End of Life Communication: Stories from the Dead Zone (excerpt)

Hello, friends,

I have taken a pause from writing poetry to finish a book manuscript. I just sent it to the publisher; you can be on the lookout for it to be released in the fall (End of Life Communication: Stories from the Dead Zone, co-authored with Dr. Jon Crane). In the meantime, to thank you for your patience as we finished the book and I now catch back up on writing poetry, here is an excerpt, from the closing chapter:

“The world we live in is but thickened light” (Emerson, 1904, p. 580).
The team invites me to the hospital’s annual “Butterfly Ceremony,” a commemoration in memory of the children who have died at the Children’s Hospital this past year. I’m excited to go, but my interest becomes bittersweet when I notice the date. It is the 24th anniversary of my father’s death. The memory of his death is so fresh and painful, he could have died yesterday following his 18-month struggle with prostate cancer.
It is a beautiful fall day. Sunny and warm. I arrive at the urban neighborhood park and see maybe a hundred plus people milling around. I wander through the crowd and hug Sarah and Melissa and Mary and Christopher as I meet them.
The crowd moves into an amphitheater set up with white folding chairs, I stand at the edge with Sarah and Melissa, observing and chatting. People of all ages, sizes, and races are dressed in sundresses, jeans and t-shirts, some brightly colored, others black. A dog lies on the ground next to a woman sitting in quiet contemplation and there are many children, playing on the grass next to the chairs and sitting with their parents. Chaplain Christopher reads a liturgy, “intentionally not Christian,” Melissa tells me. We repeat a refrain, “we remember them.” A  chorus accompanied by acoustic guitar and flute sing “Over the Rainbow” and “Here Comes the Sun.” It sounds so beautiful. Despite the warm sunshine, I have chills. Six parents step up to speak about their children. One parent reads to us from a favorite book she shared with her child when she was in the hospital. There are many people crying. I am one of them.
Everyone files out of the amphitheater and receives a butterfly. It is actually a live butterfly in a tiny hand-painted origami envelope. I ask Sarah, “doesn’t it hurt the butterflies to be folded in the paper?” and she responds, “I try very hard not to think about that.”
“It’s so beautiful when they’re released and set free,” Melissa says. I think of how this is similar to life, sometimes you’re cramped up, closed in and uncomfortable, then you get released. You’re free.
“The butterflies will be a little dopey when they are first released, before they fly off,” Sarah warns, “from being closed up for a while.”
I don’t take a butterfly at first, but Sarah has an extra envelope and she hands it to me.
The ceremony moves to a patio where everyone stands in a circle. Each person says a few words about their deceased child.
“Lilly Ann, born September 11, died, December 26. She will be missed greatly.”
 “Omar, born January 23, died January 23. You were our tiny angel.”
“Elliott, born July 21, died October 30. You were only with us a short time but you were loved and we are all diminished by our loss.”
“John, born June 6, died June 6. He was much beloved by all of us and we will always remember him.” John is my baby grandson.
            As I watch them, I say a silent goodbye to my father and John.
            After the last person speaks, it is time to release the butterflies. I expect a mass flight and butterfly-covered sky, but the butterflies have their own schedule and float off one or two at a time. I open my envelope and the tiniest of butterflies, about the size of a postage stamp, sits there on the paper, unmoving, for an endless ten minutes. I’m starting to wonder if he is dead—and what do you do with a dead butterfly in the midst of the ceremony? I am surreptitiously looking around for a trash can in which I can toss him, when suddenly, he slowly, luxuriously, flexes his brilliant wings. As I watch, my butterfly flaps his colors in the warm sultry air and I have a memory of 24 years earlier, my dad’s love of sunbathing, and the long time he took to die. I think of the interminable vigil, while we waited and watched with dread and anticipation. I wait on this butterfly to soak in the sun until his wings open and close twice more in slow succession and he slowly flits away. Gone.
            “Goodbye,” I say, to the butterfly. Goodbye Dad. Goodbye John.
* * *
Blessed are the healed,
may their broken hearts glow with love’s luster,
parting clouds shot through with pure light,
iron scabs of disappointment softened by the warmth of faith,
prison of despair unlocked by the key of hope,
heaviness of grief freed by airy
moments of joy.


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