Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Moments of grief (part 1)

I have never lost a father before. It is very much a learn-as-you go sort of thing. And I am so very grateful that it is an experience I will have only once in my life. It is simultaneously both beautiful and horrific, concurrently bringing one to both mystical heights and terrifying depths.

I have labeled this reflection "part 1", assuming that there will be more parts, as one cannot hope to escape even the cleanest and least complicated of losses in only a chapter or two. There are many layers to loss and certainly not all of them can or should be shared here. But I will share more than one reflection, I suspect, because I feel them lining up inside of me, waiting to be spoken.

For those who are kind enough to worry about my well-being, please know that I am fine. All of this is part of God's loving plan and it would be absurd for me to consider myself a Christian and expect a suffering-free life for myself. I go where He goes - and He has entered the realm death out of love for us.

And so I enter it too - this time as one bearing the pain of loss. Later, I will enter it on my own, when my Creator withdraws my spirit from my body and takes me back to Himself.

For today, I will begin with a simple story. But, before I begin, I will give a little background.

I have written a number of times about my love of butterflies and have posted a number of butterfly images I have received. However, I am not sure that I have ever shared that it was my father who first interested me in these beautiful little creatures.

When I was a child, unlike many little girls, I loved bugs. I made friends with the ants, picking them up and giving them names. My brother and I would capture in jars the different types of bees in the local gardens so that we could safely get a closer look. Mosquitoes, of course, got swatted, but grasshoppers, crickets, fireflies and all the rest were objects of fascination.

Butterflies, however, were most special. I'm sure I was attracted to them because of their beauty. How could I not be? But I was also aware from an early age that my father liked butterflies and had collected them as a child. So, of course, I had my little butterfly net and he taught me and took me on short excursions to find different species. It was something that he and I shared.

As I got a bit older, I could no longer bear to collect them, having developed a conscience that would not accept the purposeful ending of their short lives just so that I could hold onto their beauty. But they remained special to me and I drank in their loveliness at every opportunity.

It should come as no surprise then that, when I began receiving images with my camera a few years ago, my lens was drawn to butterflies. Here I discovered a way to receive and share their beauty without taking a second away from their brief lifespans.

Almost 3 years ago, I was blessed with one of the most beautiful images ever: that of a tiger swallowtail butterfly, resting lazily on a blossom in the evening light. (Click here to read the original post that accompanied the image I have reprinted below.)

Shortly after receiving the image, I had it made into a greeting card that I sent to my parents. Both of my parents enjoyed the card but I sensed my father's pride. It is not every day that one gets to see a tiger swallowtail, much less receive such a beautiful image of one.

Now, at last, to the story. 

I arrived in Minneapolis the day after my father died. He and my mother, being advanced in age and ever the good planners, had pre-planned and prepaid everything for a simple return of the body to the dust from which it came. Hence, when I arrived, my father's body had already been sent for cremation. All that remained was his empty wheelchair in their apartment and some blood stained pillow cases that had held his head as he lay dying. 

It had been a long trip and it was good to see my mother and my brother soon arrived early in the evening. The weather was fair and my mother wanted to go outside to see the lilac bushes in the facility's fenced-in patio. The lilacs had bloomed late and poorly because of the harsh winter just past, much as was the case here in Cleveland. 

As we stepped out onto the small patio, I noted a black and yellow fluttering near the top of one of the scantly bloomed bushes. Could it be? I focused more closely. "There's a tiger swallowtail!" I said aloud in awe, although the observation was of little interest to anyone but me. 

This glimpse seemed almost too much to have hoped for. The last couple of years have been very poor years for butterflies, given the impact of climate extremes and pesticides on feeding foliage. I had seen very few of even the most ordinary butterflies this year - but a tiger swallowtail? Then, even more remarkably, the butterfly sailed gracefully down to the other cluster of lilac bushes, alighting on the sparse blossoms so that it was right at my eye level. 

I excused myself as my mother and brother were sitting down, announcing that I needed to go over and talk to the butterfly. It was indeed a tiger swallowtail - a bit smaller in size than the one above but with seemingly perfect wings that showed no wear. It looked as though it must have been almost fresh out of the chrysalis.

I gazed at it and spoke softly to it in butterfly-talk, returning then to join my family.

I have always thought it mawkishly sentimental when reading stories of people who believed that a recently deceased loved one had come to comfort them in the guise of some creature or object. And I hasten to add that I know that this was but a butterfly - not some embodiment of my father trying to make known his presence at the gathering of his family.

And yet...it wasn't just any butterfly nor was it a common butterfly. And it didn't just come and flit about quickly as butterflies often do, especially when blossoms are nearly withered and drained of their nectar. It came and waited, almost as though it wanted to talk to me as much as I wanted to talk to it. Not in words but in spirit.

I must stop and consider - why have I been so arrogant as to label others as maudlin when, in their bereavement, perhaps they were allowed to see something that the rest of us cannot see? Perhaps it is at those times in life, where the boundaries between life and death, heaven and earth, are especially "thin" that we are able to understand more deeply the Spirit that pervades all living things.

Our modern scientific minds scoff at things at such notions. Merely a coincidence, they say. You stepped outside and saw a butterfly taking nectar from a blossoming bush. It was a butterfly doing what butterflies do. It is what is it and nothing more.

Or is it? 

I do not claim to know. I wasn't looking for anything or expecting anything and yet a gift was given to me. 

It was but one representation of that "abundance of grace" that wrapped itself around my heart and sustained me in joy as I entered the realm of death. 

The sadness is here. I cannot (and would not) try to escape it. But I am grateful for moments like this one, etched into my spirit by the Spirit that guides all things living. 

To Him be glory.