Years ago, a friend and I walked along the beach in the shadow of the bluffs jutting up from Lake Michigan. The air was bustling with the first hints of fall. Mist rose from the still-warm water and the whole stretch of shore was shrouded in a fog as far as I could see in any direction. The first monarch we saw was in the sand, still alive, only barely, its movement shaky and labored. I gently gathered it up and moved it away from the water, laying it to rest in the sand. As we kept walking, a kaleidoscope of butterflies came into focus out of the fog, painted orange and black against the muted gray.
I supposed the winds had been violent over the lake the night before, and thousands of monarchs on their migration south had been blown into the coast, crashing into the stones and waves awaiting them. How long had they traveled to get here? How far did they have to go? The rocks along the shore were littered with wings scattered like fallen leaves. It was at once magical and heartbreaking; flowers at a funeral. The remnants wholly disconnected from the living being of the butterfly. After the body is broken, what remains?
I collected a few of the fragments, lining my pockets with their ghostly beauty, overwhelmed by the simple honor of bearing witness. I would later store them in a folder on my desk and take them out to look at them on occasion, unsure of whether I should feel wonderment or mourning. I am still learning how to have space in my heart for both. To display something so sad seems wrong, to hang it up and call it beautiful. Worse, though, to let it be forgotten.
At the memorial, I hold my friends’ hands and think about the butterflies. Fragile as we are, we continue on our journeys, hopeful for good weather. We laugh and sob and someone takes pictures. Smiles stretch across cheeks wet with fresh tears, the San Diego sky an uncharacteristic gray. The photos are beautiful and sad and I don’t know what to do with them.