A therapist once told me: everybody in a family knows everything about everyone. Eventually this would come to feel like a liberating truth, but at the time, I did not want to hear it. My marriage was unravelling, and I was desperate to believe that I could shield my three young children from this painful truth.
Soon I came to see that this was wishful thinking. On an unseasonably warm day on the verge of autumn, I sat at the desk in my study, working on the computer, facing the wall. My youngest child, who was not yet two, played in the sunshine just outside the door. Will was naked except for his diaper, his yellow hair still mashed up on one side from his nap. He stepped through the doorway, and toddled up to my chair from behind.
“Look, Mommy," he said. and I spun around. He stood in the long side-light of the afternoon, every eyelash illuminated. His tiny hands were cupped around something.
“A butterfly,” he whispered, cracking his hands open slowly to show me. He smiled with pride at the magic of this gift. Will knew I loved butterflies; I was always pointing them out.
I leaned down to see, bringing my forehead close to his, inhaling his sun-warmed scent. I was worried that he might crumple its wings, but when his hands opened flat, I saw that the butterfly was already dead. He lifted his serious brown eyes to mine, found my gaze, and held it.
“Make it fly,” he said.
I moved the butterfly gently from his hands to mine. We walked outside to the tall, purple-blossomed buddleia, a shrub I’d planted years ago, specifically to attract and feed the monarchs. Something about their story has always stirred me-- how they migrate from Mexico to Canada and back by instinct, and how their journey takes three generations to complete. Like me, the monarch is a creature trying to finding her way home.
Will and I stood barefoot together on the warm bluestone, cicadas buzzing, pine sap fragrant in the afternoon heat. Several of the butterflies had landed on the long purple panicles, and others were coasting in the thermals of warm air. I pretended to toss the dead monarch into the sky, and pointed quickly to another flying nearby.
“Look, Will, there it goes.”
Content with his rescue, Will began to fill a bucket with water from the hose. I turned and tucked the dead butterfly into the cuff of my white sleeve. My throat constricted and I felt the prick of tears at my eyes. My son had handed me the metaphor, and I could no longer pretend not to see.