by Valentine Michael Smith
I watched a Monarch butterfly die today, and it brought mortality to the forefront of my conciousness once again. Almost every year now, I see dead creatures of one kind or another, but rarely am I around to see one actually expire. In recent years, I have known at least one human a year who has passed away, some people cherished greatly, making Death more personal all the time.
I made a list last year of all the people I had met who had died, and it's gone over twenty now, without including my grandfather dying 26 years ago, or my grandmother I can barely remember passing away when I was but seven. Last year, a guy I had known for twenty years willed himself to die after the doctors told him he had terminal lung cancer. Earlier that year, a writer I had known but five years, the SF writer Carl Sherrell, perished of cancer, the first time two people I had known had died in one year.
Why did the butterfly, and my list of dead friends and acquaintances, make me so aware of mortality? While I was watching the beautiful orange and black butterfly breathing its last, I was struggling against my lung disease running riot. I have emphysema, diagnosed in January of 1989, and there are days when the humidity is high or I'm real stressed that I can barely breathe. Usually, a good nebulizing treatment with a broncho-dilator drug on my home breathing machine, or a blast from my portable inhaler, is enough to bring me around to functionability. I was four blocks from home, the humidity had gotten beyond 60%, and I had left my inhaler in my other pants.
So, for a brief moment, I felt like I was dying, and the butterfly did die. I understand, almost in satori-like fashion, how quickly perishing can come upon a creature, a human, anything that lives. I have had to face this realization more and more these past two years, both externally and from my own condition. Death scares me, I'm not ready to have that indignity visited upon me. The butterfly had less conscious knowledge about expiring, but there it was, caught in the moment of death. It made me revel that I still have my life, no matter how flawed and inconvenienced by my illness.
My life is full, and busy, and not yet complete. That butterfly's death caused me to again celebrate that I have life, that two and a half years of hospital trips, breathing crisis after breathing crisis, medications that turn my bones brittle and affect my moods have not taken away my zest and yearning to live to accomplish whatever it is I'm fated to accomplish. I hope I get to finish all my novels, books and essays before what happened to my fellow creature today happens to me, I sure would like that opportunity. I want to see my children grow up. I want to live until that last breath is stolen from me, and not have to die alone, having only accomplished being alive, and perishing one hot afternoon on a piece of concrete. I want to say I lived every moment to the fullest, and that Death had to drag me away from life, kicking and screaming, "I'm not done, I'm not done yet! Let me finish my work!" That Monarch butterfly's death gave me hope that I might make my life happen that way. Every moment is more precious than last, and I cherish life more every time Death passes my way. Not easily will Death come for me!
Previous essays in The Salon -- featuring Valentine Michael Smith