by Davis Shryer
It was May and I had just passed through the most painful period in my life. I sat in my backyard lawn chair and enjoyed the setting spring sun. One evening, I watched in awe as the yard suddenly filled with a swarm of butterflies, dancing in the shafts of the dimming light. For the rest of the summer, they were present every evening. Seeing them gave me great pleasure.
My problems began two years earlier. It was a typical winter weeknight, except I was recovering from a routine knee surgery a few days before. I was engaged in my favorite evening activity - reading to my daughters. As I read, I felt a sharp pain in my upper belly, which I chalked up to acid indigestion.
After putting the girls to bed, I mentioned the pain to my wife, Laura. I was prepared to ignore it and head to bed, but Laura insisted we drive to the ER, which on a cold night in Minnesota was not the least bit appealing. At the hospital, I had a multitude of tests, while Laura and the girls wandered off to find the cafeteria. Eventually, the doctors informed us I had developed a post-surgical blood clot, which passed through my heart and shattered into both lungs, a pulmonary embolism (a “PE”). I later learned a PE is very difficult to diagnose and nearly 25% of the patients do not survive. I spent 9 days in intensive care and was limited for some time - a frightening incident that resulted in the death of 20% of my lung.
Traumatic experiences can be difficult to shake. After I left the hospital, I was emotionally off balance.
Despite my fear, no comfort or consolation came from my wife, for reasons I did not yet understand. I skidded into a deep depression, and the narcotics I used to treat my physical pain began to comfort my emotional pain. Finally, after three months of convalescence, I returned to my job at 3M. I was grateful for the distraction.
“To experience joy, all men reach a time where they must grow up and face their fears. This was my time. I was not prepared to die.
Some say that a poor attitude attracts negative energy and then, negative energy attracts misfortune. This seemed to apply to my situation, and even with a return to my job, I was struggling to maintain any semblance of good fortune. I was awash in self-pity. Shortly after my return, I received notice my job was being eliminated. After 15 years, 3M released me, my last day of work on my 49th birthday. Unemployment at middle age was not in my life plan.
Laura and I were distant partners at this point. She could not bring herself to comfort me, and it would only to be much later that I would learn of the reason for her detachment – she was terrified by my continued use of narcotics. She blamed me for my job loss and believed she was seeing a familiar pattern develop.
Two episodes of post-surgical opioid use in the past 10 years had led to serious addiction, during which I shirked responsibilities while Laura held our young family together. Both episodes ended with me going to treatment, and she was not prepared to do it again. Writing this reminds me of the lyrics from one of my favorite old songs “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” You play around, you lose your wife . . . you play too long, you lose your life.
Eventually, I healed from the surgery and ensuing blood clot, but it ended badly. My psychic wounds were deep and my depression worsened. I found myself again in treatment, unable to stop using the pain medication without intervention.
Scared and confused, I reached out to Laura, but in my heart I knew our connection was gone. She made it clear she did not want me to come home. She sent a letter to the treatment team telling them of her plan to end our 25-year relationship and with it, my treasured role as daily Dad. I was devastated. At age 50, I was now unemployed and without my family.
Life became an exercise in endurance, and even feeding myself became a monumental task. While in treatment, I lost weight, found it impossible to sleep and never smiled. I frequently thought about ending my life. I even contemplated several plans.
To experience joy, all men reach a time where they must grow up and face their fears. This was my time. I was not prepared to die. My children did not deserve that legacy. Instead, I turned outward and asked for help. I began a daily routine of prayer and meditation. I listened to what my counselors and peers told me. I took my medicine, real and spiritual, and began to exercise. In my heart I knew I’d always been a survivor and to do so now, I had to change. I wasn’t going to surrender.
I took full advantage of everything the experts said I needed, moving from treatment to a halfway house and then on to a sober-living home. Income was scarce, save a few dollars from my part-time job at Barnes & Noble. I learned to cope. Using contacts from my work at 3M, I landed a decent job in the same field. I began to grow up.
One more blow came shortly after I left treatment. My mom was a woman who had her share of problems in life. She was also a woman who engaged a beautiful smile and showed great passion for her family. Sadly, she had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, one for which she paid a steep price. Her kidneys and mind began to fail, and my stepfather could no longer care for her as she needed. We moved her to the memory care unit of a local nursing home.
Mother was suffering and the family debated pulling the plug. It was easier to ignore the problem and do nothing, until the nursing home staff stepped forward and demanded we address the issue. They felt it was time to stop her suffering. Ultimately we did just that, an incredibly hard choice to make, though we were fortunate to bring her home for hospice. She was delighted to be back in the house she had built with her husband. She passed quickly, seemingly with very little pain, her children and husband at her side.
After my mother’s funeral, I returned to my backyard butterfly watching. My boss had jokingly called me a “butterfly whisperer”, because at a recent outdoor business meeting, two monarchs landed on me and stayed until I shooed them away. One of those evenings in the back yard, I held out my left hand on a whim. Within 30 seconds, a beautiful monarch landed on it. She was unique in that she had a broken left wing. It glistened in the sunlight. She stayed for but a minute and then flew off.
Intrigued, I returned the following evening, and again held out my hand. Again, the same butterfly landed, this time staying until my arm tired. I dubbed her “Mary” after my mother. Every evening over the ensuing three months, I would come out near sunset, hold my hand up and Mary would come. She would stay until my arm tired and I had to let her go. She flew in an awkward arc, her broken wing flapping to keep her upright. Her presence filled me with wonder.
Monarchs fly south for the winter. One evening in August I raised my hand for Mary to come, and she did not. It was then I noticed all the butterflies were gone. They had flown south where they belonged, a long and arduous trip. I thought of Mary, and what a challenge that flight would be with a broken wing.
And in that moment, I knew my life would be fine, for if Mary could move on to meet her destiny with a broken wing, then so could I.
About the Author
Davis is now a licensed alcohol and drug counselor helping others to find recovery and transformation.