Since our mothers were best friends well before we were born, just shy of nine years ago, Audrey and I had discussed everything. This Christmas holiday season was no exception.
“I’m so glad Maman didn’t die on Christmas. Then I could never like Christmas again.”
My best friend and now motherless child, munched thoughtfully on her candy-cane shaped cookie as the limousine wound its fateful way up the long cemetery hillside. Audrey never minced words; it was a mannerism with which I would never become entirely comfortable.
“She didn’t really have a choice, did she?” In the conversational world of 8-year-olds, questions of this nature have to be addressed.
“Maman? Of course she did. She told us, and God, she would make it to the New Year if she could have a going-to-heaven party. She died exactly two minutes into the New Year so that means the party’s on.”
“So is that why we have the butterflies?” I’d never been to a funeral, let alone learned anything about death, other than what you did in this life determines where you go next. Kind of like being good all year if you wanted Santa to come.
As to butterflies, Audrey explained: “You bet. We had dinner with Maman in ‘Lopy Tall’ on Christmas Eve. That, Matt, is French for ‘hospital’. Maman put on her fox shrug over her hospital gown and her really huge diamond earrings that Papa gave her last year. By the way Matt, never, ever, buy a woman fake diamonds. It’s gauche. After dinner, Maman gave each one of us a custom-made party cracker with a message inside. If ever you can afford custom, Matt, do it. Well, I popped my cracker open and Maman wrote that she ordered 200 Monarch butterflies for me just so I could see how she was getting to heaven. Cool, huh?”
I felt the tiny boxes tucked under my jacket for safekeeping. Every one of us in fact looked like a stay-puft marshmallow man on account of the cold, rainy inclement weather that day, which would render the butterflies impotent of flight unless they warmed up.
“They don’t seem very strong.” A butterfly flickered in its box. I shifted, considering the gravity of the task assigned to me.
“They aren’t. In fact they’re fragile. Be careful.”
We got out of the limo and the priest called us to order. I stared at the coffin, covered in pink long-stemmed roses: another party cracker dictum, according to Audrey. The coffin was mahogany, elegant and severe-looking, I thought. A one-way journey for sure. It was mechanically suspended just above ground level, with an ominous 20-foot hole, its circumference about a foot wider than the coffin, beneath.
“Matt.” Audrey whispered, tugging urgently at my sleeve. I glanced around nervously. “Pick one.”
“Pick one what?”
“A butterfly stupid.”
“Maman said if you pick one and name it, she can give it special messages from heaven to put in our dreams sometimes.”
“Fine. Mademoiselle Isabella Christiana Tiffany. She’s French and prefers blue boxes.”
I stared down at my white box. Time was of the essence. “Frank.”
“Frank? Just Frank?”
“OK, Just Frank. Eight-year-old boys are much better at creating lengthy battle scenes than naming a butterfly, you know,” I said, expressing my discomfort. Despite losing her mother over the Christmas holidays, Audrey grinned.
“Ashes to ashes.” The priest waved the incense over the coffin in a final salutation. Even though Audrey was a funeral virgin like myself, she seemed to know all the ropes, and announced that the butterfly tribute would commence. The funeral’s attendants opened their jackets and then their boxes.
“Wait.” Audrey ordered. “We’ll save ours for last.”
I tenderly fingered Just Frank’s box. The monarchs, as if somehow sensing their mission, defied the weight of the rain against their ethereal lightness and seemingly floated towards the heavens. Then, as if through an intuitive choreography, they all descended lightly upon the casket’s roses, fanning their wings, paying homage to the deceased. Within minutes they again rose, orange and black against the sky, until they became little more than specks against the day’s gray. As they flew away, the priest said a final “Amen,” and the casket began to lower.
Audrey gave a resolute, “Now!” She opened her box.
“Au revoir Mademoiselle. J’adore Maman!”
I watched Audrey’s butterfly ascend with spirit and strength, lighting, it seemed intentionally, on a particularly grand, open, pink rose.
“Right on Maman’s heart!” Audrey victoriously announced. Then the monarch danced upwards as the coffin went lower, assuring us of Miss Vivienne’s destination.
“My box – it’s stuck.”
“Here, you hold while I, oh no.”
Despite my best efforts, and most likely in the initial packing, Just Frank’s left wing revealed a slight tear. Before Audrey and I could even think about it, Just Frank realized he was emancipated and threw, more than flew, himself out of the box. To make matters worse, a large raindrop plopped right onto Just Frank’s wing. He fell out of control, directly between the coffin and the earth, into the abyss of the grave. He lay at the bottom, orange, majestic, spent.
I ran as fast as I could, sobbing, towards the grave’s edge, frantically searching for a stick, anything long enough to pull Just Frank free. It was hopeless. Despite my frantic pleas, the coffin continued to its resting place, sealing Just Frank’s fate.
Audrey’s Maman didn’t deserve to die. I did. I kicked at the wet ground, sobbing all the while, trying to make a hole big enough to lie down in for eternity. Thwarted in my efforts, I ran as far away as possible to a grove of trees where I could not see the hate in my former best friend’s eyes.
A few minutes later, I felt her behind me. Audrey’s tone was soft, not at all bossy as usual. I kept digging with my foot.
“I came to thank you.”
I wiped my nose on the back of my sleeve. “You mean hate you. Me. You hate me.” I looked suspiciously at Audrey out of the corner of my eye.
“Silly. You let Just Frank stay in the only place where he could lift Maman up in that great big box and take her to heaven. And Miss Mademoiselle Isabella Christiana Tiffany is showing them both the way.”
Audrey reached with her hands for my snotty tear-stained cheeks. She tickled them with her eyelashes.
“What are you doing?”
“Giving you butterfly kisses for Christmas. Maman’s on her way to heaven now.”
Dr. Amy Bazuin Yoder, author, educator and academic researcher, explores the nuances of human behavior through formal inquiry, family, and creative writing.