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The Dancing Butterfly 

We babysat for her. By “we”, I mean my wife and I before we had a child. By “babysat” I mean performed a valuable service for frazzled, young parent-friends like Beth and T.K..

By “her” I mean their 3 month old daughter Summers. That particular night, “we” were mobilized to replace a babysitter gone MIA. Good friends don’t let friends miss any chance for a well-deserved, romantic evening of dining and adult conversation.

 

Summers was a beautiful child whose bright blond hair seemed to radiate from some kind of

inner blondness. She loved watching the stuffed animals suspended from the musical carousel

above her crib. Adorable and adored, her parents would break into smile at the mention of her

name. She would grow up in a happy home, which is probably why she and her 2 younger

siblings turned out to be such fine people. During winter break of her senior year at college, a

Jeep veered off an embankment and rolled over killing Summers the only passenger without a

seat belt. The funeral was held on Long Island on the coldest, windiest day I can recall. More

than a hundred college friends flew in from across the country to queue up in the bitter cold until

everyone cast a ceremonial shovelful of soil. It took an hour.

Her mother was an artist. In the weeks following the funeral, Beth confided she had an old,

unfinished portrait of Summers that she was now dedicating herself to complete. It was

important to her that I see a photo of the work in progress, stored on her computer. The

moment Summers’s portrait came up, an image of a butterfly floated across the screen. “That’s

Summers.” She smiled. “Remember, how she always loved butterflies? I think it started with

that cushy, musical toy we used to hang over her crib. It appeared on the screen the day she

died. It’s always there now.” Beth eventually completed Summers’s unfinished portrait, which

of course, sported a dancing butterfly. Beth had already survived cancer but almost didn’t

survive the loss of her child. She and T.K. established a local support group for families that had

lost children.

T.K. had been the only child of prosperous, older parents who grew up to become a good

provider, devoted husband and loving father. I think he pushed himself to prove he was not

simply the boss’s son. Even when his parents died, leaving him a large inheritance, the only

change made in T.K.’s life was his address. He could finally afford to move his growing family

out of a 1-bedroom apartment in Bayside and into a cushy home in a wealthy North Shore

suburb. It was a great place to raise kids. Besides, the house had great light for Beth’s

painting.

It came as a quite a shock ten years later, when we learned that T.K. had fallen prey to a

long-standing gambling addiction. He already lost his inheritance. He was about to lose his

business. Finally, despite taking multiple jobs and working 18 hours a day, he had to sell their

home and move the five of them plus the dog to a more modest community. Always smart,

industrious and savvy… still working three jobs at a time, T.K. built a new career that supported

his family and allowed him to eventually repay all his debts. It also became the most personally

rewarding time of his life. After all, the Boss’s Son proved he could succeed on his own. Beth

and T.K. were happy, content and relieved that they would be able to afford a good college for

their older daughter Summers.

In the year after the funeral, Beth tried to exorcize her grief through painting. Perhaps unfairly

blaming himself, T.K. turned his grief inward. While he still greeted us with a warm smile it

would only be minutes before he would retreat behind some invisible, protective wall. For that

year, visiting them remained a draining experience. One snowy evening, I caught local

television news reporting on a Long Island man who had suffered a heart attack and died from

shoveling. The next day, we learned it had had been T.K.. He was buried next to his daughter

on a cold, windy day exactly one year later, to the day.

It was touch and go for the next three years but Beth finally chose survival by immersing herself

in the parent’s support group she and T.K. had founded. In a sense, the work she had started

to help other families cope with the loss of a child now became her raison d'etre. One day she

declared her daughter's portrait finished and hung it up for visitors to see. That's the day she

started building the group into a foundation capable of providing greater support for more

people.

That's also when she began receiving requests from other grieving parents to paint similar

portraits for them from photographs. Beth's art has touched scores of families across the US.

Although I have used fictitious names for this post, the people are very real. It is very easy to

spot one of Beth’s paintings. Each incorporates a child’s portrait capturing a unique beauty

seeming to radiate from some kind of inner blondness.  And each contains a dancing butterfly.