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Ode to a Butterfly

LA is a creative writer from the greater Boston area of Massachusetts.


Dedicated to Nikki, my butterfly.

I saw a monarch butterfly today. It looked just like the wings you wore that time we went to Salem for Halloween. I instinctively said “hello” to it like I was saying “hello” to you. For one second, I felt normal, like you had briefly re-entered the world.

It’s hours later now though and I don’t know what to do with this pain. I want to scream and cry and punch walls. I want to reach out and touch your back as you rest on our bed. I want to hop into our car and drive forever. I want to be twenty-two again and be angering our overbearing families by staying out too late. I want everyone to stop going on with their lives in honor of you not being able to go on with yours.

I keep telling myself that you were alive this time last month. You were sick and suffering, but you were within my reach. You spoke to me in a voice that I could understand without closing my eyes and focusing. I was so scared for you and of losing you. My stomach and back felt tight from stress and dread. I wanted to put you over my shoulder and rush you to the hospital, but, at the same time, I also wanted to throw a blanket over our heads and hide from what was coming.

Sitting beside that hospital bed, listening to the symphony of the ICU machines that were keeping you alive, kissing your hand, I knew things weren’t going to go our way. When I suddenly remembered a dream I had had about losing you, I was filled with such extreme panic that I almost did a back flip out the window. When they said that they were moving you to another floor, I thought you’d be saved. When I called the nurse’s station before bed to check on you and they told me you had needed to be shocked in the elevator, I wanted to run barefoot to your bedside, hop into bed with you and shield you with my body so that they couldn’t touch you again. I didn’t need to think I heard you in the middle of the night telling me to let you go or get that early morning phone call from the hospital telling me to come fast because you weren’t going to make it to know that we were beaten. I knew we were beaten the moment you stopped being able to eat at the house.

It took a week to get from the point that you told me that you thought you had food poisoning to you taking your last breath. I keep asking anyone who will talk to me if they think if you had gone to the hospital sooner you would’ve survived. Whether they’re simply trying to keep me from joining you I don’t know, but the consensus is no. You had had too many infections; your body was too weak. I will always wonder. I will always be angry that you waivered in your refusal of her food and that I needed a shower so badly that I left her to watch over you.

The teacher in you would tell me to focus on the butterfly. It’s a sign of rebirth, that you’re okay and that I should be too. It should motivate me to write inspirational poetry, not this depressing nonsense. I can almost hear you going on and on about it in our undergrad English seminar. Our professor would’ve loved your passion.

You at twenty. Long brown hair up in a bun, hiding your natural curls. You in flip flops despite it being wintertime, well-worn blue jeans, a messy t-shirt and a blue USPS issued hoodie that your dad snuck you from his work. You, sipping out of your college insignia water bottle, trying to stay awake after an all-nighter. Me, on the other side of the table, jotting down ideas for a book or a play while our professor goes on and on about 19th century British Lit in her southern drawl. I didn’t realize it until now, but the sight of you made me feel safe even then.

My stomach is starting to churn as I try to not cry. My jaw feels numb, and my lungs feel heavy. I wish I could hug you. I’m sure if I really thought about it, I’d recall the answer, but, right now, I don’t know how we let life get to us so deeply that we could go for days without touching. I’d give my hands up gladly to be able to grab onto your arm one more time.

Would it be worth anything if I told you that I’m sorry I never grew a thicker skin, so I wasn’t always so easily provoked into fighting with you? Or that, having spent this last month trying to tie up your loose ends, I finally understand why you were always on your cell phone? I wish I could’ve seen things more clearly while you were still beside me. Knowing what I know now, I should’ve just put you into your wheelchair and pushed you as far away from everyone and everything that was bringing us down. I will never get a chance to make things right.

Why do you think some people seem to live forever despite having become burdens and others, like you, die while they are still so vital? What supreme being gets to decide when it’s time to end a life and how do they weigh that decision? Do you think it’s the same person who is allowed to decide who gets to be healthy or sick or do you think it’s a whole other person, maybe even a whole other department? It just seems messed up to me.

That butterfly though looked perfect. I saw it fly towards the roof of the building, but I don’t know if it landed. You were so proud of your wings. You thought it was funny that you kept poking people in the eyes with them. You wanted me to hold onto you, but, with our height difference, it was just safer for you to hold onto me. You were so bummed that you couldn’t drive with them on. I remember seeing them for months each time you’d pop open your trunk. Now they are in your parents’ garage unless of course your mom threw them out during one of her many unnecessary purges. I should go look the next time I’m there so that I can save them.

Remembering you, good or bad, makes me ache. It starts in my forehead like a sinus headache. It then moves down to my mouth like someone is squeezing it. By the time it hits my chest, I’m struggling to breathe because of what it already did to my throat. All this for someone who, two months ago, was annoying me to the point that I threatened to move out. Given a do over, I probably would’ve made the same threat because, two months ago, you were pretty darn annoying. It wasn’t until you died that I started to doubt the validity of my feelings and wonder if instead you should’ve been canonized for sticking around for me for so long despite how badly you were suffering.

I wish I could go back in time and interrupt our seminar by telling you that you’d be dead in under twenty years. I know our professor would have been outraged by being interrupted. You probably would’ve stared at me, wondering if you had heard me correctly or if your hangover was making you hallucinate. Do you think our classmates would’ve laughed? Or do you think they would’ve glossed over it having already been bored into deafness by our professor? Knowing what I know now, I’d feel better for being honest with you. Maybe if you had been given a heads up you would’ve adopted a healthier lifestyle and avoided being barefoot near sharp objects so that you wouldn’t have cut your foot and gotten infections? Maybe if I had blurted out this prophecy, you would’ve thought me weird and, despite thinking me cute, you would’ve steered clear of me and moved overseas after graduation like you had planned to instead of sticking around and dealing with people who wore you down putting their needs first?

I don’t know how to constructively grieve you. Some people use their grief to start charities in their loved one’s name. Others purchase land and donate it so that when some yet to be born kid asks about such and such park, their parent will read them a sign informing them about this well-loved, long dead person. I know that if I think hard enough, I can think of a super way to honor your life, but, right now, I’m just too overtired from not sleeping. I guess your snoring and need to put your foot on my side of the bed wasn’t all that annoying after all.

I look forward to getting to the point in my grief process that I can accept that you are free like the butterfly or at least like you were when you dressed up as one. I want to believe that you are soaring, enjoying a warm summer day, your body cooperating. It’s a beautiful thought. I’m just not there yet. I still needlessly dread days with a temperature over 70 degrees because you were so sensitive to the heat with your breathing problems. I continue to look for handicap accessible doors, ramps and parking fearing that I’ll have to pretend I’m not up to going someplace for my own reasons and not because I don’t have the heart to tell you that the world is stupidly slow to progress and can’t accommodate your needs. You’re gone and I can’t stop protecting you.

One day, I will wake up next to you again and I’ll ignore the alarm. I will ride shotgun in your car. I will tell you to stop cracking your knuckles and to stop putting your hand out of the sunroof. I will criticize your taste in music and secretly love hearing you sing and watching you dance. I will complain about you stealing all our snacks and be grateful that I’m seeing you eat again. I will find comfort in seeing the dishes in the sink and your hair in the shower drain. When I’m with you again, I won’t feel angry or cheated. I will appreciate you like I do now and will feel enough at ease with myself to allow you to appreciate me as you always wanted to. I will finally have you all to myself without a single distraction or a need to look for sign that you’re okay and that, kiddo, will be Heaven.

© 2022 L A Walsh

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