Does this scene sound at all familiar to you? 

My pretty yellow bedroom, in my family’s ranch house on Long Island, with its poster of teenage wisdom boldly on display: “Happiness is like a butterfly.  The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.  But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder”—by L. Richard Lessor.

Yes, the poster was trite.  Of course.  At fourteen, I felt oddly comforted by simple truisms.  After all, which one of us can decide to feel happy, sit down for a nice long while and just bask in it unfettered?  Oh sure, there are days like that, if we are lucky.  Joy DOES flit, does it not?  I think of those moments as the bits that make up life’s collage: a random smile here, warm eyes there, a small flower, a vast blue sky, a thrill at a movie, a wagging doggy tail, a hug, a kiss on my hair, the flight of passion…

Mixed into the collage are the big joys, too: the full days, weeks, maybe months, occasionally years, of life’s glittering and soothing kaleidoscope.  The miracle of love.  The exuberance of health.  A fragrant Sunday dinner at home.  And so on.

The butterfly poster was warning me of something else, though.  As part of an eccentric but healthy, intact and loving family, I was one of the lucky ones; a child who gets to be a child when it’s time to do that.  A child whose biggest concern is which sister she likes best and how to be popular at school and get fairly good grades.  But the poster—that lovely, elusive, mysterious butterfly—whispered larger, more hidden truisms for any kid also fortunate enough to grow older and experience the world.  LOSS, TOO, DOES COME, AND GO.  IT WILL NOT STAY STILL.

Fast forward a few decades and states and losses away, and I’m a social worker and teacher listening to a speaker from Hospice explain the stages of grief.  “Grief is unpredictable,” the speaker said.  “The stages of grief are not linear.  They don’t look the same for different people.  They don’t have an expiration date.  They don’t come when you expect them to.  They don’t FEEL normal.  You may feel like you’re ‘going crazy.’ But grief is normal and very individualized.”

Mmm.   So grief flits and flies and lands and escapes? 

Yes.  Although, to tell the truth, this month—on the first anniversary of my father’s death—the pain and emptiness and sadness feel more like kamikaze planes flying at me and my family than a lovely butterfly.

Still, I think the metaphor holds.  The adult me finds comforting wisdom in these simple observations.  I am fine.  I am working.  I accept life on its terms.  I’m grateful for the blessings I’ve got.  And then I’m not…fine…working…accepting…grateful.  I’m crying—why in the car, driving on the freeway?  Why in the shower?  (And why does shower-crying seem to be cyclical?)  Why the revisiting of grief now, and not now, on my parents’ 67the wedding anniversary?  How can I lean back in my chair and laugh at silly mealtime banter?  Laugh so hard at the cat playing “fetch” with his green ribbon when my heart has a serious hole in it? 

How can I not?  My father, of all people, understood laughter, whether nervous, strained or real.  He lived for many years (though never, never long enough to us!) and possessed the wisdom to understand my butterfly poster better than I ever could.  My father, a World War II veteran and scholar, also told me about kamikaze pilots. 

The metaphor is mine, though, not his.  In this one very painful year I have learned that Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance (to keep it simple)--elude me if I chase them, if I try to pin them down.  But when I’m not looking, grief in one of its incarnations alights upon me and tattoos its whispery mark upon my skin.

The Hospice speaker was right.  And so I don’t judge my own grief or anyone else’s.  This is part of our humanity.  Emotions are not a solid thing to put in a box or on a shelf or in the ground or on our sleeve.  They change and shift and surprise and fill and empty. 

Like sand moving and shifting and blowing across ever-changing dunes.  Another metaphor.  I’m chock full of them today, a day when my son has the flu.

Because his fever went down this morning—and that wondrous butterfly of joy alighted upon me.  Yay!

I’m grateful.  

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My sister Irene's site

This is my sister's recently opened site, filled to the brim with music and art.  Her song, "Love Again" will be featured on the audio version of TWICE BEGUN (coming soon).