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
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
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
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.