My memory is pretty sketchy, but I do know this: I had childhood friends that collected things. I don’t really remember what they collected; I just recall being more than a little envious that I didn’t have a “thing” when my friends were amassing hordes of, say, angels, or dolphins or Coca-Cola memorabilia. You don’t just pull a “thing” out of thin air (or at least that didn’t seem right to me.) It has to mean something.
And then I went through a profound loss. Several, in fact.
The most earth shattering was the end of my 25-year marriage. I spent years and years trying to salvage things, but eventually I had to admit defeat. Throw in the towel. It felt like the biggest failure of my life, and even though deep down I knew that it wasn’t all up to me, I was bent over with grief and shame. There was fallout from that situation that’s way too long to go in to here, but I can say that it involved profound financial ruin and chronic fear and self doubt. Around the same time, my mother got ovarian cancer. My father got prostate cancer. I started completely over at age 44, financially speaking, which involved re-enrolling in college and switching careers. I carried so much defeat over the fact that I was middle-aged and everything I’d worked for had seemingly gone up in smoke. I was way behind the curve in terms of where I was certain I should be. I felt helpless to lessen the pain of my children, who were reeling as a result of the obliteration of our family. I fractured my ankle twice in four months, and had to wear a freaking boot for more weeks than I can remember. I left the neighborhood I had lived in for 25 years, my beloved neighbors, my longtime home, and ended up moving four times in four years. I was experiencing empty nest. My children were graduating from high school and college. One of my daughters got married. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the church I was attending, which caused me to wrestle with spiritual issues of epic proportions.
And I was pissed.
Was there even ONE area of my life that could remain familiar and constant?
I had psychic whiplash from all of the changes in my life. It was death after death after death… or so it seemed. Life, as I knew it, had died.
On my 45th birthday two of my children and a dear friend came over, and we made margaritas and fajitas. I have no recollection of how the conversation turned to tattoos, but the next thing I knew I was at the tattoo parlor. And even though it's a tired metaphor, I finally knew beyond any doubt what my “thing” was: butterflies. What better symbol of hope for someone who has suffered profound loss? Butterflies tell a story of death and rebirth. Butterflies say, “What I thought was the end was really the beginning.” I couldn’t see even one frame of what my new life was going to look like, but I decided to believe that it would be good, so much so, that I got a butterfly indelibly inked on my ribcage (and one of my girls got the same tattoo in the same place, which will forever be special to me.)
So the rest of the story is for another blog post, but the Cliff Notes version is that I did experience profound renewal, and so far it’s been more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. That doesn’t negate the losses by any means, and for the record I’m still climbing out of that rubble in many ways. Like a butterfly, I’ve emerged from it all––stronger, more colorful, and (here’s the kicker) sometimes I feel like I can fly.
When I was in the cocoon, when I was in the dark and felt smothered by the grief that was wound tightly around me, it was a massive temptation to prematurely cut my way out of the silky envelope that was transforming me. I wanted certainty. I wanted to get on with my life. I wanted to just pick some butterfly colors, paint myself, and — by god if I had to hobble away, I was prepared to do so. I was like the disillusioned teen standing by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Anywhere but here.” I am loath to cite an overused reverse pop-psych quote, but I think it really does apply here: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Of course when you’re standing there, you’re beside yourself with the fear that you’ll never be okay again. But you will. Contrary to all the voices in my head, the only thing I could do was surrender and wait. And though the dust has cleared enough for me to have a little bit of faith in that process, I still wrestle with surrendering and waiting every single day of my life.
Last month, I got the opportunity to take one of our granddaughters to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston. These creatures continue to inspire me in so many ways. If you’re someone who happens to be looking for hope, read up on butterflies. The parallels between your journey and theirs might just blow your mind.
Post Script: Today I was reminded of how very little I thought I contributed to my children’s comfort and healing when our family blew up. And then I thought of the song my oldest daughter, Amy, wrote for me on my 50th birthday — a mere six years later. I was so shocked at how they perceived it vs. how I thought it went down. So I thought I’d share it here. It’s not a great recording… I made her put it down in Garage Band before she left town on my birthday. But if you listen closely you’ll be able to make out the words (headphones help.)