The butterflies did me in. Sitting on the fourth floor of Killam Library at Texas A& M International University, TAMIU, waiting for my daughter, I put my feet up, fretted a while over taxes and school, closed my eyes and put my head back, pretending the day had been normal.
Cooped up with 22 hyper first graders—six and seven year olds who hadn’t been able to go to P. E. or lunch because the upper grades were taking the almighty state- mandated test—I’d been stressed out by the time I made the rush hour drive to college.
Heat filtering in the window and the lush green lawn are always an inviting part of the fourth floor, along with its usual quiet, only occasionally broken by a student’s laughter or whispered conversation on a cell phone. Almost always, the deer are there, three or a dozen or more whitetails, eating, lazing or cavorting without a care in the world. Their grace and beauty always capture my fancy, usually make me feel better than I did.
Today, though, great drifts of pale yellow and white butterflies floated from one tree line to the other, pastel accents against that vast green expanse. We have those in Laredo, drifts of butterflies, swirls—walls, sometimes it seems.
Usually they come in the fall, and I walk home in a virtual rain of soft wings and the autumn colors of Monarch wings.
Today, though, it hit me: thirty-two souls will never look out their classroom windows or sit in their college library or walk across campus and marvel at butterflies floating down like angels from above.
Thirty-two souls won’t go home to mothers and fathers, or husbands, wives and children.
Monday, they were there, like me, part of the fabric of hopes, and dreams, and life. They were college students and faculty, people who had survived much or survived only their teenage years, but they were part of Virginia Tech and part of what might have been a better tomorrow.
And just like that, the butterflies undid me. I hadn’t cried—had been too angry, too disbelieving. In front of my first-graders, too silent and stoic. But the butterflies brought the tears for all those who died, who were injured—and for those who will live always with the pain and the anger.
Each of those lives, so violently, so contemptuously ended, is the most special to someone—a daughter to her mother, a sister to her brother. From a distance, the Holocaust survivor’s valor took my breath away and broke my heart into the tiniest pieces.
We personalize grief, I suppose, and I remember a fight with my four now grown children, a few years ago. There had been a school shooting in Mississippi, and a young teacher with small children stepped in front of a teenage girl and died for her.
I applauded her courage and nobility; my children railed against her stupidity and selfishness in leaving her own family. Sometimes since, I’ve wondered what I might do, prayed to God no one in my home or at my school or in my community ever faces such a choice. But how empty the world really becomes when the Liviu Librescus of the world no longer exist, when no one holds a door shut or steps in front of a bullet to protect others.
Everyone at Virginia Tech came under attack Monday, and responded with courage and dignity. Almost immediately the effort began to place blame, point fingers and politicize, but most of those responding to the frenzied reporters’ questions agreed that a person determined to kill, will.
Schools—elementary, secondary, colleges and universities—once seemed such safe, peaceful places. How unbearably sad that violence and disregard for human life, along with the easy acceptance of placing blame for personal problems elsewhere, have taken all illusions of safety away. Everywhere.
And so I sat in the library at TAMIU, looking out the window and crying as butterflies fell past on their way from sky to ground.
The sadness will pass, mostly. Even those most affected will go on, many making life a dedication to those who died. Memory will linger, and the grief will return, sometimes, sharp and new again, but there will be happiness, comradeship, success and survival. Success in survival.
But someone, sitting by a window, or walking across a campus lawn, will stop to let butterflies float past. Tiny and bright, a few bigger than the others, perhaps a single orange Monarch lost in the white and yellow rain of the many…
Butterflies undo me.