The White Butterfly
I try and unpack memories of my mom’s mom, but they are hard to find mixed around in all the years that have passed in the attic of my mind. Time tends to fuzzy up all the good things in life: a memory of a beloved family member, the games played as children, the man before he became the monster who broke my heart. I know the good memories are up there, if only I could find a light.
There are things I know for sure about my grandma from being told. They have become memories in the same way that I have a memory of me as a toddler getting my head stuck in a stair banister and having butter smeared on it to get me unstuck. I never really know if this happened to me or if I saw it on TV and I have claimed as my own. In this same way, I know things about my grandma Janice. I know she was a saint, and not in the sanctimonious bullshit kind of way I now see so often, but in a way where she genuinely cared about everyone around her. She had five kids of her own and still found it in her heart to work with the foster care system, taking in and loving kids from the worst homes imaginable. She would also take in animals off the street. She wanted to protect every form of life.
I remember things that aren’t real memories either, but memories of home videos or pictures my Grandpa had taken in their house in California. There is a video where my Grandma is standing in the kitchen, leaning on the counter and chatting on the phone. Grandpa is pestering her while she tries to hold a conversation, when she passes gas, loudly. Grandpa begins chuckling from behind the lens, and he accuses her, “Did you just fart?” I hear the sound of grandma shooing him away while trying not to laugh, it is forever in my mind, as is the way she said, “Tom!” to my grandpa. This is the only time where I can conjure her voice. It is so clear to me how she loved him in that one word, the way she said his name.
The first real memory I have of her is from the short period of time where my grandparents, my mom, sister, brother, and I all lived in Wyoming. It was 4:00 in the morning. I remember the bright red lights of the digital clock as I passed through the room, into the hall, on the way to the faint glowing light from the living room. I had been crying and I wasn’t much older than a toddler, when I saw my Grandma Janice sitting in a chair, completely dressed for the day. Even her tennis shoes were on and laced. She sat scribbling under lamplight in a journal as dawn crept through the windows. I am not sure how long I stood there in silence, frozen by the quiet moment that stretches out in my mind like a long summer day. Suddenly, she noticed me and my tear-streaked cheeks. I explained through gasps of air that my hands hurt like they were tingly and on fire. Grandma assured me that they had just fallen asleep, a concept I did not quite understand. She massaged my hands until they were awake, and then she sent the rest of me back to bed.
That is what is real: that memory of a kind woman who sat up early in the morning, sharing her private thoughts with paper; someone who took others’ pain away; who was awake and living while the rest of the world was sleeping. Maybe that is the moment I wanted to become a writer, for there has never been a time when that was not what I wanted to be, so the dream must be distilled in some far-off time in a way I cannot see it even form. Maybe, something in my grandma Janice knew her time would be cut short, so she had to fill every last bit of her time with everything she had to give. Maybe, even now, I can learn from the woman who I haven’t known in over 17 years, an amount of time which is officially over half my life span, at 26.
Janice Sannar was 54 years old when she died of a heart-attack. She had diabetes (the type which is now known to be an auto-immune disease) she ate healthy, she didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs, she went for walks every day, but there was nothing she could have done to stop the heart-attack from coming. I was 8 years old the day that Grandma Janice passed away.
It was a hot summer day in Cody, Wyoming. By that time, my sister was old enough to stay at home with us to babysit, although my mom came home on lunches when she could to check on us. She was at home on lunch break, outside watering the plants, when the phone rang. My brother brought the cordless phone out to her. After a couple of minutes, Dustin came back in and told us that a Grandma had died, although he did not know which one. For some reason we all assumed it was a Grandma we didn’t know very well, not thinking that death could attach itself to anyone we really knew or loved. I do not know what prompted me to cross to the window. There, I saw my mom outside in the grass on her knees, her pastel pink dress billowed out around her, and her brown curly hair lay limp down the side of her tear-drenched face. That was the first time I saw my mom cry, bent over her garden of succulents, which we had always referred to as mother-hens. My little brother Dustin, always brave beyond his own knowledge, went out to her and held her while they cried. I often wonder about how many women have been there before, on their knees, hearts torn open.
I remember the outfit I wore to my Grandmother’s funeral: ocean blue t-shirt—sweater material—and a matching blue and black checkered skirt. It came in a set. I remember standing outside the funeral home and watching as my mom and little brother went in to see my Grandma in her open casket. Even then, I was afraid of death. I knew it was something beyond my reach, something you could not return from. I had this fear that it was something catchable. I did not want to see my grandma that way. I was not ready to be changed. I did not want her death to touch me, but it did, despite my ardent protests. I remember my little brother coming out of the funeral home and telling me he put a rose on grandma. Even now, the image of this moment in my mind horrifies me. Dustin was fearless back then, and I was so weak.
My mother told me just a couple of years ago that she was very worried about me during the weeks after grandma passed away. She said I did not cry, that she would find me hiding under counters and in small places, doing nothing but sitting in silence. On the day of Grandma Janice’s funeral, I remember sitting in the grass with Dustin, at our mom’s feet. I recall looking up at my mom during that sermon and seeing silent tears slip down her face, a hollow-silent cry I could not possibly yet understand, though something inside of me recognized it and part of me split right open, torn at the seams of my hot blue sweater on that August day. I had been able to shut out the death that surrounded me, but my mom’s grief could not be ignored, for it was through her that I had always found my strength. Though I could not grieve for the grandmother that I dearly loved, I could grieve for my mom, for her loss. I have always been better at feeling others’ pain because what I feel is so compressed and compacted. I have always been so stone cold that my loss, in comparison, seemed so small and insignificant.
Many years later, I would have an accident, a tubal pregnancy, really an un-pregnancy: an egg and sperm had joined together, but my fallopian tube did not have the room for them, so it would not let them pass. The un-baby tried to form a life in my body, but I was not meant for such a thing. My body proved to be an inhospitable environment. At 20, I was already barren. My tube ruptured and I lost nearly all of my blood. I nearly lost my life. In fact, I did lose it—twice, my heart stopped beating. The death I had so ferociously avoided had found me anyways. When I awoke from my surgery in a drug-induced haze, I was told that my living was nothing short of a miracle, that it was my feisty-stubborn spirit that saved me. Somewhere, in a vague memory, I think I told my parents that is was Grandma Janice who saved me, that she had told some unnamed god to put me back, as my time was not yet done on this earth. It was my grandmother’s feisty-stubborn willpower that had saved me. Real or not-real, this is what I know.
Everything I have accomplished since then has been with that in my mind. Here I sit, early in the morning. No one is awake yet, except the dogs. The morning is quiet, and a pen is in my hand. No little girl will ever ask me to rub the sleep from her hands, but here I sit scribbling in my journal in the early hours of the day. I do what I can to help rescue pit bulls, I love deeply, I battle auto-immune disorders, and one day, hopefully, the things I write in these journals will reach people and will help ease their pain in the way that my mom and my grandmother have eased mine. In this way, my grandma, a woman I can barely remember, lives on.
One spring day, I was walking home from the park when I noticed a small white butterfly floating through the air next to me. That same butterfly followed me all the way to my front door. When I stepped inside I sent a message to my mom telling her of this experience. I said, “I think the butterfly may have been Grandma Janice.”
Mom said, “It might have been, or maybe it was a message from her.”
A small, simple, hello.
Shilo Niziolek is a student of Creative Writing & English Literature at Marylhurst University, and a lifetime student of the birds and the trees. She lives in Portland Oregon with her partner Andrew and their two dogs. Her work has been published in the Broad River Review, M Review, Z Publishing's Best Emerging Oregon Poets Anthology, and a short fiction piece is forthcoming in The Gateway Review.