’m just about ready.” Nope.
What I saw instead was a fully-winged monarch flapping on that same stick where it had waited. I didn’t know how long it had been out, so I hurried to bring it outside. I called to Sarah to see if she could get some video of the take-off. Since I’d missed all of the other big milestones, I imagined that this moment might also pass all-too-quickly.
Once outside, I opened the mesh container and moved the stick toward our rose bush, the one we had planted weeks after Emma died. The butterfly stepped tentatively onto the faded petals. We waited. Sarah had her phone in slow motion mode to stretch out the moment. We waited. Our friend was in no hurry this time. We snapped picture after picture. The butterfly stood contentedly. Sarah finally had to leave. Thinking perhaps it was hungry or thirsty, I transferred our winged friend to a nearby hydrangea that still had fresh blooms. Still, it waited. It didn’t act hungry. I’m sure the real explanation was that its wings needed to dry or that it was gathering strength, but I like to think that it was happy to abide and to comfort for a while.
Finally, it was ready. It lifted off the flower and flitted away, too fast for me to get my phone into slow motion mode or even to catch the actual take-off. I watched as it disappeared toward the street. For whatever reason, I kept recording with my phone, knowing it was nothing more than a dot on my screen.
Then an incredible thing happened. It came back. (Please watch)
From literally out of the blue sky, it fluttered back toward me and landed on my shirt. “We didn’t say a proper good-bye,” it seemed to say. It perched on the front of my shirt for several more minutes, closer to my heart than it could have known.
Tomorrow we’ll start another school year. I will be too nervous to sleep tonight. I’ll wake up to what some will call “butterflies in my stomach.” I don’t really like that expression anymore. I mostly find butterflies tending to my heart.
I owe a lot to butterflies.