We were small girls when we learned the word. Schmetterling. The German term for butterfly. Nancy had just moved into Dad's house, and we kept begging her to teach us German words, compiling our own secret language. We'd tricked her into teaching us Esel popo: donkey butt—something I'm sure my dad was quite pleased about as we skipped around the house singing, "Du bist ein Esel popo." (You are a donkey butt.) The other announcing her retort, "Nein, ich bin eine Schmetterling." (No, I am a butterfly.)
For more years than I ought to admit, we'd tease each other with these little phrases. As teenagers when I'd get angry with Al I'd lash out, "Esel popo!" And ever the deflector, she'd grin, "Schmetterling, schmetterling."
My sister the butterfly.
That first day I spent so many hours crying my contacts became opaque, clouding my vision. I didn’t care. There wasn’t anything to look at anyway. I sat on the back porch of my dad’s house in the beating summer sun, alternating between staring at the wooden slats of the porch and the blueness of the sky.
Eventually though, my hazy vision made my head ache. My glasses were at my mom’s house, and I couldn’t drive. I would have been a hazard on the road. The fact that I couldn’t see was only amplified by my shaking hands and fear of engines, speed, ditches, oncoming traffic—the whole lot of it. So a friend picked me up, the boy I had dated during high school, Pat.
He'd called as soon as he heard what had happened. I didn't realize then how brave he'd been. When the phone rang I was wandering through Aleisha's room running my fingers over rows of French verb conjugations in her notebook.
It was my dad's landline that he called, and still I'm not sure how he found that number. He'd only ever called my cellphone. But my battery had died, and I hadn't charged it knowing full well it would unleash a flurry of sympathy I wasn't yet ready to deal with. Sometimes you need to hold the world at bay and sit in stillness.
"Hi," I said, monotone. I stood at Al's window watching my dad and Nancy on the back porch, cups of water in hand, eyes blank.
"Chels. I'm so, so sorry. What happened? Who was the guy that was driving? Is there anything I can do?" He talked quickly, filling the space.
"Could you take me to my mom's house?" I asked. "I need my glasses."
"I'll be there in ten, okay?"
As we walked up the steps to my mom's house, we froze. A lunar moth was perched below the doorbell. I’d never seen such an exquisite insect before—and that was truly the word for it: exquisite. It was as wide as my palm, even folded in half, and the brightest lime green. There were always moths swarming the porch light, but those were the size of a quarter and a dull grey-brown. They were nothing like this creature. We stood there for a few minutes staring before I went inside to find my glasses.
A few days later, my mom finally made it home from Norway (a tornado warning had grounded her connecting flight, stranding her in Chicago). She picked me up from my dad’s house. When we got home, there she was—the moth—still clinging to the doorbell.
The next day my friend Charlie walked in carrying a basket of blueberry muffins his mom had baked. “Chels, you’ve noticed that moth out there right?” he asked, handing me the basket as he walked to the kitchen. I nodded.
“My mum saw it when she was here the other day, and she knew she’d read something about lunar moths before.” He grabbed a muffin from the basket as I set it on the counter. “Anyway, she looked it up when we got home. Apparently some cultures believe lunar months are the souls of people who've recently passed away returning to visit before they leave for heaven.” For three days, family and visitors trudged in and out of the house, ringing the doorbell only inches from the moth’s antennae. But still, she stayed put.
The morning we buried Aleisha's body, it was pouring. Someone said the earth was crying to say goodbye to such a wonderful girl, but I thought that was bullshit. To me it just meant the weather had finally stopped warring with my emotions. It feels awfully strange to be grieving when it is 75 and sunny.
As I blundered toward the cars, surrounded by my family, I looked back again to see the moth. But this time she was gone.
On Father’s Day a full year later my dad took Louis the dog outside before bed. Standing near the woods, he saw a flash of green. He called to Nancy who was in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner. She grabbed the camera, ran outside, and started filming. There he stood stonestill for fear of scaring her away. The moth fluttered to him, landing on his chest, right on top of his new #1 Dad t-shirt. Then it flew up and landed on his lip, just for a moment. A gentle kiss.
He went back inside, but he was far too restless to sleep. If the moth had anything to do with his little girl, he was going back out to see it again. Quietly, he slid the screen door open and stepped onto the porch. The moth was perched on the light as though waiting for him to return. So there he sat, with her, as Father’s Day faded to dawn.