Our youngest son has always been a sensitive soul, a consummate animal lover and defender of all living things.
One summer day when he was about eight, some friends joined us for a Sunday afternoon at the water’s edge in front of our home in the Ozarks.
Their son was the same age as ours, but as different from Zack as night and day.
A black swallowtail butterfly was flitting about on the wet stones that lined the shore—no doubt gathering moisture, as butterflies do, from organic matter tucked here and there near the waterline.
The butterfly continued to make its way along the shore, erratically lifting and dropping in the still air—one moment resting for a few seconds, then another, for a minute or longer.
It was during one of these longer respites that the other boy picked up a stone and cast it at the swallowtail.
His motivation was unknown to Zack, but soon—unbeknownst to me—they were both laughing and tossing stones at the butterfly. I shall be generous and hope that the boy initiated this in what he thought to be a harmless game of urging the butterfly to fly up and away.
Unfortunately, it was one of Zack’s stones that hit the swallowtail and tore its wing. It was unable to move and stood there, helpless and destined to spend its last moments on that shore.
The other boy quickly went on to other diversions, but Zack came running to me instantly to tell me what he had done. I could tell that he was despairing for the broken butterfly.
I followed him back to see the swallowtail and told him the truth.
Yes, this butterfly was permanently injured. He would not be able to fly away, although many butterflies can still fly with broken wings.
No, there was nothing I could do to help it.
However—these butterflies live just two to four weeks.
With my arm around his shoulder, I assured Zack that this butterfly’s life cycle would have been ending soon, regardless of the accident with the cast stone. I didn’t complicate matters with any unnecessary lifespan ratios. This was a time for sensitivity and feelings, not pure science.
Accidents happen, I assured him. I knew that he didn’t intend any harm to the swallowtail, although we both would feel badly for a time.
I hoped Zack’s pain would soon be gone, but I knew better. I thanked him for coming to me with his guilt so that I could share the burden with him.
Now, fifty-something years later, I still can feel the anguish of that day.
Sometimes, I too feel like the broken butterfly. I want to sit on a stone and not get up.
But then something inspires me—usually an idea for a written piece—and I go for a walk to write a story in my mind.
I then return refreshed and ready to face another day. I open my laptop, turn the flame on under the teakettle or just sit in the shade to ponder my own life cycle.
We shall all be broken butterflies someday.
Will death come swiftly or slowly? Will we leave this earth unceremoniously while we’re sleeping? Or will we face transition to our next destination with eyes wide open?
There’s no telling when it will occur. There’s no need to be afraid.
All we can do is continue to flit from stone to stone and hope that we are living our best life—the pure and joyous life that we were intended to live.