By the time my wife and I had left for the Central American rain forest, I was very ready to be amazed. I was tired of the over-hyped political primary season, of more dire news about climate change, of endless videos of bombings and destruction by religious zealots.
I was tired, too, of being tied to screens: my ipad, my iphone, my computer, the TV. So much of my world seemed filtered through a digital lens. I wanted the real Amazon, overflowing with life, not the virtual one, clogged with deals and bargains.
Where had my curiosity and passion gone? I was facing some challenges of my own. I’d recently left my teaching position and become a Professor Emeritus at the University where I’d taught for thirty years. I wasn’t retiring, but rather hoping to open up more time for writing and other professional activities. Still, a transition like that raises so many questions: Have I really turned 70? Can I truly re-invent myself at this age? Part of me wanted to retreat to my couch with cold compresses on my head.
Instead, there we were walking through our local airport past the familiar warning on the monitors: if you see something, say something. I’d brought no computer. No screens. My attention span felt so frazzled that I was not even willing to commit myself to an entire book. I brought only the magazine and newspaper articles that I’d collected over the past year, intending to read “sometime.”
So, on the flight south, I found myself contemplating Katie Roiphe’s essay on final good- byes, “Dying, With Nothing To Say,” based on her recent book, The Violet Hours. Roiphe writes, “…while nearly everyone has a fantasy of a ‘final conversation’ with someone they love, very few people actually have it. It is the fantasy of resolving all conflicts, of emotional catharsis, that rarely ever comes to pass…”
Hmmn. I wasn’t sure I agreed. In my own experience, my father and I had talked through so much. We had become even closer in his last year. I was there when he died and the intimacy of that moment has stayed with me through the years since. My mother’s death had been different. She and I were very close but the brain cancer that came on so quickly left little opportunity for cogent conversation. Still, it didn’t seem as if there were “conflicts” or a need for an “emotional catharsis” between us.
So much, I was soon to find out, depends on what we think of a “conversation.” And, how we define, “final.”
Welcome to the land of blue-crowned mot-mots
By the time we land in Central America, I have pushed the Roiphe article aside. Now, an orchestral suite of bird songs washes over us as we arrive at the forest lodge perched above a broad, rushing river, facing verdant limestone cliffs and a deep forest canopy.
The thick jungle canopy provides welcome shade. Here, the world is filled with the most amazing variety of feathered sights and sounds. Red-legged honey creepers. Blue-crowned mot- mots. Toucans with their 7 inch bills topped with stripes of buttercup yellow and royal blue. Parrots with their hooked beaks like saber tooths, festooned in plumage of dazzling reds, greens, blues. Social flycatchers. Blue-black grosbeaks.
Melodious blackbirds wake us with their calls at sunrise. Soon after we hear the scratching sounds of Yucatan squirrels biting into coconuts, accompanied by the raucous calls of philandering parrots and the more discrete fluttering of fruit bats.
We spend several days with our guide, Eddie, a friendly, enthusiastic lover of the natural land he’s grown up in. I want to be inspired and to see differently, and Eddie is happy to oblige.
“Look, a spiny-tailed rock iguana.”
“See, right there.
Eddie points to a rock in front of us.
Careful looking reveals the amazing lizard who has blended right into the rock.
So much is right in front of us that we might have walked past. And Eddie wants us to see everything he can see. His enthusiasm is infectious. One could say life- giving. By the end of the second day our necks are happily stiff from looking up at birds.
In Belize, the TSA warning transforms: if you see something, look at it!
The white butterfly
Midway through our stay, we are sitting at the river’s edge contemplating the verdant beauty around us. A sparkle of white appears: a Little Sulfur Butterfly floats by, fluttering in front of me, over to my wife, back to me, back to her. The butterfly sits on my chair, on my wife’s, then back again.
My wife says, “your mom’s here.” She is referring to a cherished fantasy we both hold between us: that my mother’s spirit comes to visit in the form of butterflies, which she adored. The colorful, gentle, friendly and social butterfly captures something of my mother’s spirit. My wife’s comment tugs at me. I feel immensely sad, and for a moment choked up. We talk about how much my mother loved the Caribbean and how much she would have loved to be on this trip, or to have heard about it from us. I will never be able to tell her about this trip: I miss my mother. I could cry for her.
For the next two days, I indulge myself in the fantasy that my mother’s spirit is truly in that butterfly. That she is here, that she knows about this trip, that she knows how much I love her, how much I miss her. For someone who is quite secular and not given to religious impulses, leaning into the fantasy feels like a forbidden pleasure.
And what do I miss? Not the final conversation that Roiphe describes, but the ongoing one. Guess what, Mom, I went down to the rain forest with the hope of being renewed and restored. How do you like that! It’s not even the words so much as to see her capacity for delight, her reactions to the beauty all around us, and to share that with her.
Eddie’s enthusiasm, meanwhile, continues. On a canoe trip down the river, he shows us ant nests the size of condominiums in overhanging tree branches, points out swallow-tailed kites with their forked tails high in the sky, and neotropical cormorants fishing in the water. We listen for the high squeak of fruit bats.
There’s one bird, though, that Eddie can’t find and he wants us to see it. Slowly, quietly paddling downriver, he keeps looking for one. Finally, from our canoe he spots it. “There it is.“ Perched on a low branch along the shore is the beautiful, oddly named, gray-necked wood- rail. “Can you see it?” Then, excitement hurries his voice: “There’s its mate.”
And there they are with their olive-brown feathers on the upper back and rusty- black coloring below. A stocky yellow bill, bright pinkish-red legs and feet, and eyes that seem to glow like burning coals. What magnificent creatures.
Barbara Kingsolver has written, “Be still and the world will turn herself inside out to entertain you. Everywhere you look, joyful noise is clanging to drown out quiet desperation.”
Then the wood-rails are gone and the current takes us further downriver.
As we stop our canoe again, this time floating by the riverbank to admire the social flycatchers swooping just over the water, a Little Sulfur Butterfly appears, a fluttering burst of white around me, around my wife. She says—with her marital mental telepathy—out of the blue: “see, she’s back, just making sure that you’re safe now.”
We explain to Eddie, who smiles and says, “ok, Mom, you can go now.” And the butterfly gently flutters on its way.
Hello, Mom. Good-bye Mom. Hello, world, in all your blazing life. And death.
Mourning and melancholia
We misunderstand loss when we assume that-- if you’re healthy-- after some time you get over it. In his classic essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud distinguished between the two. In essence, in melancholia the loss becomes chronic as the person cannot truly grieve and lives in a shut-down melancholy without the capacity for joy. With mourning, Freud explained, the person can “metabolize” the loss, digesting it, taking in the lost person and internalizing them as a part of themselves.
Yet maybe even this is too simple. Maybe there is an ebb-and-flow to our relationship with those we have lost. And, maybe the goal is not an all-or-nothing “final conversation,” in Roiphe’s sense. Perhaps the conversations with those we ‘ve lost just go on in their absence. Perhaps healthy grief means that we carry the person with us to talk with and learn from even after they’re gone. When things get tough, when we are facing difficult transitions, we re-engage with them in our individual, unique ways.
The white butterfly comes, it goes, it comes back.
Sam Osherson, PhD, is a therapist in private practice in Cambridge, MA, and a Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at the Fielding Graduate University. His most recent book is The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam War.