Last Tuesday, I woke up and discovered via facebook that one of my former students had passed away the evening before in a car accident. The death of anyone is obviously upsetting, but the death of a high school student, just two months after graduation, is just unfair. Especially a young lady like Zelena. Zelena just had a zest for life. All morning I was flooded with memories of her because, quite simply, she was incredibly memorable. You couldn’t have a single interaction with her that wasn’t fun, silly, sassy, or wild. She was always smiling, always laughing, and always speaking what was on her mind. She was barely over four feet tall, but packed an enormous personality. I had just seen her the night before at the grocery store where she worked. I sat on the couch in disbelief. All I could imagine was the cliché image of a candle being snuffed out. It felt that abrupt.
Dylan and I had planned a day at my parent’s so I pulled myself together as best I could, loaded up the car, and hoped that the trip would be a distraction. As we walked out to the car, Dylan stopped in the driveway and crouched down, “Mom, look a butterfly!” he exclaimed. I looked and a somewhat smushed butterfly was, in fact, in the driveway. “Mom, that butterfly is so beautiful,” Dylan added. And it was. It had vibrant blue spots and its wings were spread out as if it would take flight any minute. Dylan is really in love with the word beautiful lately. In fact, our last trip to the mall was filled with him exclaiming, “Momma, this shirt is so beautiful” at every other clearance rack I drug him to. So I paused only briefly to reply, “Yup, that’s a beautiful butterfly alright,” before adding, “let’s go.”
But he didn’t move. Instead he stood up, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Mom, why that beautiful butterfly have to die?” I’m not kidding. Those where his exact words. All I could picture was Zelena and I said to him, “I don’t know. Good question though.” And I looked down at the butterfly myself. Dylan stood, still waiting for a real answer so I said, “Maybe someone accidently stepped on him or the car accidently smushed him.” Then I held back some tears, scooped Dylan up, and buckled him in the car.
Just a few minutes down the road Dylan said, “I’m sad that that beautiful butterfly died.” I replied (speaking in full-on extended metaphor), “I know sweetie. Even when it’s an accident it’s still sad when butterflies die.”
We ride in silence and, again, I think of Zelena. I can’t picture her without imaging her smile. I can’t remember an interaction when she wasn’t laughing. Dylan interupts my thoughts and says, “Mom, maybe that beautiful butterfly go home?” I struggle to not swerve off the road as I turn and look back at him. He is sitting in his carseat staring straight at me with those big brown eyes.
Now I consider myself spiritual, but not necessarily religious. I certainly believe that there is more to this world than I can understand and appreciate, but I don’t follow a lot of religious doctrine. I don’t image God in a personified form, more as an essence. I certainly think things sometimes do happen for a reason and I do believe in karma, but I don’t generally believe in a humanistic God sitting in the clouds sending us personalized messages. So I say to Dylan, “What do you mean? Where is the butterfly’s home?” and he answers with some indescernable toddler-speak, but finishes with the statement “and when he’s home he’s so happy.”
I have no idea what I said in response. I can’t remember. I was crying and trying to keep it together so that I could answer something like “yes, I think you’re right.” I certainly can’t explain this conversation, but it was so touching that I had to write it down to make sense of it and to reflect on it.
Two days later I went to the funeral home and cried with Zelena’s friends and family. I spent the week replaying memories in my head and hugging my son whenever I could. I spent a little bit of time asking why and trying to deny the reality of the situation, but mostly I tried to find comfort in the phrase “when he’s home, he’s so happy.”