The Red-Spotted Admiral

"Red Spotted Purple" by Saxophlute at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Red Spotted Purple” by Saxophlute at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When one sees a Red-Spotted Admiral butterfly (Limenitis arthemis Astyanax) up close, it is not the red spots that draw attention. It is rather the blue, a brilliant royal. So deep, it gives the butterfly its other common name: the Red-Spotted Purple. At least, that’s what I noticed.

Six years ago, I hadn’t noticed Limenitis arthemis Astyanax at all. Then one landed on my arm.

I was sitting in my back yard at the time. It was a warm, mid-spring day. I was still acclimating to the new house we’d moved into about three weeks prior. I was still acclimating to the new city we’d moved to about 20 weeks prior. I was acclimating to the idea of being a father, my wife having given birth to twins about five weeks prior. But mostly, I was still acclimating to reality of living my life without my son, who had unexpectedly died about three days prior.

I was alone, and I was feeling sorry for myself. My wife, as would become standard for her, was at the hospital, keeping watch over our daughter, who would spend another six weeks in the NICU before coming home. This was her response to grief: she would wake up in the morning and go to the hospital for morning rounds. She would sit by our daughter’s incubation crib for 16 or more hours, occasionally holding her, nursing her, or changing her. But mostly just watching her breathe.

My response was quite different. Apart from a few visits a day, I would avoid the NICU. In much the same manner as a person would avoid a street where he had been in an accident, or a neighborhood where he had been mugged. The mere act of walking through the doors turned my stomach. My desire to see and hold my daughter was in a constant battle with my desire to avoid the place where I watched my son die, and my desire for avoidance frequently won the battle. I would later learn this avoidance was my mechanism for coping with post-traumatic stress.

And so I sat there, not by my daughter’s crib. But in the back yard, staring at nothing. And a butterfly, a Red-Spotted Admiral, Limenitis arthemis Astyanax, lit upon my left arm. It crawled forward a bit and settled in a spot for five, perhaps 10 seconds, moving its wings slowly up and down. And then it flew off.

I don’t much believe in signs from above, or beyond. I believe God, who or whatever he is, created humans with free will. We can choose to believe or not believe, just as we can choose to be kind and decent to each other or to not. Whatever our choices, they need not rely on signs from him. And so, no, I don’t believe this butterfly was sent by God, or inhabited by the spirit of my son to let me know that things would be okay. It was just a butterfly. And yet…

And yet.

I guess we all emerge from our cocoons eventually.

I notice Limenitis arthemis Astyanax now. I notice it, and wonder how I never noticed such a beautiful creature before. I notice it, and I think of a time when I felt as low as I’ve ever felt in my life, and an insect lifted my spirits. I notice it, and I remember the power of tiny, almost insignificant things to enter our lives and impact them in a significant way.

The Big Moment

We all have those moments in life. Those moments where you get one shot, and only one shot to get it right, and if you get it wrong, the rest of your life will be the worse for it. Or, you could be like me. I got my Big Moment wrong, but it somehow ended up right anyway.

My Big Moment was nine years ago today, when someone asked me where I went to high school. My response was to look at her like she had 12 heads.

A little exposition: I was in some fancy bar in Boston’s financial district. A bar I had never set foot in prior, a bar I have never been in since. It was a Monday, and I was there for some local film-industry event. I had a pocket full of business cards from IFF Boston. I was there to schmooze, to talk about the film festival, then in its fourth year.

I have always been a terrible schmoozer.

While I was there, not schmoozing very well and nursing a bottle of beer, a girl began talking to me. She seemed nice enough, in a “whatever” sort of way. She wasn’t talking about anything remotely related to film production or the festival, and I was looking around for my friend who had come to the event with me. I didn’t see him.

Questions came rapid-fire. I answered each one, patiently if unenthusiastically. Finally came the question: “where are you from?”

“Pennsylvania. Right outside Harrisburg.”

And then it came. The Big Moment.

“Where did you go to high school?”

The question came not from the girl who’d asked all the other questions. It came from her friend, who’d sidled up sometime in mid-interrogation. As noted previously, my response was to look at her like she had 12 heads. If life were like a comic strip, the following thought bubble would have appeared above my head:

What the hell do you care where I went to high school? I just said I was from Pennsylvania. This is Boston.

After an uncomfortable silence, she answered her own question, helpfully, as if to prompt a response: “I went to Bishop McDevitt.”

Is this a quiz? I thought to myself. I’ve heard of Bishop McDevitt. Is that a place I shot a basketball game a couple years back? No, that’s not–  Wait. McDevitt. That’s in Harrisburg. She went to high school in Harrisburg. That’s why she’s asking!

“I went to Cumberland Valley.”

Over the course of the next several minutes, we dated, got married, moved to Virginia, had four kids (two at a time), lost jobs, moved again to Illinois, and now I’m sitting in my blue chair, sipping coffee, listening to my kids play in the next room and wondering where in the blazes nine years went.

All because I screwed up the Big Moment.

Silent Majority

So I haven’t written anything worthwhile in a long time. Welcome back, me.

What’s on my mind today? I’ll tell you what: Measles. Five infants in a Chicago area daycare are on my mind. Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield are on my mind. Herd immunity is on my mind. My two younger children, who received their initial MMR booster, but are for another nine months too young to receive their second, are on my mind. The Montessori school where we send our kids, with its vaccination rate of 85%, is on my mind.

Five infants in a Chicago-area daycare. Every one of them less than a year old. Every one of them too young for the first MMR booster. Every one of them relying on herd immunity to keep safe from disease. What must their parents be feeling at all of this? Vaccination rates in upscale Chicago suburbs are lower than in the majority of the country. It’s possible, maybe likely, that the parents of one of those five kids had no intention of vaccinating. But what of the other four? What must it be like as a parent to watch your child suffer through an awful disease for no other reason than the selfish vanity of those who think they know better?

Speaking of parents who think they know better, I give you Ms. McCarthy. The list of her lies and distortions is too long to enumerate here. But everything she has ever said on the issue (indeed, every argument every anti-vaxxer makes) traces to Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s paper in the late 1990’s that connected the measles vaccine with autism. The less said about that paper or that (now unlicensed) “doctor”, the better. “Debunked” is not a strong enough word to describe how thoroughly that paper has been discredited, yet… It persists. And while the arguments have evolved over the last 15 or so years, their root in that execrable man’s paper have not. Some will still cling to the autism claim. Others will claim it is the preservative, Thimerosal. Others will claim it is the dosing schedule. The surest sign of a liar and a huckster is how easily they will shift from argument to argument, rather than acknowledge the failure of their stance.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all of this, my children are being children. They are very good at that. Childhood seems to suit them. They love their school, where Nora attends kindergarten and Josh and Lia are in the preschool program. And it saddens me to think we may have to remove them from a place they love due to the righteous idiocy of the 15% of parents who failed to vaccinate your choice (and it is a “failure”, no matter how much they will paint it as a “choice”. Lipstick on a pig and all that.) But the second there is a confirmed case of measles here in the far reaches of Sangamon County, we will remove them. My lovely bride (no shrinking violet, she) informed the school of this. The school director suggested she would have the non-vaccinated children stay away from school during the course of an outbreak here, but not good enough.

In my wife’s words:

“I explained that if and when the measles outbreak hits Sangamon County, we are pulling our kids out, because vaccines aren’t 100% and Josh and Lia are too young for the 2nd MMR shot. I also explained that as the public school vaccine rates are all over 95%, this will be a major factor in our enrollment decisions for next year… If enough people take this stand, private schools will change the policies. Likewise, if enough people ask their legislators to remove non-medical immunization exemptions, they will go away.”

As usual, she is right. I’m tired of being the silent majority on this. The anti-vax crowd is loud, and too many people hear them. They do not debate the issue honestly, or in good faith. They rely on junk science, and on disproven and debunked claims. I used to sort of shrug my shoulders in a “what can I do” kind of way. I grimly assumed the only thing that would ever turn them back was when children inevitably (and it IS inevitable) started dying.

I’m not doing that any more. I’ve already buried a child. If I can play the tiniest role in preventing someone else from burying theirs, I will play it as loudly as I can.


I remember a red windbreaker, emblazoned with little baseball patches that bore the names of the 24 (yes, 24) teams in Major League Baseball. I remember a tag about the size of an index card attached with a safety pin, on which was written my name, my classroom number, and the name of my teacher. I remember posing for pictures. And I remember getting on the bus and sitting near the front (nowhere near my fourth-grade brother).

That’s it. Whatever else happened that first day of kindergarten is lost. The other 179 days of that first school year are sort of all mashed together in a single file cabinet in my brain. The truth is, I didn’t get what was so special about the day.

Nora starts kindergarten tomorrow. She’s anxious about it. A little afraid. The fear and anxiety no doubt increased by the fact that we are in a new town. Back in Charlottesville, the first day of kindergarten would just be her fourth year at Montessori. She would know all her classmates already. She would know her teachers. Her brother and sister would be downstairs in the preschool room.

Here in Springfield, she knows one classmate, whom she met only Thursday. She sort of knows her teachers, from three weeks at summer camp in July. But she’s not yet familiar with them. Not yet wholly comfortable. She is attending Montessori for kindergarten here, just as she would have there — part of an effort on her parents part to ease her transition to her new home. But everything else has changed.

I have no doubt she will do well. Not just do well. She will do great. She will make her parents proud. She will make friends. She will have fun in the process. But that is still in the future. Today, now, she remains anxious and a little afraid. She asks me, “Will I have to do numbers in kindergarten? Will I have to write?” I find these fears moderately amusing, because she can do numbers. She can  write. I reassure her that, no, she doesn’t have to do these things. She gets to learn how to do them. No one will make her do anything; they will teach her.

Of course, it can’t be ignored that we are sending but one child to kindergarten tomorrow, and not two. For a long time, I have dreaded the emotions tomorrow would bring, fearing that I would once again be grieving for Ben. But while that reality hasn’t escaped my mind, it hasn’t overwhelmed it either. This week, this milestone, is not about me or my emotions. It is about Nora and hers.

And so here we are. Her outfit for tomorrow has been selected. Her special bedtime story has been read. Hugs and kisses have been issued, and prayers said. My little girl, who entered this world so fragile that it terrified me to hold her, who was so tiny that her fingers could not wrap completely around my pinkie when she gripped it, my 28-week preemie who spent the first 78 days of her life in the NICU, enters kindergarten tomorrow.

I know she’s ready. I just hope I am.

After 5

I feel I’ve written all I can write about Ben. Here, here, here… And a few other pieces on my hard drive that are so disjointed and repetitive that even I don’t quite know what the hell I was getting at. The truth is, there’s only so many words that can be written about a life that spanned 31 days. And there are roughly zero words that fully or properly express the grief of watching your child die.

And yet here we are. Another year gone by. Five years, and another Mother’s Day nigh. And I feel I should write… something.

We keep Ben’s things in a box in our closet. Some of the clothes he wore, onesies and socks, the hospital-issue stocking hat, the decorative name tag that adorned his incubation crib, along with some papers and other affects. There’s a smaller box in the closet in Nora’s room where we keep all the cards we received after he died. Some time this weekend, I will pull both boxes out and rummage through them. I’ll get the computer and open the folder of pictures from the NICU and scroll through them as I stare vacantly at the screen.

One of the pictures in particular haunts me. Carolyn’s brother had flown from Boston one weekend to visit his new niece and nephew. He and I are outside of Ben’s crib, staring through the encasement at him. I’m smiling. I know that not even 12 hours after that picture was taken, Ben died. But in the picture, I’m innocent of all that. It’s like looking at a picture of someone else. The person in that picture isn’t the least bit worried. No, he’s proud of how well his son and daughter are progressing. Oh, sure, he thinks. Ben’s had a couple setbacks along the way, but he’s doing great! He and Nora will be home in another month or so, and it’ll be all lollipops and sunshine ever after.

The person in that picture is grateful for his predicament. Sure, being in the NICU isn’t ideal, he thinks, but some of the kids in there have real problems. Mary Grace, in the next crib over, has a heart defect; she’s going to need an operation — probably more than one. Little John over in the corner has been here since January. He had to have intestinal surgery after contracting NEC*. Ben doesn’t have any of that; he was just born a little early. As soon as he puts on a little more weight, he’ll be fine.

(*Necrotizing Enterocolitis)

I want to yell at the person in that picture. Tell him to do something. Get a doctor. Something’s not right, you idiot! But there’s never any answer. Like some doomed extra in a horror movie when the whole audience knows not to open that door. I know the person in that picture is going to walk out of the hospital in maybe five or ten minutes, go to a restaurant with his in-laws, go home, and go to bed. And when the phone rings at 1:50 the next morning, his life will never be the same.

A few weeks after Ben died, little Mary Grace followed him. She was a fighter. After what was at least her second operation, the doctors told her family there wasn’t much else they could do. Her family gathered from several hundred miles around, in anticipation of the news. But she persisted. She lasted two or three days longer than anyone expected. I cheered her for every extra breath she took, because each one felt like a fuck you to the very idea that parents should have to watch their children die.

A few weeks after Nora came home from the hospital, little John followed in her footsteps. Carolyn still keeps in touch with his parents on facebook. When I last saw him, he was a big, boisterous four-year old. He made me smile.

An open letter to my daughter, on the occasion of her fifth birthday

Dear Nora,

It’s incredible how swiftly five years can pass. There are times it seems it was only moments ago that I first saw you, first held you. And then, it also seems like a lifetime ago that I would spend entire nights on the couch with you, because you wouldn’t sleep in your crib. It’s been eons since your first steps and your first words. You are scarcely the same person anymore.

You have made me proud every day for the last five years. You were born facing a whole slew of obstacles: a 28-week preemie, you spent 78 days in the NICU. Nearly every one of those 78 days, you impressed the doctors and nurses with your strength. You reached milestone after milestone before you were supposed to. You didn’t stop impressing us after coming home, either.

You are smart, curious, kind, loving, sensitive, and empathetic. You are also goofy, imaginative, playful, and adventurous. And ticklish. Sweet, merciful heavens, are you ever ticklish.

From barely two pounds...

From barely two pounds…

Five years ago tonight, there was a full moon. I remember staring at it from your mother’s hospital room, pondering the enormity of what had just happened, what lay before me. Mom and I had just returned to her room from the NICU, where we got to finally see you after several hours. I watched as the nurses changed the masks you wore to protect your eyes from the UV lights that shone in your incubation cribs. I saw your face for the first time, and it was instantly familiar, and even now I can’t explain or understand how that’s possible, but it was.

You've come a long way, baby.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

So after too short of a stay, your Mom and I returned up one floor to her room, and I stared out that window and simply thought about everything in my life and how it would never be the same again. I knew, sitting there, that I could never hope to know the exact ways my life would change, but I knew it would change because of the two of you.

The two of you. You and Ben. I’m so glad you know about Ben, and so heartbroken that your twin is in Heaven and not here with you. Because Ben died, you know and understand more about the sad parts of life, about death, than a five year old needs to know. Yet you even manage to take that sad knowledge and make it into something beautiful. You always remember to include Ben when we talk about the members of our family. You always want to visit the park when we go to church, and play by Ben’s tree and sing a song for him. And then sometimes you do cry because, even though you know him only from pictures and stories, he’s still your brother and he’s not here. And you know you won’t ever see him for a long long time, and that is something to be sad about. And there is nothing in those moments I wouldn’t do to make you happy, but there’s nothing I can do, either. So I just try to reassure you that it’s okay to be sad sometimes. But the truth is, in those moments, you’re the one who’s reassuring me.

I am a better person today than I was five years and a day ago. That is largely because of you. Thank you for being my daughter.




The First Lesson

She stands, quietly, trying to keep attention. But her eyes keep darting away. The Christmas Tree still stands, in all its glory, and there are ornaments yet to be discovered.The manger scene on the nearby table is another distraction: “We have one just like that at home,” she informs the woman trying so patiently, gently, to give her instruction.

Well, yes, I think. Apart from the fact that the one at home is made by Fisher-Price, apart from the fact that Mary, Joseph, and company are interchangeable with other Little People figurines in other Little People sets, and apart from the fact that Wonder Woman and Santa Claus frequently takes their places alongside the three kings and the shepherd boy, we do have one just like that at home.

But we are not here to discuss manger scenes. We are here to see if she’s ready to begin lessons on the violin. The gift she asked for last summer, the gift she forgot she asked for, the gift she fell in love with all over again on Christmas morning.

Her attention, as it is prone to do, fades in and out. I can see so much of myself in her: she is easily distracted by her new surroundings. As with so many past pursuits, she is reluctant to receive instruction, eager to just dive in; she thinks she already knows what she’s doing. As the teacher tries showing her, simply, the proper way to hold the violin to her chin, her hands are already moving down the neck, feeling the strings. As she tries gently to place Nora’s fingers around the bow, to simply hold it, Nora wants to draw it across the strings. The impatience is achingly familiar.

I hope she’s more like her mother than like me, I think. I hope she enjoys this. I hope she wants to learn.

The teacher pauses with the hands-on instruction, addresses her directly, with rapid-fire questions: “You have to practice every day. Are you willing to do that? Playing the violin is hard work. Will you work hard?”

With every question, her head nods. “Uh-huh… M-hmmm… Yes… Yeah… I will.”

I wonder.

Mrs. Brown’s hands were always cold. I remember that. It was a Wednesday afternoon, which meant we were seated at her piano, which stood at the top of the stairway just inside front door to their split-level home. As always, she was trying to give me instruction. As usual, I thought I already knew how to do it.

I’d been taking lessons from her for at least a year. The music book was open to the Marine Corps Hymn. I knew this song, and so I began to play. Not three bars in, she would stop me, and attempt to explain what I was doing incorrectly. I am very sure Mrs. Brown saw the same faint attention, and heard the same half-whispered “yes, yes, uh-huh” that I see and hear from Nora now.

It would be years before I understood what Mrs. Brown was trying to explain: I was playing the song in the wrong key. I was playing the Marine Corps Hymn, I just wasn’t playing the notes that were on the page in front of me. I never understood that at the time, never understood why it sounded right if it was wrong. I remember frustration — or perhaps it was desperation — in Mrs. Brown’s voice as she tried to hold my attention and explain the difference to me. It was, for her, a losing battle. My attention was already on the clock. The little hand was nearly to the six. Almost 4:30. Mom would be there any minute to pick me up. I’m not sure I heard a single word Mrs. Brown said, but I’m sure I nodded my head at all the appropriate times. I’m sure I told her I understood and would practice harder.

I think we both knew I was lying.

I don’t know if that was the very last lesson I had with Mrs. Brown, but I know it was among the last.

We walk to the car, and begin to drive away. I ask Nora all the same questions the teacher just asked her.

“I’m ready,” she tells me. And I’m sure she believes she is.

I think we’ll wait a year.