I stood waiting with the other bridesmaids as harp music floated gently across the air, everyone was fussing with their hair or pulling on the red dresses we each wore to varying degrees of success. As the first bridesmaid began her walk I glanced behind me still shocked to see my sister, looking radiant in her quiet agony filled joy. She wore a white wedding dress that magically turned a pretty girl into a breathtaking vision of ethereal beauty. Mistakenly I allowed my gaze to touch on her face and she looked directly back at me, tears simultaneously filling our matching eyes, so identical to our Mom’s, I nodded a chin up gesture and with a deep breath I stepped out of the building, staring across the football length field to see the destination – a wooden castle built for the occasion.
The late September afternoon breeze ruffled the hem of my long dress as I followed the girls making their way towards the tiny blurred crowd in the distance. Behind me I could hear my son and nephew arguing quietly over the banner they jointly carried in lieu of rings. I felt the heat of the afternoon sun warming my face, heard the soft murmur of water lapping gently on the shore from the pond to my right. As I marched my way across the freshly cut grass holding tight to the candle lantern that I carried my mind wandered and tears streamed unchecked down my face as memories took hold.
It was only last year that we found out that Mom was sick. Impossible as it had seemed at the time, she had breast cancer. My Mom, the glue in our family, the artistic, wild child, fun-loving woman was deathly ill.
The best friend who I had lunch out with every week, who sang Janis Joplin while cleaning (loudly and out of tune but still she sang), the woman who drank my friends under the table with her infamous tequila poppers, had cancer. Impossible. But it became our reality. Chemotherapy, radiation, cancelled surgeries, doctors and naturopaths, we tried it all.
For eight immeasurable months she fought, withering before our eyes, pain and weariness bowing her back like a woman 40 years older than she was, until she couldn’t walk, then still we pushed her in her wheelchair, and still she fought. Until the end.
On January 16th of this year we lost the battle. My Mother whose larger than life shadow I had lived in for so long, who shadow I was happy to stay in, was gone. My Mom, who everyone knew and loved, whose unique spirit touched all that she met, who I longed to be like, was gone. No more would I hear her belly deep laugh, talk with her late into the night, get advice from, dress up for Halloween with, smile at and see my own future reflection. Gone forever.
She was 46 years old, too young to die that way. Too young to die at all. She should have been here; she should have lived long enough to see her grandkids grow old. That was the expected bonus she got for starting her family at fifteen. But no – life – fate - the gods - whatever - decided to take her from us.
Her one demand was, and it was a demand not a wish, that Lindsay go ahead with the wedding as planned. We argued, Lindsay couldn’t fathom a wedding without Mom there and talked about cancelling, postponing or eloping. But Mom won, as she seemed to win most arguments, she got her way and we all promised to make it the best wedding we could.
For the last nine months we had worked feverishly to achieve the fantasy, “The perfect wedding”. We built and we ordered, we crafted and we cried. Our tears were shed in secret – away from each other. We put on a brave face to one another, which was essential for survival. Our sorrow was overwhelming but we forced it back, having a common goal. Get through the wedding then we can grieve. Life had changed so drastically none of us knew how to deal with it; all we could do was ride the wave and hope that we didn’t drown. Now the day was here, tomorrow it was time to face reality, to face a life without Mom, to fall apart.
Abruptly I came back to the present, as I approached the no longer blurry faces of the crowd, many whose eyes streamed tears. Tears of joy and of intense sadness, such a mixture of opposing emotions held the day hostage. I could read their faces as clearly as they could read my own. Happy that Lindsay was starting her life with Brian, the boy she had loved since she was fifteen, broken that we had to celebrate without Mom.
As I passed down the aisle, I focused on what people were wearing to avoid looking at their faces, I was taken aback by the number of people in costume, our medieval theme had been supported by many. I saw corsets, headpieces, men in tights,and even chainmail. It felt like I had been transported into the past as I topped the small rise and approached the castle, its draw bridge down and resting in the grass beside Brian and my brothers, who also had tears on their cheeks that they steadfastly ignored. The sun glinted on the edge of the false towers we had painstakingly built and painted to look authentic.
I took my place, studiously evading eye contact – if I pretended I wasn’t crying then everyone else could as well. I turned and watched as my sister, stunning as she was, made herfinal ascent up the aisle. Dad held her arm gently, tears shaking his entire body until it was no longer apparent who was supporting whom. Finally he kissed her cheek and bravely took his lonely seat at the front.
The ceremony blurred for me, words were said, tears were shed, vows given and loud sniffling from the audience was common, as it was at all weddings.
Then just before the exchange of rings, for me, it was as though the world held its breath for one moment that stretched eternally, all sound disappeared and we were held in a moment outside of time. The officiant stopped speaking and everyone looked up as a monarch butterfly flew in from nowhere. Its bright orange and black wings flapping majestically, glistening in the sunlight as it flew directly to Dad, after circling his head once the beautiful being then went to my children and nephew whirling around each of them. After its route there the butterfly rocketed straight to my brothers. It then approached me, and I found myself knowing without a doubt that this was no normal butterfly. Finally the butterfly flew to Lindsay, its bright orange wings framed by the white lace on her gown. Around each of us the monarch spiraled once, and then with a final joyous sweep past the members of my family it flew off into the distance and was gone. With clarity inside my mind like I’d never known before my siblings and I met eyes in turn, each of us having experienced the same thing. As one we silently sighed a single word, “Mom.”
As though that was a signal, time sped back up to normal and everyone began to breathe again, rustling from the crowd invaded. The ceremony was sealed with a kiss as marriages have been sealed for a millennia and the applause was thunderous and mixed with a plethora of tears.
I moved down into the chattering crowd of people allowing myself to be swallowed by their noise and taking a breath of their energy as I calmed my warring emotions. A tap on myshoulder turned me to see my Uncle, his face still damp, evidence that his stoic personality was only a show.
“Gloria, that butterfly, it was your Mom.”
“I know.” I whispered holding back the tears that still threatened.
“No you don’t understand.” He almost growled at me. “Butterflies are out of season. All the monarchs migrate.” I nodded, still confused and a little astounded at his knowledge of the habits of butterflies, but he continued, “They migrated four weeks ago. That little beastie shouldn’t have been either here or alive, and yet it was. Your Mom was here.”
Nodding I walked away to stand by the pond as the fading sunlight glistened over its surface like fairies dancing in the wind, allowing the myriad of thoughts to overtake my mind for a few moments. Finally I gathered myself, returned and mingled with the crowd, my sorrow replaced by a sad peace, knowing Mom had been with us in the only way she could be. I also knew that anytime I felt alone or sad the monarch would be there – that Mom would be there.
This is a photo of me and my Mom on my wedding day.