Early on that Independence Day morning, I could already smell the grill being started in people’s backyards. Kids down the street were decorating their bikes for the parade. A neighbor was loading up his truck with folding chairs for our church picnic. That night there would be fireworks.
It should have been a happy time for my family, gathering to celebrate the wedding of my 22-year-old daughter, Karen, two days later.
At the same time my 25-year-old daughter, Nancy, had been given a one-day pass so she could leave the psychiatric facility where she was being treated for depression and spend this afternoon with us.
I pressed my fingers against my lips to keep from crying. Dear God, I wondered, how can I possibly get through all this?
I looked into the yard where my husband, Bob, was replacing a burned-out floodlight by the back door. As he removed the old bulb, the fixture wobbled and out fluttered a huge butterfly.
Its wingspan must have been four inches. It rose in the air, circled the yard, and with a swoop, came to rest on our welcome mat on the back porch. “Bob,” I cried. “I just can’t believe it!”
My mind raced back to my grandfather’s funeral many years ago. That day our family had stood with arms around one another reminiscing outside the barbershop Grandpa had owned.
All of a sudden a butterfly landed on the shop door. Grandmother gasped. “It’s a sign,” she said. Grandma explained that she and Grandpa had asked God to send a butterfly when one of them reached heaven safely.
The next important butterfly to appear in my life came shortly after my father’s death. I was 15 and working at a doughnut shop that difficult summer.
One evening when Mom met me to walk home, she gestured excitedly at the shop’s screen door. An enormous butterfly had landed there. Holding my breath, I scooped it into my hands. I carried it all the way home.
When released, it lingered on the railing of our porch for perhaps an hour until abruptly spreading its wings and lifting off into the night sky.
I grew up, married and had two daughters, and butterflies continued to be symbols of reassurance and hope to us all. We gave one another butterfly cards, stationery and jewelry.
Once, during a rough patch in our lives, a butterfly landed on the steering wheel of Mom’s car and another atop a golfball my husband had been about to hit.
When Mom died in late November a few years back, we had already experienced several New England frosts. My sister and I walked through the woods on the morning of our mother’s death. A yellow butterfly suddenly appeared in the chilly air and danced in front of my sister before it darted off. Within minutes a second yellow butterfly fluttered before me from a different direction.
Soon after that, my phone rang with a message from my brother, “You’ll never guess what I just saw,” he said. “A yellow butterfly!”
And now it was the Fourth of July and I was staring at yet another butterfly. As I carefully pulled the welcome mat to a safe place on the side of the porch, it didn’t budge. Several hours later it was still there, motionless. Was it injured? Sick? Dying?
Karen, the bride-to-be, appeared, flushed with excitement. “Here, Honey,” I said, “this must be a special sign for you.” Karen looked at the butterfly, its wings trembling in the summer air.
“It’s not for me, Mom,” Karen said. “It’s for Nancy.” We picked up the butterfly and carried it into the kitchen, where it circled the room before alighting on the windowsill by the sink.
Karen’s fiancé, Paul, had driven Nancy home from the hospital, and as the car pulled up, we rushed to meet her. “Nancy!” Putting my arm around my daughter, I drew Nancy into the kitchen and was telling her how glad we were to see her when I saw her eyes widen and her pale face light up. “A butterfly!” she exclaimed.
She went to the sink and slowly put out her hand. As if on cue, the butterfly left the sill and moved directly onto Nancy’s finger, where it sat with wings fully spread.
“You’ll never believe it,” Nancy said, her voice a whisper over her tears, “but I’ve been praying that a butterfly would sit on my finger as a sign that I’ll get well. People told me that I could wait for 100 years and it would never happen–that I was asking for a miracle.”
She looked at the butterfly resting on her finger, and then at us, eyes shining. “But there are miracles.”
We stayed there in the kitchen a long time, getting caught up on Nancy’s progress and Karen’s wedding preparations. Then Nancy took the butterfly outside and held it aloft. Saying farewell, we all watched it fly across the garden and into the woods.
That evening more family members arrived to share laughter, hugs and hot dogs. We lit sparklers in the twilight, and when fireworks burst from the darkness, we all stood with arms around one another, looking upward into the sky.
Once again we would face the future together, borne on the wings of a promise that had sustained our family for generations.