Butterflies in the Sunlight

Before I knew what I was doing, I turned right, into the driveway. Just barely in the gravel drive I halted, surprised by my destination. Several yards up, I had meant to turn left and pick my son up from some old family friends. Instead, autopilot had taken me home. But, it wasn’t home any more. I put the car into reverse, prepared to back out of the driveway, but found myself pulling in the rest of the way. Driven by some subconscious need, I walked, trance-like, along the familiar path and up the worn steps to the front door. I managed to stop myself before I opened the door and walked in. I stood awkwardly on the front porch, wondering what to do next. It had been two tumultuous and painful years since I had set foot in this house. Should I knock? What would I say if someone answered?
“Hi, you don’t know me. Please don’t be alarmed by my sobbing or the wild and scared look on my face. Can I come in?”
It would probably need to be followed by, “Please don’t call the cops.”
How does a place whittle its way into your heart? After Mom and Dad moved, I found myself yearning for this house. I wanted to curl up on the hammock and look up at the old oak tree, listen to the wind whisper through the spruces, smell the juniper, hear the cry of the killdeer and let the constant sound of irrigation sprinklers lull me to sleep. I needed to feel the warm June sun on my back, watch thunder clouds roll in over the fields, dip my toes in the cool irrigation canal, look up to the grey and blue peaks for guidance, and listen to the songs the bullfrogs sing late at night. I craved all of these things with a desperation born of knowing they were no longer mine to have.

I can remember the beginning of the end like it was yesterday. It was late January, I had come home from a night-shift, bone tired, dreaming of sitting in the hot tub and watching the Cascades as the morning sun caressed them. Mom was waiting for me. The day before, she had been changing quickly when I had noticed one of her breasts looked off kilter. She looked in the mirror, smiled and pulled her shirt the rest of the way on.
“Old age does that sweetie. Enjoy yours while they’re still perky.”
Now she looked scared. She grabbed my arm and tugged me into the bathroom.
“Feel,” she said, her lips trembling as she guided my hand to the spot. My hand found a lump, golf ball sized, menacing.

Memories of chasing snakes at the pond with my sister tease me often. Once, on mother’s day, we caught a beautiful snake, slick and oil black, with crimson stripes down his sides and little yellow spots on his back. We wrapped the serpent up for mom as a practical joke and set it on the table with the rest of the gifts. Shoe boxes don’t hold snakes well. Dad found it in the laundry pile the next day.

There is a smell in the clinic—antiseptics, electricity, illness—that stings the nose. We wait, the hum of machinery surrounding us, muffling everything, as if we are wrapped in thick fabric. We cling to each other, afraid of what will happen if we let go. He doesn’t look like a doctor. He looks like he should be at a gym.
“The test result came back positive. You have cancer. The results tell us that your cancer has no estrogen or progesterone receptors. That means it is very aggressive and difficult to treat. I am going to recommend a radical mastectomy, and we need to act quickly.”
They are going to take Mom’s left breast. Fervently, I wish he were a body builder, not a doctor. Then we could laugh away what he said. I feel numb. I feel death.

The sound of the horn blaring blasts in my memory. Remarkably, I can still hear the honk-honk-honking that woke me from my sleep. Then the sound of an engine revving, followed by the cacophony of metal colliding with something stronger than it. Earlier, I had heard mom get up and leave the house and now I was concerned. Dad emerged from his room at the same time that I emerged from mine. Our eyes met and neither of us could make sense of what we had heard. Dad called Mom’s cell phone, and while he waited for the answer I responded to a sudden pounding on the door. A bloody man stood in the doorway.
“There’s a dead mule in the road and I hit it.” His voice was shrill.
I wondered if I was dreaming.
“Am I dead?” He asked with real concern.
This was too weird to be a dream. It must be real.
“You appear to be alive,” I said noncommittally. He smelled of alcohol, alcohol and blood. It is a distinct smell I have become very familiar with in my time spent with the police department. Dad joined me at the door and the guy’s face sunk. At once I knew he must have recognized Dad. It is never good to get drunk, run into a dead mule in the road and then knock on a cop’s door, especially a cop who has arrested you in the past. There is something about this house that is a weirdo magnet. This isn’t the only occasion a drunk has shown up on the doorstep.

We found out later that Mom had heard the neighbor’s mules running loose in the middle of the night and had gone out to help corral them. She had a weird talent for hearing hoof beats in her sleep. She had honked her horn at the man to warn him about the mules in the road, but in his stupor he had gunned his mustang and hit one poor animal so hard that it rolled over the top of his car. The mule had not been dead when he hit it. Mom cried over the mule. Dad cried over the mustang. We laughed over the bizarre story.

At the hospital we wait for Mom to get out of surgery. We are surrounded by cops. They stop in and eat with us. The trunk of the car is filled with lasagnas. I can’t eat lasagna now without smelling the hospital and feeling the anxiety of the unknown. I look around at my family. I wonder how different my life would be if Dad had remained a mechanic. Surely, we would have some very hot cars, but we would not have them. Those uniformed men and women are my life. A female officer who I have known all my life holds my hand. She is my other mom. The doctor appears, and I am certain I am squeezing her hand so hard it will fall off from lack of blood flow. We are told that the surgery went off without a hitch, and that Mom will be awake soon if a few of us want to go to her room. My sister, Dad, and I go.
“Do you still love me,” She asks Dad as we enter the room, “even though I am lopsided?”

There used to be a fire pit in the back yard. Through high school and into college it was the hangout place for my friends. We would bring marshmallows and sleeping bags and lay under the stars, hoping to find ourselves in those deep conversations. Sometimes, Mom would bring out her guitar and sing in her Grace-Slick-like voice and we would listen, mesmerized. Who will get her guitar now, I wonder. Neither my sister nor I have asked for it because we know the other wants it desperately. It remains unplayed.

Mom sits on the couch with my niece and nephew. This is one of the first times they have seen her with no hair. They are trying to be brave, but they are scared for their Nana. Kaylee leans in and kisses Mom’s bald head. Tyler follows suit. Dad snaps a picture. Mom glares at him. Mom thinks she is ugly; she has always believed she is ugly. The truth is that she is beautiful, hair or no hair. I believe it is hard to think you are beautiful when your father kills himself and your mother chases you around the dining table with a butcher knife. She blames herself for not being lovable when she should blame those vile people incapable of love.

One Easter Tyler and Kaylee sat at the table dying Easter eggs. That September, on 9-11, we had watched the destruction of the Twin Towers as we had waited for a vet to come put down our dog, Nicky who lay unmoving, in pain. My friend Nikki deployed to Iraq.
“Where is Nikki?” Tyler asked as he pulled a purple egg from a coffee cup that said ‘To Protect and To Serve—After Donuts.’
Mom and I exchanged a sad glance over their heads.
“Oh honey,” Mom said, “Nicky passed away. Papa buried her under the tree in the back yard.”
Tears shone in his eyes, “Nikki, Kelsey’s friend Nikki?” We still tease Nikki and tell her that, if she doesn’t behave, she will be buried in the back yard.

Mom is cancer free. We are eating dinner with family to celebrate. The table is loaded with so much food that the weight of it threatens to break through the floor and send the table careening under the house. There is beef stroganoff, pecan pie, pasta salad, Seahawk bread with crumbled smoked salmon, jars of olives and pickles, twice-baked potatoes, spaghetti olio, and chocolate-peanut-butter pie. Dad is mouthing off to Mom and she threatens to take her fake boob out and throw it at him. Katie snorts soda. Our stomachs hurt from laughing. The night is a lie. Two months later we find out that Mom had cancer all along, the radiologists caught it, but the doctor did not.

Mom and I were lying in the hammock, soaking up the warm spring sun. Clouds floated over us in a steady stream, translucent, stunning. The future was as bright as that sunny day, clear and optimistic.
“I want a lot of grandchildren,” Her voice was a soothing melody. “You owe me for all the pain suffering you put me through.” She couldn’t keep the laughter from seeping in.
“Eight of them, I think,” I said. Dad has seven brothers and sisters. Grandma’s tiny house is crammed with love and tender moments, interrupted only by the Stone family’s complete lack of grace and decorum.
“That might be pushing it.” The idea of eight miniature me’s terrified her. “That is a lot of being pregnant.”
“I’ll have them in batches.”

We have just returned from a shopping trip. Our arms are loaded with brightly colored bags laden with treasures. The door is too far away so we collapse on the deck amidst blinding pinks, greens and blues; swallowed by a sea of tissue paper and sacks. Mom grins and sets out “to-go” containers holding faire from our favorite Italian restaurant: grilled artichokes, crab legs, seafood fettuccini, garlic bread and salad. In silence we feast, savoring each bite like inmates relishing a last meal. Gorged, we look about us at the mess of materialism.
Mom erupts in sobs, “why did I buy all of these clothes? I’m dying.” We are torn between laughter and tears, unsure if we should laugh at the absurdity or cry at the tragedy.

The house is empty. We will enjoy its solace no more. Mom and Dad have moved over the Cascades, into an old Victorian farm house in the middle of moss covered oaks and hemlocks. It isn’t home. They are grasping desperately at their dreams in the face of cancer. I drive by home often now, wondering who lives there, what they are doing with the yard, if they are taking care of Mom’s flowers.

At three years old, thirty acres seems bigger than the world. I ran with my sister and brothers, exploring vast fields, splashing in streams, and chasing frogs. The sun was different. Chunks of golden warmth caressed our bare arms. A sticky amber frog sat in my hand. It was the first I ever held and I was fascinated. Grass scratched at exposed legs. The wind teased hair into knots. This was home.

They put Mom in the ground today. The pastor relates to us a dream she had about Mom. In the dream, Mom is a butterfly, emerald and sapphire on the wings, elegant and graceful and flying freely, dancing in the sunlight. Our family gathers close as we say goodbye, the warmth of their support blocks out the bitter wind. A butterfly lands on her casket. Golden rays touch us tenderly and sparkle like glitter on the butterfly.

Desperation has brought me to this doorstep, where I stand awkwardly, sobbing, unsure what to do. Turning away, movement catches my eye. I watch a butterfly dance from one blossom to another. A spring breeze twirls around me. The sprinklers sing to me and the scent of Juniper eases me. I can hear the whistle of the wind through the spruces and feel the caress of sunlight. I say goodbye and return to the car, savoring one last look at the house that guards my memories.