My mom and I strolled past the public library, meandered through the crowds, climbed up stairs, and finally sat down on the tiered seats at the Waterloo RiverLoop Amphitheater, overlooking the Cedar River. I was grateful a dear friend arrived early and saved seats for us in the sweltering heat. We were there on a hot summer day – along with several hundred other people – to attend Cedar Valley Hospice’s fifth annual fundraising event, Release & Remember.
I found my way to the free water bottles. A nurse smiled, handed me a bottle of water, and apologized for it being a bit warm. I didn’t care. A river of sweat flowed between my boobs and my butt crack. Based on the number of people I saw wiping their brows, I knew I wasn’t the only one who was hot. I needed to stay hydrated.
We hadn’t come for the kids’ activities, the face painting, the band, or the food.
We were there to celebrate loved ones who had passed away.
We were there for the short program followed by the release of 1,000 monarch butterflies.
When it was time for my dad to fly away, he did so gracefully and quietly late one April evening. He had only been in hospice care less than 48 hours.
Just like that, he was gone.
I’m thankful hospice nurses were there with my mom that evening after family and friends had gone home. I’m grateful they were able to keep my dad comfortable until the end. As far as I'm concerned, they're angels on earth.
Our family donated to this fundraiser so a butterfly would be dedicated and released in my dad’s memory. His name would also appear on a banner along with others who were being honored or memorialized.
I thought the event might be beautiful and painful and freeing and emotional. I thought I might feel happy and sad.
I was right.
A woman read a poem about grief and support. We observed a moment of silence for all of the people in the amphitheater who were gathered together and all of those who weren’t able to be with us.
Then 1,000 monarch butterflies were released into the big blue sky.
One landed on a little boy who sat in front of us. “There’s a butterfly on your head,” I told him. He looked my way and I repeated my words. He looked at me in disbelief. “Yes, you!” I said, pointing at his head.
A butterfly landed on the tip of a woman's nose while she petted her dog several rows below us.
I thought about one of the songs we sang at my dad’s funeral, "I'll Fly Away." It was the same song we sang at my uncle’s funeral more than twenty years ago. It’s one of my favorites.
I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away
Suddenly a woman behind me tapped my shoulder and said there was a butterfly near. She pointed at my mom.
“There’s a butterfly in your hair, Mom,” I said. But she had already known it. She had felt it. And she could feel it moving as it opened and closed its wings. It almost looked like the butterfly was trying to whisper into her ear.
In addition to the stream of sweat still flowing between my boobs, now my tears were flowing, too.
We took several pictures of the beautiful monarch butterfly. I handed my phone to a few people behind us, and they took pictures also. My mom moved her head different directions so we could take multiple pictures. The sun was so bright at times that we didn’t know if we were getting any good shots.
Besides moving its wings, the butterfly wasn't going anywhere. It seemed perfectly content to stay with my mom.
“What kind of hairspray does she use?” an elderly lady in a wheelchair asked. A few people near her laughed.
“I don’t think she uses any hairspray,” I smiled. “My dad died four months ago today, and this is the first time we’ve been here,” I explained.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s hard, isn't it? I’ve been here every year, and I've never seen a butterfly hang around so long. That's a good thing," she said. Her voice was calm and caring as it trailed off.
The woman said her young grandkids associate butterflies with some of their family who have passed away. I told her I understood.
Most of the crowd had filed out, and still we sat in the amphitheater under the beating sun with the butterfly in my mom's hair. Finally we thought it was time to stand up and walk towards the dedication station, so we could find my dad's name on the banner along with others who were being remembered and honored.
We couldn’t believe it.
As we walked along the venue, the sun shone brightly overhead and the river moved effortlessly below. I glanced at my mom and noticed that the butterfly must have taken flight. I didn’t see it leave. I don’t think she did, either.
It flew gracefully and quietly into the big bright world. It must have been time to go.
Just like that, the butterfly was gone.