By Sean Dietrich
I thought about you this morning, Miss Margaret. When I heard the Carter Family sing “I’ll Fly Away” on the radio, you were in my heart.
The tinny sounds of a 1930s shellac record filled my den. Maybelle Carter played guitar like a twelve-fingered prodigy. Their magnificent Virginian voices sliced through the monotony of life and made me smile.
This particular Carter Family song reminds me of something that happened a few weeks ago.
I was out for a walk when I noticed something on the pavement. It looked like an insect had been smashed by a passing vehicle. Which is exactly what happened.
It was a butterfly. She was still alive. Sort of. Her wings were shredded, but still moving. Her antennae squirmed lazily.
I sat on the highway shoulder and held her broken body in my hands. This creature was suffering, about to expire, and there wasn’t a thing I could do. It was awful. After a few minutes, she finally died. I felt hot tears falling from my eyes.
I don’t mean to be gloomy here, but have you ever noticed how this earth is indifferent to us? It robs us of every wonderful thing, then bills us for the damages. Nothing — not one thing —lasts, and it stinks.
Show me a beautiful day, and I’ll point to an approaching thunderstorm. Show me a handsome young man; I’ll show you a guy who will one day keep his dentures in a glass of water. Introduce me to a stunning mountain range; I’ll show you the future construction site of a T.J. Maxx.
I dug a small hole in the ground with a stick, I buried the butterfly, and said a few words. I felt like a fool when I recited the 23rd Psalm to a deceased flying insect, but it had to be done.
Then something happened. Something you will probably think I’m making up, but I’m not.
On my walk home, a colony of butterflies emerged from the nearby woods and filled the sky, fluttering beneath the sunlight like a National Geographic TV special. There must have been a dozen butterflies. But it might as well have been ten times ten thousand. They were only visible for a brief instant.
Then they flew away.
And the thought occurred to me: what if I have death figured all wrong?
I know this is going to sound weird, but what if death is not what we think it is? What if The End is completely misunderstood by our species? What if butterflies know something we don’t?
After all, butterflies are polymorphic creatures. A butterfly enters this earth as a microscopic egg, clinging to the backside of a leaf. Then it becomes a chubby little caterpillar. It lives an entire lifetime like this. By the time lesser insects would be ready to die, the caterpillar simply transforms itself.
And do you know what I’ve been wondering? Do caterpillars know they’re about to become butterflies? Or do they mistakenly think they’re dying? How do they know what comes next? I promise you, if I had to curl into a coffin-like cocoon, I would not be happy about it.
Boy, what a surprise it must be for a caterpillar to reawaken within a bright universe only to discover, “HOLY COW! I’M ALIVE! WHOA! AND I CAN FLY!”
I know what I’m about to say is not exactly cocktail-party conversation, but I’m terrified of dying. Sometimes I get frightened merely thinking about all the deaths of loved ones I’ve endured.
I’m a coward of the highest caliber. I avoid pondering the inevitable. And the inevitable is, one day my wife or I will eat supper without the other. One day my loved ones will speak of me in the past tense. I’m ashamed to admit how this scares me.
But, like I said, what if I have death all backwards? What if this earthly life is only a glorified batting practice? What if the real ballgame awaits?
And how about the concept of time? What if within the next realm, time ceases to exist? And if there is no time, this means no future or past, either. Which means that calendar years won’t matter, now will they?
And IF THIS IS TRUE, then what year is it in heaven right now?
Think about it. I mean, since timelines aren’t a thing up there, how do we know it’s not perpetually 1974, or 12,310 A.D., or 1229, or 9 B.C., or 1620, or 5320? Or maybe all eternity is happening at once?
Maybe in heaven, Chistopher Columbus, sabre-toothed cats, space launches and flying automobiles are all coexisting at the same time.
If so, then it would stand to reason that since past and future are occurring simultaneously, all your loved ones — past and present — are already there waiting for you.
And if they aren’t already there, hey, time doesn’t exist, remember? You won’t have to wait more than a few minutes to see them. Your whole family will be arriving before you’re even finished checking in.
I realize this all sounds hokey and bizzare, maybe even irreverent, although I hope not. Because what I’m getting at is this. When I heard you were receiving hospice care, Miss Margaret, I started praying.
In fact, I still am. I’m praying that we humans are wrong about death, and that it has no sting. I’m praying that when we pass from this life into the next, our left-behind loved ones understand that we are not leaving this universe, but we are unfolding two bright, colorful wings, soaring upward into the undiluted sunlight of Joy.
Just like the Carter Family once sang about.
Either way, I’m thinking of you and your family, Miss Margaret. And I will continue to do so until I fly away.