The Red-Spotted Admiral

"Red Spotted Purple" by Saxophlute at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Red Spotted Purple” by Saxophlute at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When one sees a Red-Spotted Admiral butterfly (Limenitis arthemis Astyanax) up close, it is not the red spots that draw attention. It is rather the blue, a brilliant royal. So deep, it gives the butterfly its other common name: the Red-Spotted Purple. At least, that’s what I noticed.

Six years ago, I hadn’t noticed Limenitis arthemis Astyanax at all. Then one landed on my arm.

I was sitting in my back yard at the time. It was a warm, mid-spring day. I was still acclimating to the new house we’d moved into about three weeks prior. I was still acclimating to the new city we’d moved to about 20 weeks prior. I was acclimating to the idea of being a father, my wife having given birth to twins about five weeks prior. But mostly, I was still acclimating to reality of living my life without my son, who had unexpectedly died about three days prior.

I was alone, and I was feeling sorry for myself. My wife, as would become standard for her, was at the hospital, keeping watch over our daughter, who would spend another six weeks in the NICU before coming home. This was her response to grief: she would wake up in the morning and go to the hospital for morning rounds. She would sit by our daughter’s incubation crib for 16 or more hours, occasionally holding her, nursing her, or changing her. But mostly just watching her breathe.

My response was quite different. Apart from a few visits a day, I would avoid the NICU. In much the same manner as a person would avoid a street where he had been in an accident, or a neighborhood where he had been mugged. The mere act of walking through the doors turned my stomach. My desire to see and hold my daughter was in a constant battle with my desire to avoid the place where I watched my son die, and my desire for avoidance frequently won the battle. I would later learn this avoidance was my mechanism for coping with post-traumatic stress.

And so I sat there, not by my daughter’s crib. But in the back yard, staring at nothing. And a butterfly, a Red-Spotted Admiral, Limenitis arthemis Astyanax, lit upon my left arm. It crawled forward a bit and settled in a spot for five, perhaps 10 seconds, moving its wings slowly up and down. And then it flew off.

I don’t much believe in signs from above, or beyond. I believe God, who or whatever he is, created humans with free will. We can choose to believe or not believe, just as we can choose to be kind and decent to each other or to not. Whatever our choices, they need not rely on signs from him. And so, no, I don’t believe this butterfly was sent by God, or inhabited by the spirit of my son to let me know that things would be okay. It was just a butterfly. And yet…

And yet.

I guess we all emerge from our cocoons eventually.

I notice Limenitis arthemis Astyanax now. I notice it, and wonder how I never noticed such a beautiful creature before. I notice it, and I think of a time when I felt as low as I’ve ever felt in my life, and an insect lifted my spirits. I notice it, and I remember the power of tiny, almost insignificant things to enter our lives and impact them in a significant way.

An open letter to my daughter, on the occasion of her fifth birthday

Dear Nora,

It’s incredible how swiftly five years can pass. There are times it seems it was only moments ago that I first saw you, first held you. And then, it also seems like a lifetime ago that I would spend entire nights on the couch with you, because you wouldn’t sleep in your crib. It’s been eons since your first steps and your first words. You are scarcely the same person anymore.

You have made me proud every day for the last five years. You were born facing a whole slew of obstacles: a 28-week preemie, you spent 78 days in the NICU. Nearly every one of those 78 days, you impressed the doctors and nurses with your strength. You reached milestone after milestone before you were supposed to. You didn’t stop impressing us after coming home, either.

You are smart, curious, kind, loving, sensitive, and empathetic. You are also goofy, imaginative, playful, and adventurous. And ticklish. Sweet, merciful heavens, are you ever ticklish.

From barely two pounds...

From barely two pounds…

Five years ago tonight, there was a full moon. I remember staring at it from your mother’s hospital room, pondering the enormity of what had just happened, what lay before me. Mom and I had just returned to her room from the NICU, where we got to finally see you after several hours. I watched as the nurses changed the masks you wore to protect your eyes from the UV lights that shone in your incubation cribs. I saw your face for the first time, and it was instantly familiar, and even now I can’t explain or understand how that’s possible, but it was.

You've come a long way, baby.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

So after too short of a stay, your Mom and I returned up one floor to her room, and I stared out that window and simply thought about everything in my life and how it would never be the same again. I knew, sitting there, that I could never hope to know the exact ways my life would change, but I knew it would change because of the two of you.

The two of you. You and Ben. I’m so glad you know about Ben, and so heartbroken that your twin is in Heaven and not here with you. Because Ben died, you know and understand more about the sad parts of life, about death, than a five year old needs to know. Yet you even manage to take that sad knowledge and make it into something beautiful. You always remember to include Ben when we talk about the members of our family. You always want to visit the park when we go to church, and play by Ben’s tree and sing a song for him. And then sometimes you do cry because, even though you know him only from pictures and stories, he’s still your brother and he’s not here. And you know you won’t ever see him for a long long time, and that is something to be sad about. And there is nothing in those moments I wouldn’t do to make you happy, but there’s nothing I can do, either. So I just try to reassure you that it’s okay to be sad sometimes. But the truth is, in those moments, you’re the one who’s reassuring me.

I am a better person today than I was five years and a day ago. That is largely because of you. Thank you for being my daughter.

Love,

Dad