Last October 10, a Sunday, the day after our children and I had emptied the remains of Annette’s body into an unremarkable opening in the ground of rural southwest Iowa, following with handfuls of the ordinary, rich black soil that had been piled beside it, and closing it with the sod cap that remained, I returned alone to that pretty, bruised spot.
In stock psychological terms, I suppose I should have been seeking closure. In truth, I was seeking tears. There had been none, not once since her death six weeks earlier. It was depressing, that tear drought, as if something dark and sinister stood in the way of what should be normal affect after losing the one who had been closest and dearest to me for more than 64 years.
Even then, as I stood and waited at her grave, lone, in silence broken slightly by the distant sounds of giant combines harvesting corn on that October Sunday afternoon, no tears came, nor as I said goodbye and slid into my car to drive away, when mere feet from Annette’s grave, a dazzling monarch butterfly flew past within a few inches of the windshield and instantly shattered the dam holding back tears that came unrestrained and wild. Several minutes passed before I could see to drive and continued coming and going as I drove on the empty country road I had known so well since childhood.
Annette adored butterflies, a gift her father had given her, although she eventually chose to see butterflies flying freely rather than pinned, dead, into a display. When she and I ate a meal at one of the abundant, beautiful sites that surround Portland, she would surely comment about any butterfly she saw, naming it and wishing that lovely being would land near her so that she could enjoy its company.
Within all those experiences in all of those many settings, I cannot recall her identifying even one black butterfly, but a week ago today, May 28, another Saturday, the nine-month anniversary of the indelible day when she had died, which had been a Saturday, too, a black butterfly showed up.
I had just laid fresh flowers on her grave, which shares the space above the grave of our son, Philip, buried there nearly 52 years ago. One rose was red in remembrance of him, four white roses represented our three living children and me, and then there was a yellow daisy, remembering Annette and her love for almost anything yellow, including butterflies.
There were no tears as all that unfolded. I had not been seeking tears. I was happy for the warm awareness of closeness—but not closure—and satisfaction with the beauty of the flowers in place on the plush, green grass that now overlays the grave, with peonies everywhere else beginning to open.
I was unprepared for the surprise that awaited. Leaving, as I drove through the cemetery gate, a petite, totally black butterfly fluttered past the car’s windshield. There were no sudden tears this time, but amazement and amusement and gratitude—and acute curiosity.
I stopped the car and got out, looking for that little, black beauty again, and there, on a blade of grass directly in front of the car, she was waiting for me where I could easily confirm her utter blackness. As I moved closer, she flew perhaps 10 feet, then alighted. Again, I moved toward her, and she flew on but only a short distance, and then she flew on once more, I following as delicately as possible for me, until she disappeared finally.
I was riveted—and remain so. Unlike the monarch of eight months before, which might have been dismissed as part of an annual migration and was gone when I stopped to look—and even returned to Annette’s grave—the black butterfly had seemed reluctant to go far, as if its home were nearby, perhaps in that cemetery, perhaps near that certain grave.
I’ve remained mystified and bewildered while cherishing that unique memory. Is there a message to be found in it, a message from Annette, perhaps from God? I wouldn’t dismiss it as mere chance. Was the blackness an omen of tragedy? Was there someone among my friends who might have a clue, who would not disregard a black butterfly as nothing more than an accident of nature? I wanted it to be more, but how would I ever find out? I wished that Annette were there to name the butterfly and maybe, to give me hints of meaning.
When I was once again back in an internet-saturated culture, I searched on Google for “black butterfly.” I found hundreds of images, most with spattering of other colors, white, green, yellow, red, blue. I found swallowtails, but the butterfly I’d seen was not a swallowtail. Few were like that one, simple, unspectacular, except for its color.
I also found many suggestions of meaning. Black butterflies were treated differently than most others. In many cultures, they are considered ominous portents of death and disaster, but in others, harbingers of life and immortality. Black butterflies are thought by many to be messengers of loved ones who have passed, telling that all is well and encouraging peace and hope. As any butterfly is only recently emerged from a cocoon of a caterpillar bound to crawl on earth, now released to fly in exuberant freedom and so encouraging letting go of great sorrow or hopelessness, being open to surprising opportunities to be freely accepted.
I shake my head at such mysticism, so alien to me, and yet I accept that imagination is a gift of God, a mark of our creation in God’s image, and therefore not useless pastime. Tell me, you who have clues about deep meanings in such experiences, and I will listen and imagine with you. Meanwhile, I wait and wonder and hope.
“Black Butterfly” is a song written and composed four decades ago by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded first by Deniece Williams. It remains popular still in this Black Live Matter era. These are the final stanzas:
Black butterfly, sailed across the waters
Tell your sons and daughters
What the struggle brings
Black butterfly, set the skies on fire
Rise up even higher
So the ageless winds of time can catch your wings
Yeah, yeah, yes