“It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.” ~Meghan O'Rourke
Butterflies are everywhere at the hospice care center where my mother died. They adorn the walls in hanging sculpture, and are tucked away in planters and wind chimes throughout the gardens surrounding the building. According to hospice literature, butterflies symbolize the transformation from one life to the next. And although this particular hospice is run by the Catholic Church, they do not overtly push the idea of Christian resurrection, only offer the belief that life continues after death in some other form.
The symbolism behind the butterfly is just as appropriate for those left behind as it is for the person who has died. My mother has moved beyond her earthly being and mortal body. Her spirit lives and reigns in the universe and in the love and lessons she left behind with me and everyone who cared for her.
But as her life has fundamentally changed, so has mine. I have been expecting that I would emerge from the cocoon of grief, remade, reborn into something else. But who? A wiser, stronger woman with a warm patina of knowing sadness? A more loving wife and mother who has taken up all the best qualities of the mother she held so dear?
Meghan O’Rourke writes that we don’t emerge from the cocoon of grief, but instead grow through the obstruction, pushing and straining our way through the concrete surface to emerge, sore and blinking, in the light of a new day.
The past couple of weeks have been rough for me, though you wouldn’t have known it unless you looked very closely. Only then you might have noticed that I hadn’t washed my hair in four days. Or put on even the minimal amount of makeup I usually wear. That I’d been wearing the same clothes around the house for the past two weeks. If you looked even closer, you’d notice more puffiness than usual around my eyes, and a peculiar dullness in my expression.
One night last week when things were particularly bad, I got into the car and drove to my mother’s house. I sobbed all the way there, sobbed as I stumbled into the dark house from the garage, walked the familiar steps from the family room into the living room and snatched her blanket off the couch. Dragging it Linus-like behind me, I went back to the car, crawled into the back seat and wrapped it around me. I lay in that dark garage for almost an hour, sobbing and lost in the deepest despair I have ever known, wishing I could simply fall asleep and not wake up. Wishing I could be transformed to wherever my mother might be.
But I didn’t fall asleep and I didn’t go anywhere. I kept breathing, kept feeling the pain and sadness. Eventually, the sobs slowed down, my aching heart lessened its throbbing. I imagined my mother opening the garage door and seeing me there, imagined how horrible she would feel to know how I suffered.
I sat up, turned off the ignition, and resigned myself to my fate.
THIS is my new life, I realized. Like it or not.
I emerged from that car, shaken, scared, exhausted. I took a bottle of water from the refrigerator and sat on the back porch for a long time in the deepening dusk, rocking in my mom’s favorite chair, knowing how many times she must have sat there alone on summer evenings. Knowing that on many of those occasions she faced demons and despair of her own.
My mother emulated the butterfly many times in her earthly life. When things around her got ugly, she quietly mustered her strength and carried on. There were scars and cracks in her foundation I never knew about until very recent years when she began to confide them. And though she always feared change, she ultimately accepted every one that came to her with gentility and grace.
I went home that night and took a long, hot bath, then crawled into bed and slept soundly and dreamlessly. I awoke to bright sunshine, and a symphony of happy birdsong. I admired the growth spurts occurring in my newly planted garden, smiled at the hummingbird peeking in the window as she hovered around the feeder. Coffee cup in hand, I sat on the deck, enjoying the breeze cooling my face and rustling my hair. A bright orange butterfly sniffed at the petunias, blinked her wings for a fraction of a moment, and lifted off into the sky.
The quality of grief has changed since that night. Instead of a sharp, persistent pain, it’s more like an old injury I’m learning to accommodate, an injury I suffered as I navigate the treacherous territory in this “tangle of change.” Instead of a terrifying sense of vulnerability, I can sense some small green spikes of new growth beginning to appear in the concrete wall of sadness.
I’m not naive enough to think the transformation is complete. But at this moment I am more secure about my ability to continue growing, despite the deep fissure of loss that runs through life as I once knew it. I’m beginning to think about what this new life of mine will look like, and not just what I can DO with it, but how I can make it meaningful.
This week the wider world was beset by needless violence born of intolerance and anger. My loss feels small in comparison. But if we are human, we feel one another’s pain. In sharing our vulnerability, we learn compassion. We nurture empathy. These are true transformative qualities that bring solace to the suffering and allow new growth to begin in the hearts of those left behind.