5: The Mourning Cloak

5: The Mourning Cloak

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel

The Mourning Cloak

In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.

~Robert Ingersol

Spring came early to Missouri in the weeks before my mother passed away. Mom had lived a long life and was in the last stages of congestive heart failure when we moved her to hospice care. It had been a difficult process to watch her decline over the prior months. She had always been so active and alert until her stroke. It was a grueling time for our family as we undertook the tasks that accompany a move to a nursing home. It’s more than the selling of a home, sorting belongings and all those other tedious chores that come with the closing of the chapters of a life. Assuming the responsibilities for a parent takes you into the uncomfortable and unfamiliar as you take the first awkward steps down that last road.

I felt exhausted, and so my husband and I began looking for a getaway near a lake some two hours driving distance from the stresses of work and family, where we could find nature and solitude and no cell phone service. It was a sunny and cool day when we toured the property we ultimately purchased. As we walked down the pathway to look at the land, a large butterfly dive-bombed me. It seemed uncharacteristic of such a gentle creature, and unseasonable for a butterfly in March. It kept circling me and then it flew away. As we talked with the real estate agent, it came back again, landing on my shoulder before flitting off again. “It must be attracted to your perfume,” our agent said. But I wasn’t wearing any perfume.

It was peaceful there with nature surrounding us. The butterfly escorted us back to our vehicle. At the time, I felt like it was a celestial confirmation that we’d made a good decision. We left the butterfly to watch over our new cabin and we headed north back to reality.

That was Saturday. By Monday, Mom was really weak and spoke very little when I checked on her. When I returned home from the hospice visit, I called my husband to give him an update. As we spoke, I looked out our living room’s large picture window that framed the woods behind our house. A black butterfly cruised by the glass. “There’s that butterfly again,” I mumbled into the phone. My husband didn’t understand what I was talking about, which was fine — I didn’t understand it either. I was either being pursued by some phantom flying insect or slowly losing my mind.

On Tuesday morning, my brother and I went to the nursing home and found the hospice nurses with Mom. She recognized us immediately and began talking rapidly. It seemed as though she had so much to say before her time ran out, but she made little sense and seemed so very tired. She told us she was fine and to come back the next Tuesday. But I knew she would have no more Tuesdays.

I was up and out of the house early Wednesday morning with laundry baskets in tow. The hospice nurses had told me that they were moving Mom to a room closer to the nurses’ station, and that I should take as many of her belongings home as I could. When I arrived, Mom’s breathing had a gurgling sound that was foreign to me. Was this the death rattle? I wasn’t sure, but I called my brother and sister and told them to get to the nursing home. By the time I finished the call, Mom had passed away. I had never seen anyone die before. It was so quiet and peaceful. Mom had beautiful skin her entire life but never more so than at that moment. I watched as the pain and age faded from her face. Her skin became totally smooth and her body morphed into tranquil rest before my eyes. She was like a butterfly emerging from this life, spiriting onto a rebirth. The lyrics “I’ll fly away, oh Glory, I’ll fly away” played over and over in my mind.

Within the hour, my family gathered at my home. As we sat and talked, my brother saw the black butterfly outside our family room window. She was back again, bouncing off the glass as though she longed to join us. Back and forth, back and forth, she circled and departed. We all agreed it was a message but didn’t know what it meant.

The next day, I ran out to do some quick errands. At the store to pick up dress pants for my growing six-year-old grandson, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a ladies white dress top with black butterflies. It might sound garish, but it was subtle and lovely. Since I was delivering the eulogy at Mom’s memorial service, it seemed fitting. So did the black butterfly necklace that seemed to appear out of nowhere. It seemed oddly comforting, and so these items ended up on the sales counter with the pair of navy trousers I’d set out to purchase.

I did a little research before the service to learn about black butterflies. In the Philippines, a lingering black butterfly in the house is taken to mean that someone in the family has died or will soon die. In Japan, it is considered to be the personification of a person’s soul, whether they are alive or dead. It is generally the first butterfly of spring. With the name Nymphalis antiopa, it conjures up the image of a nymph or fairy; or, for me, an angel. I am prone to premonitions, and attribute them to an angel who whispers subliminal messages to me. I often wonder if it’s my guardian angel, the spirit of my mother’s Aunt Marie, who had been a surrogate grandmother to me, or perhaps my maternal grandmother who passed away long before I was born. Whoever it was, a sense of peace and calm comes with that voice in my head.

The most interesting, and perhaps saddest, thing I learned was that this lovely black butterfly also has the name Mourning Cloak, because of its resemblance to a traditional cloak worn in mourning.

It’s now spring in Missouri and my ebony-winged guardian has once again appeared in my window. I take comfort in knowing that she returns in the season of new beginnings as a poignant reminder that no matter the loss, life does indeed go on.

~Marla Bernard

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