Mike’s sister Liz passed away 23 years ago today. Her greatest legacy is her children, who have grown up to be remarkable people in their own right. Liz was also a talented writer; unfortunately none of her stories are in digital format, which means that they’re tucked away safely in a box somewhere. To that end we thought we’d offer two of our stories instead, as well as a story about a story. All of them have to do with butterflies. Marcia’s first:
Angel On My Finger
She entered our lives ten days ago. Magic brought her to us. Marvel kept her with us. As I relate this story to you my eyes fill with tears of joy.
My dear friend Laurie and I were attempting to burn off the excess calories we had consumed during a leisurely luncheon. Time spent together was precious to us both and so we chatted continuously while introducing bites of food intermittently. We laughed as we gave in to our sugar cravings and ordered dessert. Cadillac cheesecake was appropriately named and received accolades from our taste buds. By the time the last forkful had entered our mouths, we realized that we had overdone it.
We still had a good portion of the afternoon to share and so we chose to walk through a nearby wooded area known for its groomed hiking trails and tranquil ambiance. We were not disappointed. Our usual fast pace slowed to a calm saunter and, at times, to an actual dawdle. Our breathing took on a deeper quality. Even our conversation ceased for a time while our senses enjoyed the beauty around us. We didn’t need words to connect with each other.
The autumn season was just five days old. Close enough to summer, the sun’s rays sparkling through the branches warmed us. Fall colours, however, were evident in the rusts, reds, purples and yellows scattered about the forest. Berries and moss, mushrooms and leaves had each taken on their particular tones and shades, hues and textures. Our eyes were drawn first one way then another, at once up and then down in an attempt to see and appreciate them all.
Several feet ahead of us and to our left a vibrant orange object caught our attention. We stepped off the trail and marched through underbrush and gingerly around living plants to reach it. It appeared as though someone had scooped a large chunk of sea coral from a tropical reef and plunked it unceremoniously upon the soil yet snuggled amidst the exposed roots of an ancient beech tree. We admired the texture of this entity, which we were to learn later was a lichen. Both of us commented that we originally thought it to have been much bigger, even from a distance, than it was close up. Laurie also mentioned that it was now a pale peach in colour, yet we had been drawn by its intensely deep orange shade only moments before and from farther away. The disparity struck us as being rather odd. Chatting about this we resumed our journey but in a slightly different direction.
Our altered path took a rather circular route and graced us with the majesty of many grandparent trees. We felt as though we could learn so much history, so much wisdom, if only we knew the language of these old ones, if only we had the ears to hear them. These wonderful trees must have been the reason, we surmised, for being drawn to the lichen. Another purpose we had yet to discover.
Not far around the bend from a very elderly cedar and by the edge of the landscaped walkway, was an unknown group of foliage about knee height (my knees, that is, as Laurie is taller than myself and this plant arrangement came to a spot noticeably lower than her knees). Anyway, sitting still as could be, as invisible as possible, was the prettiest sight I had yet seen, even here with all this splendour. I put my right index finger to my lips to catch Laurie’s attention and to stop her from speaking. When she looked at me questioningly, I pointed to the object of my delight. Her eyes widened as much as I’m sure mine already were. We knew instantly this discovery was the true reason for our detour.
Laurie and I had been walking and laughing just seconds before yet this little being didn’t seem to notice. She was perched ever so delicately upon an outer branch. I approached her cautiously, slowly, so as not to startle her. No motion. I sensed her to be alive but began to doubt that instinct as she allowed me to touch her without her moving at all. Then suddenly her small body came to life and she walked roughly but promptly onto my extended finger. A tremendous joy surged through me. Then something unusual and fleeting happened. The face of a young woman entered my mind’s eye. This woman’s name was Liz. This particular day would have been her birthday. Let me digress for a moment.
Fifteen months prior to the telling of this tale, the sweetest, most wonderful man in my life got called to the bedside of his older sister. He and I drove from Toronto to Ottawa where, with his parents, we boarded an airplane for Kelowna, British Columbia. We did not know if Liz would survive her illness. Michael and I had been together as a couple for a mere seven months and I had not had the privilege of meeting the sister he so obviously adored. Michael’s Auntie Dona met us at the Kelowna airport and drove us directly to the hospital in nearby Vernon. Time was precious. Liz was dying. After his parents had spent a few moments by Liz’s unconscious form, Michael was needed to help console them. Auntie Dona, not realizing I had never met Liz, took me in to see her.
The woman Michael spoke so lovingly of was a vibrant, caring, sensitive person whom I had been looking forward to getting to know. I wanted to see Liz and Michael interact and kibitz with each other. I wanted her to relate stories of them both as children, giving away family secrets that weren’t secret to anyone and that they enjoyed just in the telling. I wanted to say thank you to her. It is my belief to this day that it was Liz who encouraged this amazing man to be so very sensitive and aware and receptive to all the needs of a woman. But the person on the bed was not the Liz I had anticipated. I wanted her to know how much I loved her brother. I wanted to hug her. All I could do was touch her cheek and hope that wherever her spirit was at that time, she would know in her heart all the things I couldn’t say.
Next thing I knew, Auntie Dona was leading me away from the room to allow Michael time with his sister. Liz’s vital signs stabilized the moment he spoke to her. She had held on to life long enough for Michael to get to her. He stayed with her for a long time. Liz died peacefully just hours later.
As soon as he knew she had let go of her struggle, Michael headed outside to walk, to be, to connect with nature. Liz’s body ceased to exist but Liz’s spirit survived. Being out in the open Michael could feel her presence and touch her in her new expanded form. Only moments after leaving the building, a beautiful tiger swallowtail butterfly approached him and flitted about him. She stayed close to him as he walked and, for the rest of our visit, which lasted two weeks, a swallowtail was always to be seen nearby. We felt the butterfly to be a gift from Liz.
We have few swallowtail butterflies in Ontario but we do have monarchs. This lovely little angel balanced precariously on my finger was a monarch butterfly. Her brilliant orange wings with their dramatic black markings and distinctive white dots lining her wings and predominantly marking her body allowed easy recognition of her regal lineage. On the anniversary of Liz’s birth date, a butterfly lites into my life and proceeds to walk onto my hand and into my heart. No coincidence. But there is more.
Laurie and I discovered that this tiny creature could not fly. She stepped unsteadily up my arm and settled on my chest- a living brooch who had already touched me deeply. She should have been in flight to Mexico, migrating as monarchs do each fall. But she physically could not do so and there was no food for her in the surrounding area to provide nourishment for her survival.
Dilemma. Should I leave her to die? She would have, had we not come by. Should I take her home with me where I knew she would be cared for and safe, though captive, until the spring when she could be released outside again? Had the vibrant orange energy we had seen earlier been the butterfly’s call for help? We would not have found her had we kept to our original route. I made every effort to place her on tree, bush, rock, anything stationary. She would have no part of any of them and would only plant herself further up my hand.
So, decision made, the three of us headed back to the car. It was understood, without discussion between Laurie and I that I would take this delicate beauty home with me. Michael was delighted. Lauralite, named in honour of my friend Laurie, promptly strode up Michael’s arm, onto his beard, up his mustache, across his glasses, over his brow and stationed herself on his head. As he moved through his daily activities she remained perched proudly atop him.
For ten days we cared for her. Michael fed her over-ripe nectarines and bananas, slit by knife to allow easy accessibility of her proboscis – her mouth – to consume the juice. He provided drops of water to quench her thirst – each drop placed upon his hand for her to drink. Each day her strength grew and she would attempt to fly, every day a little more stable, longer in duration than the day before. She was also missing two of her six legs which greatly altered her sense of balance and her landing capabilities. By the seventh day of her visit, however, we were feeling certain that she could make the flight to Mexico. We had to give her the chance. Keeping her captive didn’t seem fair. Every attempt at flight, Lauralite would head immediately south-west and crash herself into our living room window. She had no concept of human structures.
The weather report for Sunday, October 6th forecast perfect temperatures for a trip south – a warm sunny day plus a comfortable low for the coming night – not too cold for her to survive. Saturday night we agreed to release her back to her natural element at noon the next day. When Sunday morning arrived with a slightly overcast sky but mild we headed immediately to see Lauralite. She seemed strong. I even commented on how chunky her body had become from days of good food. But there was a stain of liquid on her bottom right wing, as though she had defecated and messed herself. This should have forewarned us but it did not.
Lauralite drank copious quantities of water from Michael’s hand as usual. She ate for a long time from the fruit he provided. By 11:30 a.m. we felt she was as ready as she could be for her long journey. Twelve noon was flight time. Neither of us spoke of how much we would miss her. We didn’t talk of wanting to be with her when she arrived in Mexico, so that we might know her trip to be a success. We didn’t verbalize to each other our hope that she might return to our home in the spring or summer, just briefly, maybe bringing her offspring with her. These things we shared later that same day.
At 11:49 a.m. I went into the living room to check on Lauralite. She often propped herself on a shamrock leaf but was laying on the window-sill under the legs of an oriental glass decoration – her wings spread open as she basked in the faint sunlight. Landing in that position must have been awkward but her take-off would be more complex, so I asked Michael to reach in to pick her up and move her. I went to sort laundry. A moment later Michael entered the laundry room with Lauralite on his hand. She wasn’t sitting with wings haughtily fluttering. Her little body looked as it had on the window-sill. Michael’s eyes told me everything, but I still didn’t believe the situation even with the words he spoke.
Lauralite was dead.
Both of us were stunned. Our bodies froze momentarily as the reality of her death settled into that place in our being that knows and that feels life’s experiences – the joys and the pain. The level of our pain was in direct proportion to the pleasure this little butterfly had brought into our lives. Ten beautiful days. Ten days of delight in another being – a wisp of seemingly weightless wonder. Several hours later Michael quietly asked if this unusual and precious occurrence could have been a gift to us from his sister Liz. With a true knowing, and being of one heart, we knew the answer to be a resounding YES!
And now, having shared this tale, I place a finger to my lips then blow a kiss to the universe in thanks. Farewell sweet angel!
Marcia Mae Nelson Pedde 961029
And a poem from Mike:
(Tiger Swallowtail Comes to Flowers)
Carolyn and Jennifer,
your mother is not gone,
she sees the world through your eyes now.
You can hear her voice
in the quiet whispers of the wind
or in the soft
Her eyes sparkle
with the twinkling reflections
of the morning sun on every still pond
and her touch is still present,
delicately caressing the downy presence
of every new chick that hatches.
She is everything that is beautiful and kind.
She will always be.
And a story about a story, or rather a poem. Mike (and Liz) lived in the woods for three years as children, moving to the city when Mike was 11. When he grew up he went into the wildlife biology field, which was mostly intended to be able to have more time in the woods. Despite that, Mike had seen maybe three tiger swallowtails in his life…before 1995. In June of 1995 Liz went into a coma in a hospital in BC and the family flew out to be with her. She passed away within a day after their arrival, but the family stayed on for a few weeks to deal with all that comes with such a passing. The family stayed at Mike’s aunt’s house while there, and everywhere there were swallowtails. Marcia and Mike would sit in the backyard and swallowtails would cavort through the yard. We’d go for a walk and one or more would follow us down the street. We’d get in the car and drive somewhere, and wherever we got out of the car there would be a swallowtail… When we returned to Ontario we saw three within 24 hours. That summer we had to move, and we were fortunate to have an opportunity to rent a property on two hundred acres, with a two-acre lake. The day we drove out to see it for the first time there was a coyote sunning in the driveway, and when we went for a walk down to the lake we saw seven swallowtails. Mike said, “Liz is here.” We called our home Swallowtail Walk. Every year since then, no matter where we’ve lived our lives have been blessed with swallowtails (and other butterflies. Each one is a fluttering reminder of the joy that life can hold.
Remember to hug someone you love today. Or a stranger. Or, preferably, both!