Hiking long ago along Paradise’s flowering meadows, I found a broken-winged butterfly stuck to the spring mud. (Twenty years later, my ninety-seven-year-old mother will be sleeping in her bedroom where the walls are white except for the one beside her bed where gold and silver butterflies adorn turquoise wallpaper. Perhaps she got the wallpaper on sale; perhaps it came with the house; perhaps even she was snared by a butterfly’s ephemeral beauty.)
I was new at hiking through the world on my own and wanted to see cedars, tanagers, even a black bear from a safe distance, all the creatures my mother never thought to explore. (There are no other butterflies at my mother’s south Florida house where the grass is clipped razor sharp, and the planter boxes have flowers with yellow linen petals and green plastic leaves.) The yellow butterfly I found on that long-ago trail had been flying through chill air and sharp sunshine, perhaps stopping to feed, perhaps hill-topping along Mt. Rainier’s lower slopes in search of a mate flitting amid avalanche lily and lupine. By the time I encountered it, the butterfly stayed stuck on a boot-beaten trail not far from the Visitor Center. A swollen black ant climbed over it and continued on.
I placed the butterfly on a leaf and carried it to the trail’s edge. Its fuzzed abdomen was split open; some organ spilled outside its body. The butterfly lifted wings as shredded as an antique curtain tossing in a wind it can’t gather. It tried to take flight, or just get away from me, but no miracle of healing occurred. (Twenty years later, my mother will wake and say, “It’s been a good life,” and it was with my dead father long forgotten, a new husband by her side, my sister and I grown and gone.) For a while, the butterfly lay still. Its body seemed to hum. Again it flapped and flapped its wings as if it needed only to fly and mate and feed from an open blossom. (My mother will walk into her unused guest room where the only window is shuttered; her arms will be flapping with wrinkled flesh, her breasts shrunken, her belly swollen, but she’s no Biblical Sarah barren for a century only to become fertile. All that will be taking life inside my mother is impending death.) What do you do as you die but live the way you know how? (Once again my mother will check balances and write checks. Once again she will post on the refrigerator yellow slips of paper where she’s written instructions about gold coins, annuities, stocks, municipal bonds, mortgages, certificates of deposit, cremation instructions, whatever else is left of those things I never thought to explore.) Isn’t it too late for a shattering enlightenment, a second chance?
I was young when I found the butterfly. I didn’t understand that some deaths are regrettable; others come at the proper time; but, sooner or later, all deaths are inevitable. I thought instead that there was something I should do. Rescue the butterfly. Heal it. Set it free. (I used to find reasons for our bitter fights, our long silences. She was bad, I was good, I would have said if anyone asked as I hiked through Paradise, but, now, I would say perhaps my mother had as many reasons for her anger as I had for mine, perhaps we were too different, perhaps we were never meant to live alongside each other.) But the butterfly could only go back to the world of hungry shrikes, rapacious spiders, careless hikers, or whatever else had pulled it out of the sky and left it stranded on the dark ground. (Twenty years later, I’ll sit with my mother, both of us with nothing to say as we wait for her to die, and when she doesn’t, at least not yet, I’ll know what to do. I will fly home, across the country, to where in my backyard flit Sara’s orange spots, painted ladies, cabbage whites, so many butterflies amid strawberries and raspberries, chrysanthemums and pansies, all the sweetness and beauty my garden grows.) On that long-ago trail through Paradise, I watched; I waited. Mosquitoes swarmed. A bird called up ahead. It was a good long trail I had ahead of me, that much I knew. Did I say goodbye to that sunlit butterfly? I am now. I left it amid the spring flowers and went on my way.