“If you should meet a butterfly, upon a summer’s day…”
When I opened the door to Patricia’s classroom, she decided that I wasn’t to be included in her world. Being deaf makes that decision an easy one. I was not part of her reality. She blocked me out so that I simply didn’t exist.
My lesson went reasonably well and the other children responded enthusiastically. They were aware that I was being shut out and so they tried their best to compensate. I wasn’t sure whether to be hurt or amused. The next few lessons were much the same. I was in awe of this little eight year old’s strength. At almost fifty, I wasn’t nearly as sure of my own world. I still needed others to approve of me. She clearly didn’t.
A breakthrough came on the day I decided to talk about our mothers. I knew Patricia’s mother was a pediatrician in Nigeria and so I opened my lesson with that piece of information. A tiny slit in her armour appeared – and stayed for the duration of that discussion. It closed again, but it was enough. I left her classroom in a light-hearted mood.
The lesson on angels left her cold…until we each made one for the board. Hers was extraordinary and she was immensely proud of her. My heart skipped a beat when a warm smile lit her face. But as I moved to hug her, she turned her back on me. She wasn’t having any of that. I stepped back and knew that once again I had been put in my place – on the edge of her world but not part of it.
The annual concert was looming and I needed to choreograph a dance for Patricia’s class. Patricia hated those lessons. She wasn’t good at dancing; her fragile body wouldn’t cooperate. She went through the motions but always looked relieved when they ended. I allocated the roles in my head and considered the animals in the piece of music. Elephant, crocodile, octopus…it came to me suddenly. Patricia needed to be a butterfly!
When Adi, their class teacher, brought the class to the next dancing lesson, I explained to each child what animal they would be. Patricia eyed me sceptically as I turned my attention to her. Her face changed a little. “A butterfly?” she asked. “A beautiful pink butterfly,” I replied. The smile lingered longer than usual. “Butterflies have antennae,” she informed me.
Costumes began to take shape and the day came when all the children needed to try them on. I was in the middle of a lesson when a little pink butterfly flew into my classroom. Patricia was beaming from ear to ear and she twirled on her toes for all of us to admire her. Her enthusiasm was contagious and the children laughed with her.
“You can go back to Adi now,” I said eventually. She turned and ran and then two antennae appeared around my door. I was about to frown at her when she said, ”Shall I fly back?” I nodded and stifled a giggle.
The curtains went up and the first few notes of, ”If you should meet a butterfly, on a summer’s day…” filled the packed hall. I dimmed the lights and flicked the spotlight on to a beautiful pink butterfly flitting across the stage. Radiant and sparkling in her sequined costume, she lit up the hall.
I arrived at school before Adi did that morning. I knew something had happened before anyone said a word. Patricia had died during the night. Our pink butterfly was an angel now, and her awesome spirit was soaring where we could no longer reach.
The little pink bobbles of the antennae peeped out from the tiny coffin. My tears came then, huge undignified sobs, which shook my body against Adi’s comforting embrace. I threw rose petals into the hole and watched as family and friends carefully passed the spade from one to the next, to sprinkle earth onto the little wooden coffin.
Every time I drive along the Hout Bay Main Road, past the cemetery, I see the small white angel who guards her tombstone. And could I swear I’ve seen a butterfly hovering there too.