Life With The Butterfly Whisperer

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo property of Sara.
                                                    Photo property of  Sara.
I entered Whispering Oaks and found the large French doors of the day room flung wide open. I walked through them towards the verandah and saw Pop sitting outdoors amongst some zinnias surrounded by a rabble of butterflies.

He was slumped over in his wheelchair, his limp left arm tied to the chair’s railing. He looked up and waved with his good hand.

“Sara!” he called with delight. My breath caught in my throat, and I choked back the tears. I closed my eyes, feeling the pull of my childhood memories urging me to leave.

You can’t turn back; he needs to see you, reminded the voice inside my head.

But I can’t bear seeing him like this. It’s hard.

Yes, it’s hard, but he needs to see you. You must be brave. Don’t turn back.
I opened my eyes; sunlight filtered through the large oak trees casting a warm honeyed tone along the footpath in front of me.
Remember, continued the voice, don’t let him see you sad. He needs your strength. I squared my shoulders and meandered my way along the footpath toward Pop, my legs unsteady beneath me.

I sat down next to Pop, laying our lunch on the picnic table in front of him. “Ta…ta…table for two.” He flashed me an impish grin. “Re…re…remember?”
I sure do!” I leaned toward him giving him a kiss and hug. “Summer afternoons, we’d sit together at the picnic table in our backyard, eating burgers, and drinking chocolate milkshakes while we watched the butterflies dance around Mother’s zinnias.”

Ya…ya…yes.” He nibbled on his burger and sucked on the straw, taking short drinks of his chocolate milkshake.

“La…la…love you!”

Love you, too, Pop.” I squeezed his right hand before taking a drink of my own milkshake. Minutes passed by, and a little blue butterfly landed by my side. Then a big yellow butterfly gently floated over Pop and landed on his shoulder. Soon a kaleidoscope of them floated around him. I watched in awe, remembering when butterflies swarmed around him in our backyard. For most of my youth, I truly believed Pop possessed some type of magical ability that attracted butterflies. Later, I convinced myself he didn’t possess magical butterfly powers believing instead that Pop made them feel welcome and safe. Regardless, the butterflies gravitated toward him like iron shavings to a magnet. There was no denying it; he was then and was still the butterfly whisperer.
Time passed imperceptibly as we ate our burgers and watched the butterflies flutter from flower to flower. Occasionally, one landed on the stem of a flower that had already passed its peak, its petals blackened at the edges and curling. It folded its wings neatly upward and partook of the flower’s nectar, seemingly unaware that summer would quickly become fall; that the leaves would soon tumble; and that the nights would close in, chilly and long. But the butterflies and flowers continued dancing together as one, living in the moment without a single thought about the future or the past.
I, however, drifted back to those summer days when I found myself in Pop’s company. On one such day, I was sitting at our picnic table crying over the fates of the butterflies.

What’s wrong, Sweetie Pie?”

The…the butterfly. It’s…it’s dead.” My lips quivered around the words as I pointed to a dead butterfly lying on the ground. “I thought they lived forever!”

Nothing on this earth lasts forever,” he reassured me. “Every creature has enough time, including butterflies. Don’t be sad for the butterflies; they live a fulfilled life bringing beauty into the world.” He went inside the house; made us chocolate milkshakes; and returned to the picnic table where we drank in silence, relishing the butterflies flittering around Mother’s zinnias.

 On another summer day, Pop drove me to a wooded area to teach me how to capture butterflies. “Once you spot a butterfly, approach it slowly so as not to startle it.” He handed me a butterfly net, demonstrating how to sweep the net forward, flip it over the handle, and flatten the net bag so the butterfly’s wings closed. “Then using your other thumb and forefinger, reach into the net and gently grasp all four wings and remove the butterfly.”

I walked through the woods looking for butterflies until I witnessed one land amongst a patch of milkweed. I softly approached it and followed Pop’s instructions, capturing one in my butterfly net. “Look, Pop! I caught one!” I reached inside the net, carefully removing the butterfly.”

Whisper a wish and let it go.”
Let it go? Why?”

According to Indian folklore if you want a wish to come true, you must capture a butterfly and whisper your wish to it. Since the butterfly makes no sound, it cannot tell your wish to anyone but the Great Spirit who hears and sees all. As thanks for giving the butterfly its freedom, the Great Spirit always grants the wish.” Pop winked and smiled. “Whisper your wish and let the butterfly go.”
Pop squeezed my hand, jolting me back to the present. “La…la…love you.”
Love you too, Pop!” I kissed him on the cheek. “Look, Pop!” I pretended to capture a butterfly. “I caught one!”

Wh…Wh…Whisper.” His eyes sparkled, vibrant as ever; but when he tried to wink, he couldn’t. “Make wa…wa…wish.”

Watching Pop try to wink or talk was more than my heart could handle; so I closed my eyes and whispered, “Oh Great Spirit, erase the stroke; make my father whole again.” But no amount of wishing would ever make my father whole again.

I…I…had beautiful life.” Pop clasped my hand. “I…I…had enough time. I be free soon. I…I…ready to go.” A single tear dropped from his eye. “Uh…uh…understand?”
Yes, I understand.” Although I understood, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. Like the butterflies I’d loved as a child, I knew he’d be gone soon—sooner than I wanted.
Throughout the remainder of summer, Pop and I watched butterflies outside the verandah. But I couldn’t keep summer with us forever, nor could I halt the changing season. The flowers on the verandah withered; the leaves tumbled and rustled about; and the nights eventually closed in, chilly and long. One-by-one the butterflies vacated the flowers on the verandah and began their migration southward. Pop, too, vacated the verandah and began his own migration of sorts. In that moment of loss, my world collapsed, and my heart broke into a thousand pieces.

Years have come and gone since Pop’s passing. Although the pain of losing him has diminished, I miss him terribly. I close my eyes and imagine capturing butterflies with him or sitting with him at our picnic table, sharing a milkshake, and watching the butterflies flitter around Mother’s zinnias. That picnic table now sits in my own backyard. During the warm summer months, I frequent it indulging in a milkshake and watching the butterflies dance around the zinnias. Although they don’t gravitate toward me like they did Pop, a single butterfly occasionally lands next to me. I’m comforted, knowing Pop’s spirit is with me once again sharing dinner and whispering to me from the great beyond.

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