There will be butterflies
There will be summer skies
And flowers upthrust
When all that Caesar bids
And all the pyramids are dust
There will be gaudy wings
Over the bones of things
And never grief
Who says that summer skies
Who says that butterflies
I am 16, holding my breath as I wait for the needle to resume etching the delicate wings of the swallowtail into the tender skin of my right hip. Wincing, I look away from the tattoo artist’s buzzing instrument. As I try to focus on its soft humming, waiting in vain for the skin to numb to the pain, I think of her.
“Time to let the toads go,” Mom says from behind the shed. She emerges, futilely wiping dirt from her knees, smearing a sooty trail across her forehead as she tucks her short brown curls behind her ear. Not yet long enough to stay put, they promptly fall back against her slender face. I don’t think it really bothers her; she likes to touch her hair, to bounce the ringlets she’d hoped would grow in. Months ago, when she’d told me that hair can regrow with a different texture, I doubted her. My skepticism began around the time I caught her drinking a glass of her own pee—at least that’s what she told me it was. Her sense of humor was sometimes clouded with pessimism then. Though my dad was always giving her different herbs, vitamins, and minerals he’d researched, I think—I hope—it was only sun tea diluted by melting ice.
My mom joins my younger brothers and me by the five gallon plastic pail. Crouching next to us, she peers into the bucket, admiring our catches of the day.
“Look at how fat that one is! It’s going to have babies soon,” she tells us, pointing at a toad with especially bulging sides. “We need to leave it here so it can lay its eggs in the pond. Then there will be more babies to catch!”
Ranch Heights Elementary School’s atrium entrance was in the hallway across from the teacher’s lounge, not far from the first grade classrooms. The library, cafeteria, gym, art room, and most other classrooms were in the other side of the school, so unless you were lucky enough to be in one of the classrooms with windows into the atrium, it was easy to miss the butterfly garden’s captivating views. I would often take long bathroom breaks to wander the school, lingering by the atrium to showcase my mom’s work to any passersby, making sure everyone knew she was responsible for transforming the formerly muddy chicken yard into a lush, lively hidden garden now home to numerous species of butterflies, an abundance of toads, and a pond of goldfish with a baby red-eared slider.
As soon as the weather warmed and the first green buds of spring appeared, and until the first fall frost, Mom weeded, planted, watered, and loved that garden. Every day of the summer, she’d be in there, black and orange Fiskars tools in hand, bandana protecting her scalp from the Oklahoma sun, butterflies somehow, it seemed, healing her—sharing their little world with her, providing an escape. In the garden, she could dig her nails in the wet soil, a soothing, meditative task that took her mind off the stinging, oozing radiation burns bandaged beneath her shirt. She was surrounded by color and fresh air and liveliness, unlike the stuffy white rooms of hospitals. Sometimes she’d bring us along, teaching us the names of the winged natives—painted lady, black swallowtail, viceroy (not to be confused with the larger monarch), variegated fritillary, buckeye—pointing out the chrysalises and caterpillars camouflaged in the fennel, milkweed, and butterfly bush. We admired them, picking our favorites and searching for more hatchlings, but we never caught them. Instead, Mom let us catch the toads, of which there was never a shortage. She’d hand us the bucket, pointing us toward the dark space behind the shed and near the moist rocks surrounding the pond, encouraging us to catch all that we could find. We took our job seriously, thinking ourselves Protectors of the Butterflies, as toads will eat them. Then, when our bucket grew crowded, we’d pick a few to release in our backyard, letting the rest go to catch again another time.
When Mom wasn’t volunteering in the school’s atrium, she checked out butterfly identification guides from the public library. She searched the internet for pointers in creating the ideal habitat. She gathered flyers from the Tulsa Zoo’s butterfly garden to copy and tape to the hallway windows of the atrium. These flyers described the life cycle of butterflies, the difference between them and moths, cocoons and chrysalises. My favorite was a blown-up colored poster with images of various Oklahoma butterflies and moths. I studied their coloring and patterns, the intricacies of their wings, their fringes as delicate, varying, and unique as snowflakes. Still, when Mom softly called my brothers and me over to examine a fritillary or skipper, careful not to frighten it from its perch upon her shoulder, I couldn’t always identify it correctly. I knew to look at the antennae to distinguish between moth and butterfly, as moths typically have thicker, feathery feelers. I knew that each butterfly species’ chrysalis differed in color, shape, and size—prettier, I thought, than moths’ cocoons. But Mom always knew each caterpillar, chrysalis, and wing, and the plants on which to find them. While she located them in the garden, I studied them on the poster, enthralled by the larger wingspan of the pale, lime green luna moth—the one species depicted that I still have yet to see.
I don’t know why I did, and still do, find luna moths so enchanting. Perhaps it’s their size (a four-and-a-half-inch wingspan), or their simple yet mysterious pattern of four beady eyes on a set of leaflike, tailed wings. It seems contradictory to describe them as pale and bright, but that is how they are, like the glow-in-the-dark stars on children’s ceilings. Just like the stars, luna moths fly at nightfall, in search of a mate—their sole purpose. Often called moon moths, they’re said to follow the moon as a guiding light. The adults never eat; they only live for a week, dying shortly after laying their eggs. The vulnerable, young caterpillars are left to metamorphose on their own.
Mom never shared my fascination with the luna moth; she instead appeared more impressed by the longer-lived monarch. Monarchs’ final stage of life—when they’ve emerged from their chrysalises, revealing their newly formed wings—typically lasts two to six weeks. They spend these last weeks drinking nectar, mating, and laying eggs, flying wherever they please. However, monarchs that hatch in the fall live even longer—six to eight months—and migrate toward warmer climates. A year after Mom’s diagnosis, while we were visiting my grandma in Nebraska, migratory monarchs stopped to rest in the trees by the barn. My dad, brothers, grandma, mom, and I stood beneath the trembling orange and black limbs, delighted as the butterflies arranged themselves on the branches, like autumn leaves falling back into place. As they settled, we went back to our games of catch and to our lawn chairs in the driveway, but Mom remained beneath the tree, entranced by the orange blanket, snapping pictures, until dark. Perhaps praying for her own set of wings.
I haven’t been back to Mom’s butterfly haven in nine years, but I can’t look at a butterfly without thinking of her. She used to tell me in those last few weeks, at moments when the morphine fog lifted, to think of her when I saw a butterfly. When one landed on me, it was her saying “Hi.” They would be my reminder that she was watching over me. We hadn’t talked about reincarnation in Bible school, but now it seemed plausible—I needed it to be. Butterflies made an appropriate vessel for her return. In the Radiolab episode “Black Box,” Matthew Cobb, biologist and historian, describes “metamorphosis as a spiritual ascent.” Naturalists in the 1600s explained the gooey state during transformation as “a kind of resurrection”; they thought that the caterpillar simply died once inside the chrysalis, and “out of its burial cloth . . . [came] the new life.” However, Dutch microscopist Jan Swammerdam discovered in the 1600s that tucked inside the caterpillar are wings, antennae, and legs. These structures aren’t all that butterflies retain through their transformations. Martha Weiss, associate professor of biology at Georgetown University, conducted an experiment in which she repeatedly exposed caterpillars to a foul odor while simultaneously zapping them. Once the caterpillars transformed into moths, Weiss exposed them to the bad smell again, finding that they avoided it—and moths don’t usually mind smell. Through their various life stages, moths and butterflies carry their memories.
Memories of my mom—and her presence—are strongest when I return home to Oklahoma and sit in the backyard, which Dad maintains with butterfly-attracting plants. Morning glories and passion flowers climb the privacy fence, painting the wooden planks in shades of violet. The vines hum with bees as the insects buzz from one flower to the next. From my perch on the patio swing, knees drawn into my chest, I watch the bees dip in and out of blossoms. Worries about my future—making it on my own, taking care of my brothers and dad—weigh me down, but the bees’ hypnotic drone distracts me from my brooding.
A fritillary lands on a spindly mauve corona and slowly opens and closes its wings, letting its randomly gray-flecked, camouflaged guard down to offer glimpses of its elegant, inner tawny pattern as its proboscis extends like a straw to sip the nectar. As I watch the butterfly nourish itself in my dad’s religiously manicured lawn, I have a sudden feeling of what I can only describe as my mom’s presence, the feeling of comfort a mother provides for her child. She is here to inspirit me.
Many cultures associate butterflies with the afterlife. The ancient Greek word for butterfly is “psyche,” which translates to “soul.” According to Maraleen Manos-Jones in her book The Spirit of Butterflies: Myth, Magic, and Art, “the butterfly represents the soul of the dead—the rebirth, renewal, and awakening of the spirit” in such places as Egypt, Adalusian Spain, parts of southern Germany, Wales, the Pacific Islands, the Solomon Islands, the Naga in Asam, and the Maori of New Zealand. There are stories of great butterfly migrations after tragedies like the Krakatoa eruption and the Holocaust. Manos-Jones describes Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s observation of the children’s barracks at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, where images of hundreds of butterflies had been carved into the walls. Kübler-Ross attributed the carvings to the prisoners’ knowledge of their impending deaths: “They knew that they would soon become butterflies. Once dead, they would be out of that hellish place. Not tortured anymore . . . None of this gruesome life mattered anymore. Soon they would leave their bodies the way a butterfly leaves its cocoon.”
Perhaps the most-celebrated butterfly migration is the Day of the Souls Returning, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead. Like the Aztecs’ belief that those at peace with their deaths returned as butterflies to watch over their relatives, the Mexican holiday celebrates life and memories of the deceased at the first of November—a tradition that, as Manos-Jones points out, “coincides every year with the spectacular migration of the monarchs from the north to their breeding ground high in the Sierra Madre.”
Flitting and floating among the flowers of my own backyard, this butterfly pulls me out of my despondence. The gentle, silent beating of her wings buoys me. Fearful of startling the butterfly, I don’t move from the swing. I watch the insect until it flies away, in search of another yard of flowers, and I linger in my spot after it has left, savoring the contentment. The feeling of comfort remains as I go back inside the house, to my dad and brothers in the living room, who have each found their own ways of calling Mom back.
During her four-year battle with breast cancer, my mom continued working in my elementary school’s atrium creating the butterfly garden. The violet blooms of butterfly bushes and the yellow petals of Black-eyed Susans harmonized with the many colorful, fluttering wings of fritillaries, monarchs, and swallowtails. It was her sanctuary. When she was no longer able to care for the butterflies, other PTA moms helped maintain it. The garden was dedicated to her, a plaque with her name hung on the door.
The school and I weren’t the only ones who memorialized her with butterflies. During Mom’s last summer, my paternal grandpa also battled cancer in a nursing home six hours north, in Nebraska. In his final moments, Grandma says, a butterfly landed on the window of his room.
“Kim,” she whispered urgently to my aunt, “I think Lisa is here . . .”
The buzzing stops and the pricking is replaced by the caress of a cool, moist towel. I return my gaze to the artwork in progress. As the tattooist wipes away the excess ink and tiny droplets of blood, the half-dollar-sized black swallowtail emerges, and with it, my mom’s presence.