Something Blue

I stood there, transfixed, while my daughters and grand-daughter went on ahead.

blue buttrerfly display.jpg

I’d specifically chosen Waterloo as a destination for a day-trip for the newspaper. Waterloo, neighbor to the Cedar Falls area where I’d met my husband and we’d attended college.  I knew if I was given the assignment, I could cover the Grout Museum, with plenty of time left to visit the small Sunrise Zoo on the grounds of the Cattle Congress where David and I had taken our older children many times.

She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts. – George Eliot

Not only has grief become my constant companion, I occasionally ask it to dance with me. To return to the small zoo and the museum where David and I had spent time together was to dance with grief; to purposely put my arms around the memories of a past I hold dear, even if that promenade might result in tears.

David would have enjoyed this, I thought as we toured the Bluedorn Science Imaginarium. He loved science. He would have loved the historical war displays, I found myself thinking as we toured the Sullivan Brothers Veterans Museum. He loved history. Even now, four and a half years after his death, I consider what David had enjoyed, what he is now missing. What I lack in his absence; a partner to walk with, talk to, hold hands with, share laughter and stolen kisses.

I may have gasped out loud when the girls and I turned a corner in the Museum of History and Science and I caught sight of the butterfly display.

Weeks before David died, he and I had shared a conversation that was unlike our usual bantering. We were in the car, talking about the opportunities that had opened up for me just in those past few months; I’d started teaching workshops and been hired to do a weekly couponing column for a newspaper. I was working on a book that I’d acquired an agent for. My husband was not only thrilled by my recent success; he truly believed there was more in store for me.

“You’re flying! This is your time to soar,” he’d often say, and I’d reply that I couldn’t do it without him; He was the wind beneath my wings.

“Would you be okay if something happened to me?” he asked that day, and I replied with a vehement no. I would not be okay. Our marriage was the best it had ever been. I was looking forward to growing old with David.

I’ll never forget the look of real fear in his eyes at my answer. Where had this come from? David was a five-year cancer survivor. He was 60 years old. We had every reason to believe we had many years together ahead of us. I hated seeing him fearful, so I hastened to reassure him I would be okay. To lighten the mood a bit, I asked him how he would show me he was okay if he did die before me. He never answered, but I told him to make sure it was “something blue” so I’d recognize it came from him.

David died unexpectedly a few weeks later, the day before his March birthday. Seven months later, in mid-October, I signed a contract for that book he’d encouraged me to write, the book that had initially been his idea, and that he believed would become a reality, despite my failure to sell it with two different agents. The day I signed the contract, I ran across the street to tell my son Dan. As he stood smiling on the porch, I noticed the most beautiful blue and black butterfly flying nearby. I stared, open-mouthed. I must have said David’s name out loud, because I remember my son shaking his head at my proclamation that his Dad was showing his approval.

Months later, at the very moment I submitted the completed manuscript for that same book, my wedding ring cracked. I clicked on SEND, heard a distinct “ping,” and felt a sharp pain in my finger. I looked down, and the ring had cracked in half.

I’ve thought about that butterfly many times since then, bemoaning my lack of a photograph. When a gray butterfly with delicate blue markings dropped out of the sleeve of my husband’s old winter coat I’d hung on the line on September 18 of that year, I’d taken a picture, distinctively disappointed that there wasn’t more blue.

butterfly with blue marks

Why hadn’t I thought then to take a picture of the extraordinary blue and black butterfly? I’ve wondered about it many times since. How rare was it, because I hadn’t seen one before, or since.

And there it was; the same kind of butterfly in the display case at the Grout Museum.

blue butterfly.jpg

I took photos while my girls waited for me further down the hall. What majesty in the wings of God’s creatures, what intricate beauty in the design of the display. A man passed by. “Someone likes my butterfly display,” he smiled, and I immediately felt as though I was in the presence of someone holy, for him to have been responsible for such beauty.

“Did you do this? Do you know how rare those blue butterflies are?” I asked.

“I think they’re very rare, but Mark Lane and his daughter collected everything in there. He’d know for sure.”

It was then I noticed the small plaque attached to the case. I snapped a picture, determined to find this Mark Lane and daughter Katie.

butterfly mark lane and daughter katie

Thanks to Facebook, I did find him, and he told me the 8-year-old daughter Katie was now 26. His answer to my question about the rarity of the species:

“That butterfly is called a blue Morpho, more specifically a Morpho Deidamia. They range from Panama to Brazil… That one is from Guyana. The only US butterfly close to that is called a red spotted purple or Limenitis arthemis.

I started crying as I read his answer, but tears of joy as I remembered that October day, and the beautiful butterfly I’d seen with the distinctive black and blue markings. I believed anew that it was a message from the man who had loved me with every fiber of his being, or from the God he now resides with. I realized I had experienced a kind of love that even death couldn’t rob me of. To see such a beautiful butterfly appear on a momentous occasion was awesome enough. But could it be that I’d seen a butterfly that wasn’t even indigenous to the United States? That would be even more remarkable.  I told this man, a stranger who no longer felt like one, my story, and asked him if he thought I could have seen it here in Iowa.

“… There is NO way that Morpho would ever be here… There are no host plants for it they are only found in tropical areas!” Then he added “But there are a LOT of things that can’t be explained!!”

There are a lot of things that can’t be explained, that’s true. I’ve experienced more than my share of remarkable experiences; the blue butterfly, the cracked ring, a Neil Diamond CD appearing in my locked vehicle, a shiny penny in a closed money box where only bills had been a moment before. I’ve made a list and it covers six notebook pages. I don’t know where these kinds of “messages” come from; the person we loved and lost, or God.

But I do know one thing; sometimes a dance with grief ends in joy.

POSTSCRIPT: (from the man responsible for the butterflies in the display, after he read this blog post and saw the butterfly that fell out of my husband’s coat) the dead butterfly in the grass is called a “Mourning Cloak”

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Broken Brain, Fortified Faith Book Review

This was my second reading of this wonderful book, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith: Lessons of Hope Through a Child’s Mental Illness by Virginia Pillars. I initially read it as an un-edited manuscript when I wrote a blurb endorsement for it.

broken brain blurb
The edited version is even more gripping, heart-rending, and beautiful. I began reading at 8:00 last night and couldn’t put it down until I completed the entire book. As a mother, I could not imagine the torment of watching a child descend into madness, but I could certainly relate to the mother-bear instinct that kicked in upon the diagnosis of schizophrenia for this brave woman and her equally brave daughter.

Mental illness is not happy subject, nor is it fodder for casual conversation around the table. In fact, I would conjecture the topic of mental illness rates right up there with death in terms of our willingness to face it head on, but according to this book more people are living with mental illness than heart disease, lung disease, and cancer combined. We need to talk about it because there is a good chance someone we love will be affected by it.

Reading Pillars’ chronicle of a journey no one wants to take was difficult at times. As readers, we can’t help but put ourselves or our loved ones in the place of those who are suffering. What if this was my daughter? I thought as I read. I found myself wiping away tears a few times. It struck me as I read this memoir that this could be any one of us, that the insidious beast of mental illness crouches at the door of the best of families, waiting to pounce on its innocent prey. Pillars’ daughter Amber had a solid education, a good job, and a strong faith when she was unexpectedly gripped in the claws of mental illness. Thankfully, she also had a family who loved her and a good friend who wouldn’t give up on her. Hope remained. And in the end, it was that faith and hope, and some good medical care, that eventually brought this family out of the dark pit of despair. Amber now lives a full and productive life, and the author works tirelessly to bring hope to other families through her work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

broken brain

From Amazon: “Broken Brain, Fortified Faith is the story of one family s journey through schizophrenia, navigating the uncharted waters of mental illness to find help for their daughter, Amber, and support for their family. This memoir is an honest look at the stress, anger, education, and finally, hope experienced through eyes of a mother. Along the way, she questions her trust in God as their family encounters setbacks, inadequate treatments, and additional family health crises, but with the help of trusted family, friends, education, and support groups, author Virginia Pillars learns to rely on her faith as she faces the challenges that often accompany mental illness.”

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