Year of the Butterfly

Life goes on.. even when you lose someone you love, even when you don't know what to think, how to feel, how to act and what to say. Everything will be okay, is what people like to say, but it won't and you know it. All you can do is bury your grief and hide, and hope on the surface at least life will appear to be normal. Is there any hope?
This is a story of a young girl battling with the loss of her father. Accompany her on a journey of self-discovery and misadventure as she negotiates her way through bereavement and processes the unanswered questions. Along the way, there are dreams, visions and schemes, at least one golden urn and a kidnapping. Her story is about a metamorphosis from pain into renewal and growth. Her destination is a place of hope with a promise of healing.

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1. Silence

I don't want to talk about it. Not to you or anyone else. Maybe because it's too hard or maybe I just don't know the words to tell you how this feels. All I know is I don't want to talk about it. Don’t make me. It makes me angry and sad and confused all at the same time. I mean, why did this have to happen? Why couldn't everything just go on as it was? Why did it have to happen to us? I can't ask Mommy, or Grandma or any of the other adults because I don't think any of them knows the answers to my questions. And they're the ones who are supposed to know everything, to teach me about this kind of stuff. So I’m all alone in this. It makes me think of something I saw in a movie, of that man who gets stuck on an island and there's nobody else living on this island. He has to learn to catch fish with a spear and survive all by himself. At first he can't imagine his life like that and believes someone in a big ship will come by and save him, but in the end he sees that he has no choice. He has to find a way to live, no matter how much it hurts to be alone, no matter how difficult it is to get used to something that happened so unexpectedly. He even ends up having conversations with a basketball. Well, that's no different from when I sometimes talk to Teddy, except that Teddy has a face to look at and fluffy ears. Right now I can't remember how that movie ends, but I don't think he can ever go back to the way things were before. Just like me. Just like us. Never ever, ever again. I don't even know how long that is... I just don't like thinking about this any more but it's always there in my head, bugging me like a mosquito in the night, buzzing around my head when I’m trying so hard to fall asleep. Not to mention that when I actually manage to shut it from my mind for a moment, there's always someone asking me that stupid question: "Do you miss your Daddy?" What do they expect me to say? No? What I really want to do is shout at them, "My Daddy is dead! Dead!! And you know what? I hate it! I don't want to miss my Daddy - I want him to be alive. That’s what!" But of course I don't shout at them. I just say nothing. Anyway, I don't think people know they're asking a stupid question; they don't mean to upset me. I know that... But sometimes I wonder if it would make people feel better if I cried more in front of them, about my Daddy I mean. So they could put their arms around me and say, "Don't worry. Everything's going to be all right," when we all know that's just a big fat lie.

 

 

This isn't the first time I hear adults saying things they don't really mean. Or they say out loud things are like this, when everyone knows it's really like that. Then I wonder if they think we kids are too stupid to know better or if they're just hoping that we are. And at the same time they expect us to get good grades at school. I just roll my eyes. I’d known for a long time that something was wrong with Daddy. I didn't know exactly what and of course no one would tell me, but I could tell. Not because he was coughing or anything like when I have a bad cold, but because of the things we suddenly stopped doing. Daddy used to take us for drives on Sundays all along the mountain overlooking the sea and we would stop for ice cream. Daddy always had to taste our ice cream pretending to make sure it wasn't poisonous, instead of buying one for himself. I learnt not to pick strawberry ice cream because that's the flavour he always said he had to taste again and again because he thought he had tasted something funny in it. I guess it was his favourite. During the week, he took us to school in the morning, but not before fussing over our porridge bowls to check if we'd eaten everything. He looked funny when he was angry with us; it made me want to laugh. His eyebrows would go zigzag above his eyes and his voice would go deeper when he spoke; so strange for someone who made jokes about everything and laughed like a frog at his own jokes! I’d give anything to hear his frog-laugh now. Well, the drives stopped. The lifts to school stopped. The games we played together stopped. He stopped singing his favourite song to us. Daddy was always too tired, in bed, watching TV or sleeping. It wasn't a problem for me because I suppose I knew that if someone is sick, they must stay in bed, rest and drink medicine, and after some time they get better and life goes back to normal. Only Daddy stayed in bed and didn't get better. Sometimes I didn't want to go into his room because I didn't know what to do there or say to him. It felt strange. When I think about it now, it's almost like I started missing Daddy that time already. No, that sounds weird. How can you miss someone who's right there, in front of you? But still, that's how it felt. I can't explain it. So I definitely couldn't tell anyone. Except Teddy and Jesus, of course. And that’s another thing: Jesus must have been running around like crazy lately when I think of how much praying has been going on around us. Everybody has been asking out loud for God to bless us, especially Daddy, and sometimes they cry as they do. That’s the only time I’ve been scared, seeing adults crying, talking about miracles. We learnt about miracles at Sunday school. A miracle is something impossible that happens but you can't explain how it happened. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a tall hat. I have no idea what that had to do with us or with my Daddy, but that's what I heard the adults talking about. I’ve never thought of Jesus as a magician! Maybe the adults wanted Jesus to make some magical medicine that would make my Daddy feel better, so that he could eat and get stronger. That would've been a good thing because Daddy was getting so thin and I hardly ever saw him eating anything. He must've been hungry. You see, my Daddy loved food -especially roast potatoes and meat. Once I heard someone whisper that Daddy had a lot of pain in his body but he pretended he didn’t. Maybe he also pretended not to be hungry. Why was he doing that and what was wrong with him? How did he get sick like this and why wasn't his medicine helping? More and more questions without answers. Nobody was saying anything and so I carried on as if everything was just the same. Maybe that way, things really would go back to normal.

 

For a while, pretending everything was normal was easy, until one night my baby sister, Lisa, and I were watching TV with Mommy. She told us that Daddy was very sick and that he might have to go to Jesus. I knew what that meant. She was trying to tell us Daddy might die. I remember crying, why exactly I’m not sure. Maybe I was crying because all the pretending was over now and what was really happening wasn't something I liked or understood; maybe I was crying because I knew that dying means you never get to see that person again and I didn't want my Daddy to go away; or maybe I was crying because I didn't want Daddy to be so sick any longer but now I knew it wasn't going to stop anytime soon. But then after that nothing happened. Everything was once again the same as before: getting up in the morning, washing and getting dressed, eating, playing, more visitors and more praying. I stopped worrying. Maybe Mommy was mistaken. After a while I wasn't thinking of much more than the upcoming school holidays. In a week's time or so, the schools were closing for the winter holidays and Mommy had promised Lisa and me to send us to Mossel Bay to spend one whole week with friends living there! It’s our favourite place to go on holiday - Daddy's too. We were counting the days and planning our activities there. I’ll never forget that last week of school. We had overslept the Monday morning, so Mommy decided we could stay home from school, especially since the weather was horrific. It was a pretty normal day and we went to bed early to get up in time for school the next day, but that night I had the worst nightmare of my life. Most of the time I couldn't tell if I was awake or asleep. It was like one of those dreams where you know you’re dreaming and you want to wake up to end the dream, but your eyes won’t open. Like most dreams, there's little I can remember of that nightmare: bright lights, faces, voices, crying. Everyone was crying! Hugging each other and me too, but I didn't understand why. Then I saw Daddy lying on his bed. Something was very different about him. Something was very wrong. Inside my head, it felt hot and like something was beating inside my head, trying to get out. I couldn't think. I felt nothing. I sat there, holding onto Mommy, trying to cry too, but all I wanted was to get away from there. I wanted to go back to my room, get back into bed and wait for morning to come, so that I could wake up from this nightmare. I wanted to forget what I’d seen: Daddy asleep but not sleeping; and the wet red eyes all around me, looking at me, waiting for me to cry too. I wanted to go back to sleep and look forward to my holiday. I wanted to climb into a hole and block out what was happening. But this nightmare had no happy ending for me because some time during the night, while I was sleeping, my Daddy had gone to Jesus.

 

Strange how my sisters and I passed the next few hours into the morning by telling jokes, chanting and singing our favourite songs. We forgot to go to sleep. The normal rules about bedtime and having to be so quiet all the time were no more. Most of the time in the days that followed, our house was like a train station with people passing in and out, all hazy with smoke and noisy with pigeon sounds. Mommy told us that there was going to be a funeral for Daddy. We had to go to church on a Saturday and we needed new clothes to wear on that day. I remember not too long ago going to Oupa's funeral after he died: it was a bit like church but with a lot more talking and then everyone eats afterwards. I was itching to know where they had taken Daddy. Some men came during the night Daddy died and took him away in their car. Maybe they took him to hospital and put him inside that cupboard that looks like a fridge, like I’ve seen on TV. That thing must be so cold, because the people they keep in those cupboards always look blue when they take them out. I can’t stand thinking of my Daddy like that. I also don't understand why this was all happening so fast. The next few days passed in a blur and by the time Saturday came, I was suddenly very nervous. I don't know why, but I kept thinking, "I don't want to go. I don't want to go. I don't want to go." I almost told someone but I saw that everyone at home was quiet and fidgety, so they must've been nervous too. So I said nothing. I was wearing new shoes and they were killing my feet, so I wasn't paying attention when we arrived at the church and got out of the car. The place was full of people; I’d never seen it so crowded! We went to stand by the entrance and waited, I didn't know what for. Grandma, Aunty Mary, Uncle Ron and Aunt Lolli, my cousins, and all our family were there too. It was like a party where nobody smiled. It wasn't long before this long wooden coffin was carried out of a long car in the church parking area. It was taken inside the church and then we were told to go inside too. Nobody warned me about this! Nobody prepared me for this! In the back of the church stood that long coffin and inside it, boxed in, lying very, very still and asleep without sleeping was my Daddy. I stared at him. My ears were buzzing and I had this funny feeling in my throat, like there was something inside it and it was trying to burst through. I felt my tears before I knew I was crying. Staring at my father in his coffin, I saw nothing else and no one else. I heard nothing and no one. The thing in my throat couldn't get out, so it found its way up into my head and started beating to get out from there. In that moment I knew, without understanding how I knew, that nothing would ever hurt me more than this. Jokes and chants and songs were far from my mind. All I could think about was my Daddy. Why did Daddy die? What are we going to do now? I want my Daddy back.

 

Some time during all that talking in church, my tears dried up. As soon as they dried up, something inside my head and inside my heart closed. I could almost hear the key turn in the lock and click shut. I will not cry anymore. Soon church was over, then the eating; and then we finally went home and I could play outside. It was nice and hot in the sun. We had a lot of fun out there - I was laughing too - but in the back of my head there was something like a black spot, holding on to just a small piece of my attention, reminding me that just because I was jumping and running around, having fun, it didn't mean I would ever be able to forget that Daddy’s gone. That black spot in my head was like the space in our house where Daddy used to be, but is now empty. Between that day and today, almost 3 weeks later, I feel like I’ve been trying not to fall into that black spot, but sometimes actually wanting to. Does that make sense? Nothing I think or feel makes any sense any more. So I don't expect you to understand. I don't think they teach this stuff at school. Anyway, it's better if we don't talk about that too much since it just feels uncomfortable and weird. Besides, what could anyone say? There isn't any magic word that you could say that would bring my Daddy back to me. The one thing I do want to talk about though, is where is Daddy going now? I’ve been wondering if Daddy will be buried like Oupa was. That’s Grandma’s father. He died 2 years ago. I know they put you and your coffin deep into the ground and then cover you up with dirt, and put a cross and flowers on top. How can people do that? It’s so horrible! Just imagine if that happened to you and you suddenly woke up, and you were inside this tiny little space where you couldn't even move your arms or legs, but even if you could, there's a truckload of dirt on top of you, so you can never get out! No! I’m going to have to tell Mommy they cannot do that to Daddy. Maybe we could have one of those small houses in the cemetery where you keep the coffins forever. I saw that in a movie too. The small house belongs to the whole family and after everyone dies, they go there and stay together forever and they're safe. I’ll just go and have a word with her now.

 

I’m so annoyed with myself! No, I’m angry! I was just on my way to talk to Mommy about not burying Daddy under the ground when my big sister, Peggy, called me to do something and I forgot to talk to Mommy. I’m so confused! Sometimes I wake up in the morning or even during the night and it feels like Daddy's inside my head. My heart beats faster because I remember that he's gone and I can't believe it. Other times, I’m so sick of thinking about that, it makes me want to scream. So I was kind of relieved when school started up again and I could forget more easily. Well, the reason I’m so angry with myself is that Mommy had other plans for Daddy. Adults sometimes have a strange way of thinking and then they say that's how things work in real life. I don't know about that. She told me that Daddy wanted to be cremated after he died. I could see she was uncomfortable telling me this but I didn't understand that word, so she had to explain. If what she told me is true, then I don't ever want to die! It’s like the worst things you can imagine happen after you die. After she explained to me, I thought I would throw up and ran to the bathroom just to be alone. I stayed there for almost an hour, with my mind stuck on this horrible picture: Daddy screaming as they burn him in a big fire. I could almost hear his screams and I even put my hands over my ears to block out the sound. Daddy’s skin going red and then dripping off his body, melting into the hot fire. Soon there would be nothing left except the same powdery ash you see after a braai or a bonfire. Does it hurt? No, I can't believe it. It sounded exactly like one of Daddy's stupid jokes, except that the look on Mommy's face said it all: this was no joke. As hard as she tried, she just couldn't convince me that lots of people get cremated, so it's normal. After you die, your spirit goes to Jesus and leaves your body behind. Your body doesn't feel anything if it isn't alive. How does she know that? How can anyone who is alive actually know that for sure? What does that mean anyway: the spirit leaves the body? They’re just words; they explain nothing. I want to know exactly what happens. What does it feel like? But as usual, no one can tell me. The last couple of nights, I’ve woken up so scared because I dreamt about Daddy in the fire. I remember learning about heaven and hell and this is the most confusing part: heaven is a place where everything is nice, the place where we all want to go when we die; but hell is a place of fires burning non-stop, torturing the bad people who went there when they died. Is hell like being cremated? Does this mean Daddy was a bad man? But I know that's not true, so why did he have to burn? Why do lots of people get burnt after they die and why would they even ask to be burnt? It’s crazy! I can't decide which is worse: cremation or burial. One horrible boy in my class at school said something once about how the worms in the ground eat your body after you die, but that doesn't make sense either because if they put you inside a coffin, the worms can't get in. So you should actually be a lot safer that way. Worms, fire, hell, tears... I am so, so tired of all of that. Anyway, it's too late now. When I came home from school the other day, Mommy took me into her room and showed me this shiny new flowerpot on her dressing table, and told me Daddy was inside it. I thought she had really lost it this time! Mommy was so sad, she was losing her mind! But then she said that the shiny flowerpot was called an urn, it was made of gold, and inside this golden urn were my Daddy's ashes. After staring at it for one long wordless minute, I turned on my heel and walked out of the room. It was not okay to think of my Daddy inside a fancy flower pot, even a golden one, and since then I’ve done my best to ignore it whenever I’m in that room.

 

  It’s been 2 months now and it feels like that golden urn watches me whenever I happen to be here in my Mommy's bedroom. I’ve been trying my best to ignore it, especially when Mommy and Lisa point at it and talk to it like they're talking to Daddy himself. I’m not going to get suckered into talking to a flowerpot! On the other hand, it's very hard to avoid looking at it because there are pictures of Daddy pasted all around it. I heard someone calling it a shrine, whatever that is, and you're supposed to show respect and pray in front of it. Of course I want to look at the pictures of Daddy, but I can't do that and not see the urn. Well, I’m working hard at blocking it out of my mind and I’m looking forward to the day when the urn is taken to the cemetery to be put away. That urn keeps reminding me of the fire that-- What was that? I could swear I just saw a light flashing against the ceiling. And now it's gone... No, wait! There it is again! What is that?

 

 

*** 

A light first flickers, then sparkles and finally beams steadily a bright white glare across the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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